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Terminating the Terminal Year

August 27, 2007

When DePaul University rejected Norman Finkelstein's bid for tenure in June, all the documents in the very divided review of his record suggested no dispute over the high quality of his teaching. The tenure denial also said that Finkelstein would receive a contract for this coming academic year -- the "terminal year" contract that is standard for colleges to offer those who have been denied tenure.

But DePaul is having second thoughts on letting Finkelstein have a terminal year. It has canceled his classes, even though students were registered and excited about them, and the university told him that he cannot have an office. The latest actions by DePaul -- which already is being criticized by faculty groups for the initial tenure denial -- have added to the anger about the situation. And Finkelstein is vowing to show up, teach and use his old office.

In an e-mail interview, he said: "If the university attempts to impede my movements I intend to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience and go to jail. If incarcerated I intend to go on a protracted hunger strike until DePaul comes to its senses. It is regrettable that I have been driven to such drastic actions to defend basic principles of academic freedom and my contractual rights, upon which DePaul has been riding roughshod for so long."

"This just seems so unjust and ridiculous," said Daniel Klimek, a rising senior in political science and one of the students recently informed by the university that Finkelstein's course "Equality and Social Justice" was among those called off. Klimek said that he had felt honored to be in one of Finkelstein's final courses at DePaul, and that the cancellation reinforced his view that "this is all about politics." Klimek is among the organizers of the DePaul Academic Freedom Committee, which has been organizing protests against the tenure denial.

John K. Wilson, on his blog College Freedom, wrote: "If anyone doubted whether DePaul was violating Finkelstein's rights, that doubt must end with this decision.... Even if DePaul pays off Finkelstein, it is violating his academic freedom (and the freedom of its students) by refusing to let him teach and effectively silencing his voice in its classrooms."

DePaul is in fact paying Finkelstein his full pay and benefits, but has placed him on administrative leave for the academic year, which means he is relieved of teaching responsibilities.

A spokeswoman for the university declined to answer specific questions, but released a statement that said: "The university has been in communication with Professor Finkelstein throughout the summer and informed him of his status well in advance of the fall quarter.... He was informed of the reasons that precipitated this leave last spring. DePaul is acting well within its rights as an employer and as a university. There is no basis to suggest that DePaul has failed to fulfill any contractual obligations."

The university has provided students who registered for any of Finkelstein's courses with information on how to get into other classes. The university statement said that academic advisers will even be able to help those who registered for Finkelstein's courses to override course enrollment caps so they can take other classes.

Jonathan Knight, who directs the program in academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors, said Sunday that the fact that DePaul is continuing to pay Finkelstein does not end questions about the university's "extraordinary" actions. Knight noted that Finkelstein's classroom conduct has never been questioned, and said that removing a professor from teaching in such a case is only justified by real fears about a danger the professor could pose. "That's a terrible commentary to be making on an individual," Knight said, and should require real evidence and faculty input.

Unless there has been a real hearing and the opportunity for due process, Knight said, the move is not a matter of placing someone on leave, but a "summary dismissal," adding that "obviously we need to know why they are doing it."

Finkelstein's supporters also say that it violates academic norms to create needless difficulties, like taking away office space, during a terminal year, a difficult time for any professor. "A professor who has been denied tenure should be treated with the utmost respect and consideration and not with an over abundance of Schadenfreude," wrote Peter N. Kirstein, on his blog. Kirstein is a professor of history at Saint Xavier University and a leader of the Illinois chapter of the AAUP, which has been critical of DePaul's review of Finkelstein's tenure case.

The Finkelstein case has attracted international attention. Finkelstein's writings on Israel and the Holocaust have been attacked by many as ill-informed and reflecting anti-Jewish hate. He has also been widely praised by others as a brave voice, raising important issues.

The deciding factor cited by DePaul in rejecting Finkelstein's tenure bid was not the substance of his arguments, but his style. Finkelstein was criticized for violating the Vincentian norms of the Roman Catholic university with writing and statements that were deemed hurtful, that contained ad hominem attacks and that did not show respect for others. His supporters said this was just a cover for objections to his views.

Finkelstein has no intention of staying away from DePaul. On his Web site, he posted this statement: "I will return to my office. I will teach my classes."

 

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