Finkelstein and DePaul Settle

Controversial professor resigns and both sides issue conciliatory statements, but many believe academic freedom issues will outlast tenure dispute.
September 6, 2007

Wednesday was supposed to be the day of the big showdown at DePaul University. Instead it turned out to be the day of the big compromise. DePaul and Norman Finkelstein, the professor to whom it had denied tenure, announced that he was resigning immediately. The university and Finkelstein even managed to say some nice things about one another. But while Finkelstein will be leaving, some at the university and elsewhere believe that significant academic freedom issues raised by his case are very much alive.

The statements issued by the university and Finkelstein did not contain details of their agreement and they reiterated some of the main arguments in the dispute: Finkelstein's view that outside groups had inappropriate influence in the process and the university's insistence that the tenure denial was fair.

In his remarks, Finkelstein blamed the outcome on "external pressures climaxing in a national hysteria that tainted the tenure process." But he went on to note ways in which DePaul had backed him up.

"Although DePaul's decision to deny me tenure was a bitter blow, I would be remiss in my responsibilities if I did not also acknowledge DePaul's honorable role of providing a scholarly haven for me the past six years. It is a fact, and I would want to acknowledge it, that the DePaul administration kept me on its faculty despite overwhelming external pressures. It is also a fact that my professional colleagues displayed rare rectitude in steadfastly supporting me. It is also a fact that DePaul students rose to dazzling spiritual heights in my defense that should be the envy of and an example for every university in the United States. I will miss them."

In the university's statement, it said that the tenure review was based on appropriate criteria. "Professor Finkelstein has expressed the view that he should have been granted tenure and that third parties external to the University influenced DePaul in denying tenure. That is not so. Over the past several months, there has been considerable outside interest about the tenure decision. This attention was unwelcome and inappropriate. In the end, however, it had absolutely no impact on either the process or the final outcome," the statement said. But DePaul also praised Finkelstein as "a prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher."

Finkelstein had been hinting of his intent to sue DePaul, and on Wednesday he had been planning to return to the office from which he had been barred after he was placed on administrative leave. In fact he announced the settlement to students who had gathered to support him, many of them wearing T-shirts that read "We are all Professor Finkelstein."

The furor over Finkelstein has been building for several years. A political scientist, he is known for his books that offer harsh critiques of Israel and its supporters. He has argued that Israel uses the Holocaust to build support for policies that are immoral. And he has engaged in public feuds with the likes of Alan Dershowitz, trading charges and countercharges with him.

While Finkelstein has long been controversial off the DePaul campus, he was popular with his students and even his critics at the university acknowledged that he was an excellent teacher. The case is also frequently portrayed as one in which Finkelstein (a leftist critic of Israel) is allied against conservative supporters of Israel, but it's not so neat. Some academics who strongly disagree with Finkelstein's views have said his academic freedom was violated in the tenure review, and some academics who share Finkelstein's politics have questioned his scholarship.

In the tenure case, Finkelstein took the first two rounds, winning the backing of his department and a collegewide committee, but he started to hit roadblocks when his case went to the dean, a universitywide panel and eventually the president. As votes started to go against Finkelstein, a key factor was statements that his scholarly style conflicted with the Roman Catholic university's Vincentian values. In his letter denying Finkelstein tenure, Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, DePaul's president, said: "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. 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.”

Comments like those raised red flags to many advocates for academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors and others have warned that when tenure evaluations start talking about the impact of a scholar on people's feelings or about how collegial (or not) they are, attention is being diverted from the teaching and research issues that should be central. These groups have also warned that such critiques are frequently used against scholars whose views are unpopular -- precisely those academic freedom should protect. When DePaul suspended Finkelstein's courses and took away his office last month, further alarms went off, since the norm in academe is for professors denied tenure to have a "terminal year" in which they teach and maintain their academic lives, while looking for a new position.

For Finkelstein, that process is now expedited, and it's unclear where he will end up. In the blog College Freedom, he is quoted as saying that "my prospects in academia are dim," because colleges saw what DePaul experienced and "nobody wants to go through this hysteria."

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, said he had mixed feelings about Wednesday's developments. "We are disappointed that Professor Finkelstein has resigned. Many students will miss him." At the same time, Klimek said he thought Finkelstein had won a key victory in the university's praise for him as a teacher. "I think he left with his head held high," Klimek said.

It was also the case, however, that Finkelstein had until the very last been vowing to fight on indefinitely. His Web site still proclaimed, as of last night, "I will return to my office. I will teach my classes."

Dershowitz did not respond to an e-mail seeking his comment on the agreement.

Jonathan Knight, who handles academic freedom issues for the AAUP, which has been monitoring the case, said that in terms of Finkelstein's situation, "when a faculty member reaches an agreement with the institution, that brings the matter to an end." He added that the AAUP "will not second guess" a professor who does so.

At the same time, he said that he continued to have concerns over a number of aspects in the case, including the lack of an appeal process after the tenure denial and the administrative leave Finkelstein received without a hearing. "Open and fair procedures for questioning controversial decisions are important," he said.

One irony of the Finkelstein controversy is that DePaul's faculty actually has been working to revise its faculty handbook, including tenure procedures, and was doing so prior to this particular tenure case. "It is really unfortunate that DePaul came to the public eye in this way, but I think that the issues that were raised are extremely valuable and valid and going to be considered," said Anne Clark Bartlett, a professor of English and president of the Faculty Council at DePaul.

The council meets next week for the first time this academic year, and Bartlett said she expected a key topic of discussion to be how to proceed in light of the events of the last few months. "I hope we can turn it to the benefit of the faculty and the benefit of the continuing integrity of our tenure and promotion and peer review process," she said.

The Finkelstein case, to her, pointed to the need for clarity on the right to appeal tenure decisions, the importance of due process, and the need to insulate tenure reviews from political pressure. "There is a larger political context" for the debate over Finkelstein, she said, "and we would be remiss if we didn't examine that larger context."

Another issue of concern, she said, was the question of Vincentian values and how they play into tenure and promotion decisions. In theory, she said, DePaul's current faculty guidelines place the emphasis on teaching, research and service, and "a huge issue" for her is keeping such a focus in tenure reviews, especially when looking at controversial figures.

"Vincentian values cannot be used as code for being a nice person," she said. Being a nice person shouldn't be what earns a scholar tenure. For all kinds of reasons, she said, it just doesn't make sense to compare professors and saints. "As a medievalist, I can tell you that saints are almost always a pain in the butt," she quipped. "Saints are never easy to get along with."


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