DePaul University on Friday formally denied tenure to Norman G. Finkelstein, who has taught political science there while attracting an international following -- of both fans and critics -- for his attacks on Israeli policies and the "Holocaust industry."
Finkelstein's tenure bid has attracted an unusual degree of outside attention and his research has been much debated by scholars of the Middle East. In evaluating his record, DePaul faculty panels and administrators praised him as a teacher and acknowledged that he has become a prominent public intellectual, with works published by major presses. But first a dean and now the president of DePaul -- in rejecting tenure for Finkelstein -- have cited the style of his work and intellectual combat. 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.
Given that line of criticism, the Finkelstein case is emerging as a test of whether a range of qualities grouped together as "collegiality" belong in tenure cases. Many colleges and universities consider collegiality -- perhaps not surprising given that a positive tenure vote can make someone a colleague for the duration of a career. But many experts on academic freedom, as well as the American Association of University Professors, view skeptically the practice of treating collegiality as a major, independent factor in the tenure process. They fear that collegiality can provide cover for squelching the views of those who may hold controversial or cutting edge views or who just get on their colleagues' wrong sides.
Adding to the tensions over the Finkelstein case is another element to it. His tenure bid was backed by his department and a collegewide faculty committee, and hit roadblocks when a dean weighed in against him. And the same day DePaul's president denied Finkelstein tenure, he also denied tenure to another professor -- who had backing from her department, the collegewide faculty panel, and the dean who weighed in against Finkelstein.
While most tenure processes are layered, several people at DePaul said it was unusual for tenure candidates there to advance several steps in the review process -- only to be rejected -- and that the cases raise questions about how much deference should go to a department.
"The real responsibility for assessing someone's scholarship and teaching and service rests with the department. Your closest colleagues are expected to understand what you do more precisely than an upper level body," said Anne Clark Bartlett a professor of English and president of the Faculty Council at DePaul. In the aftermath of Friday's announcements, she said that "people are very concerned."
That concern extends beyond DePaul. "This is a very important case not just for DePaul, but for the country as a whole," said Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors. He declined to offer an opinion on the case because the AAUP could become involved. The Illinois conference of the association already has, objecting to some of the arguments used against Finkelstein.
Finkelstein meanwhile does not plan to take his loss of tenure quietly. He said via e-mail, with more than a little irony, that "it's gratifying to see that the system works."
What are his plans? "I'm unemployed and unemployable at 53," he said. "I accumulated an impressive teaching record yet will never again be able to step foot in a college classroom. I've written five books to considerable scholarly acclaim and that have gone into 46 foreign editions, yet I won't have access to a good research library with borrowing privileges. Like I said, the system works. Do I have any regrets? None at all. To quote my childhood hero Paul Robeson when he was being crucified in the 1950s: I will not retreat one thousandth part of one inch." (Actually, Finkelstein isn't unemployed; as is standard in tenure denials, he is employed at DePaul for the next academic year.)
The Furor Over Finkelstein
At DePaul, Finkelstein has been well regarded as a teacher and until his tenure case, he was not at the center of campus political debates. He is probably best known as a critic of Israel and of Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard University law professor. (Among Finkelstein's controversial books is one, published by the University of California Press, devoted to attacking Dershowitz.) While many of Finkelstein's strongest critics are not surprisingly supporters of Israel and of Dershowitz, not to mention Dershowitz himself, there are also plenty of scholars who are critical of Israel and Dershowitz on various issues, but who find Finkelstein's work ill informed or offensive. Likewise, there are a number of scholars who don't necessarily share Finkelstein's analysis, but who think his treatment by DePaul raises issues of academic freedom.
Much of the criticism from the dean focuses on Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry. The book argues that supporters of Israel use the Holocaust unreasonably to justify Israel’s policies. While the book does not deny that the Holocaust took place, it labels leading Holocaust scholars “hoaxters and huxters.” A review of the book in The New York Times called it full of contradictions and full of “seething hatred” as he implies that Jews needed the Holocaust to justify Israel. The reviewer, Brown University’s Omer Bartov, a leading scholar of the Holocaust, described the book as “a novel variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.' "
Finkelstein maintains on his Web site a bibliography, links to many of his writings, and much of the hate mail he receives. Dershowitz also maintains a Web page about Finkelstein, featuring the "most despicable things Finkelstein has said" (attacks on Elie Wiesel, for instance) and the "stupidest things Finkelstein has said" (quotes about Jewish influence, for instance).
What DePaul's President Said
After two faculty panels backed Finkelstein's tenure bid, and the dean came out against it, the case went to a universitywide faculty panel, which made a recommendation by a 4-3 vote against tenure. In his letter to Finkelstein rejecting him, DePaul's president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, quoted at length from that faculty panel's memo to him. (The university released only a brief statement on the tenure case, but Finkelstein put the letter from the president on his Web site.)
The universitywide faculty committee report from which the president quoted called Finkelstein "an excellent teacher" and "a nationally known scholar and public intellectual, considered provocative, challenging and intellectually interesting," but also noted that some researchers find his scholarship faulty. The focus of the committee's criticism was "the intellectual character of his work and his persona as a public intellectual."
The committee added that "some might interpret parts of his scholarship as 'deliberately hurtful' as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions."
Father Holtschneider, the president, in his letter to Finkelstein, stressed similar concerns about which he read in the record of the case. "I have considered the fact that reviewers at all levels, both for and against tenure, commented upon your ad hominem attacks on scholars with whom you disagree," Father Holtschneider wrote. "In the opinion of those opposing tenure, your unprofessional personal attacks divert the conversation away from consideration of ideas, and polarize and simplify conversations that deserve layered and subtle consideration. As such, they believe your work not only shifts toward advocacy and away from scholarship, but also fails to meet the most basic standards governing scholarship discourse within the academic community."
He then went on to cite various responsibilities outlined in DePaul's faculty handbook that he said Finkelstein didn't follow. "I cannot in good faith conclude that you honor the obligations to 'respect and defend the free inquiry of associates,' 'show due respect for the opinions of others,' and 'strive to be objective in their professional judgement of colleagues,' " Father Holtschneider wrote. "Nor can I conclude that your scholarship honors our university's commitment to creating an environment in which all persons engaged in research and learning exercise academic freedom and respect it in others."
In his letter to Finkelstein and in the statement released to the press, Father Holtschneider said that outside pressure (from Dershowitz or others) had no impact on his decision. "Over the past several months, there has been considerable outside interest and public debate concerning this decision. This attention was unwelcome and inappropriate and had no impact on either the process or the outcome of this case," the president said in his press statement.
He added: "Some will consider this decision in the context of academic freedom. In fact, academic freedom is alive and well at DePaul. It is guaranteed both as an integral part of the university's scholarly and religious heritage, and as an essential condition of effective inquiry and instruction."
Why Some Are Concerned
While Finkelstein's anger and Dershowitz's satisfaction with the decision are to be expected, others see broader significance to the case.
"This case is important because we must allow an academic to speak with emotion and to speak freely," said Peter N. Kirstein, a professor of history at Saint Xavier University and a leader of the Illinois conference of the AUUP. Kirstein's blog frequently focuses on academic freedom and he has broken the news of several of the developments in the Finkelstein tenure case.
Kirstein said that the criticisms of Finkelstein in the president's letter all amount to collegiality questions of the sort that AAUP recommends shouldn't be the basis of tenure decisions and that aren't appropriate to raise. "He has scholarly credentials that have been vetted by elite university presses" but DePaul seems worried about issues of tone and assertiveness, Kirstein said.
If such collegiality issues are allowed into tenure cases, Kirstein said, academics of a wide range of politics and personalities can unfairly lose tenure bids. He cited as an example the case of KC Johnson, who won tenure on appeal -- but who had offended some of his Brooklyn College history colleagues despite an unquestioned record as a teacher and a prolific author with top publishers.
Bartlett, the Faculty Council president, said that while the Finkelstein case raises governance issues, she didn't think it should be portrayed as a case of the administration reversing the faculty generally. She noted that the committee on which the president relied was a faculty panel. The issue that is more appropriately raised, she said, is one of what appropriate review should happen after a department votes on a candidate.
She said that she viewed the universitywide panel's job as one of reviewing "the way the process was carried out," not "retrying the case." She said she wasn't sure that this time there wasn't a retrying of the case.
Concerns over that issue are reinforced by Friday's tenure denial to Mehrene Larudee, who teaches international studies at DePaul, and whose work is in economics (and on issues having nothing to do with Finkelstein's research). Larudee had strong backing throughout the process, until the final committee review and presidential decision to reject her. Via e-mail, she said that many at DePaul are wondering about the "startling departure" from university principles in her case and Finkelstein's.
"I personally support, and have always supported, the right of every faculty member, including Norman Finkelstein, to fair and equitable treatment by the university, and in particular to fair and equitable treatment in the tenure process," Larudee said. "DePaul University claims to have a deep commitment to social justice. The decisions handed down on Friday, June 8 to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein in no way reflect any such commitment."
Bartlett said she was worried about some of the standards being suggested in terms of causing offense and engaging in contentious debate.
A scholar of women in medieval times, Bartlett said that when she started her career, and challenged assumptions about the limited role of women at the time, she angered people "and it even got heated sometimes."
Is the difference between her career and Finkelstein's that she was controversial in a different way, or just that her debates "weren't played out on the world stage"?
Some topics are "highly flammable, so when you participate in them, you get a more flammable context and that needs to be understood," she said. "I think it's really really important to acknowledge that all new contributions to the production of knowledge are controversial or they wouldn't be new," she said.
That doesn't mean that the ideas are good, she said, but intense anger doesn't mean that they are bad. Bartlett said she's concerned about, but not certain about, the impact the case could have on faculty members who hope to earn tenure. "I think we as faculty need to come together and figure out exactly what kinds of messages are being sent, if any," she said.