Monday, June 11, 2007

Finkelstein Denied Tenure

The controversial Norman Finkelstein has been denied tenure after a bruising battle by DePaul University.

I am of several minds on this. Having not read his scholarship, I register no opinion as to its quality (from the descriptions, I gather I'd disagree with it, but tenure is not contingent on me agreeing with the professor).

A significant part of the denial seems to be justified by Finkelstein's alleged intemperance, ad hominem attacks, and otherwise crude form of discourse, even in his academic works. On the one hand, I do think that treating one's intellectual adversaries with respect and civility is an important part of being an academic. Especially when one is dealing with charged topics, as Finkelstein is, where the dignity, rights, and at times the physical safety of an oppressed group is at stake, this is all the more important. I think that the failure to do so does seriously implicate one's qualifications as a scholar. There is a difference between writing a carefully written piece of scholarship, a la Richard Sander, arguing against Affirmative Action, and a screeching polemic making the same points but calling AA advocates race-baiters, charlatans, reverse-racists, or other such claims. Such incendiaries seem best kept out of the Ivory Tower. On the other hand, I am aware that calls for "civility" can be merely excuses to silence dissenters who refuse to tailor their critiques to generally acceptable norms. By and large, this will hurt minority groups, and that's something that needs to be kept in mind to.

In an ideal world, do I want Finkelstein to be tenured? Honestly, I'm not sure. It would be easy to say that I'd rather him not be teaching anywhere. But that would merely feed into his persecution complex that the big bad Zionist establishment is out to get him. So it might be better if he were to settle down to languish in obscurity at some "third-rate" institution. But this concession dies at the specific. Do I want to see Finkelstein tenured at UCLA? No. DePaul? No. Minnesota-Morris? No. Southwest State Community Technical College? Maybe.

Finally, I am more than a little distressed by the hyperbolic rhetoric from some of Finkelstein's supporters, such as this post (the author of which, like Finkelstein, is Jewish) which calls his critics "academic Brownshirts." The flippant comparison of pro-Israel Jews to Nazis is deeply hurtful and hateful, and is the type of extremist exaggeration that feels like anti-Semitism (regardless of whether the source is Jewish). Whatever Professor Dershowitz and his peers are, they are not Nazis, and it is wrong to refer to them as such. This is what, I believe, people are concerned with when dealing with folks like Finkelstein--it's not that any criticism of Israel is out of bounds, it's that they've so lost touch with reality that they are no longer engaging in academics as much as an anti-Jewish furor.

Navigating these lines is difficult, I grant that, which is why I am not officially taking a position as to whether the tenure denial was justified. I'd like just a little more recognition that many Jews view Norman Finkelstein the way Blacks might view Alan Keyes. When Finkelstein is disrespectful, the disrespect is not taken as being directed just at Alan Dershowitz or Ariel Sharon. It feels like he disrespects Jews qua Jews. And that's neither insignificant nor a footnote.


Rich Horton said...

You are right, this is a tough one. On the one hand if "collegiality" is to play a major role (and despite what the AAUP says I think it can and should), you would think it would be the members of the department that would get the say and NOT a dean. On the other hand, is Depaul really a big enough place to comfortably accomodate iconoclasts? Such Profs can bring headaches not just for the specific departments but for the University as a whole.

It should be said, also, that tenure decisions getting "OK'd" at the department level and getting "nixed" by higher ups is NOT that unusual. It happened recently to a friend of mine at a southern urban university. (He thinks the admin wanted some cheaper adjuncts to fill the "line.") Of course, you don't hear about those folks because they don't claim a "conspiracy" is out to get them.

As someone who lived for a year in Morris, Minnesota, I enjoyed seeing the reference! :-)

Anonymous said...

If Finkelstein's "incendiary" nature is really the problem, it is reasonable to ask why other "incendiary" academics do not receive similar scrutiny about it.

While the example you use is of an anti-affirmative action advocate who uses name calling to describe those who disagree, it is far more common to see those who support such programs embracing incendiary rhetoric, describing their opponents as "racist" on a blanket basis. Similarly, the "incendiary" nature of the scholarship of Angela Davis, Cathrine MacKinnon, and many other luminaries of the radical left have never been an object of concern, let alone a barrier to receiving tenure.

But when the "incendiary" language is used by an advocate who dissents from the leftist consensus of the academy, then collegiality is suddenly really important.

Come on. You really can't be blind to this double standard, can you, David?

David Schraub said...

My roommate this year was from Morris, hence the reference. Hi Joe!

Anon: I don't think an accusation of racist is inherently uncivil--in fact, it's the reflexive labeling of it as such that is one of the reasons I have grown leery of the concept. After all, racism is an academic concept--certain ideas have to be racist, and theorists need to be allowed to press a claim that something is racist if they believe it to be so. When that is labeled "uncivil" and a collegiality problem, then there is a serious academic freedom issue. That, I feel, is distinct from bomb-throwing designed to implicate the dignity or worth of a group (esp. an already oppressed one). The middle link in my post illustrates: White academic implicitly rejects the qualifications of every Black faculty member in his department and then has the gall to call them uncivil at the same time. Well with provocations like that, who wouldn't be?

Anonymous said...

How about when all expression of a particular political ideology is deemed "uncivil"?

Your example of whites deeming all blacks to be unqualified and uncivil seems wildly out of tune with what dominates on college campuses these days. Almost every college has a "diversity office" with a crew dedicated to guarding against any vestige of racism. Meanwhile, ideological skews in some departments approach 90% as professors, grad students, and undergraduates alike quickly learn that anything right of center (and most of the center as well) should be suppressed, lest it result in a purge. Finkelstein's certainly adds to the long, long list of cautionary tales.

Jack said...

My only experience with Finkelstein is in a debate with Dershowitz on Democracy Now. Dershowitz wiped the floor with him and managed to make him look like a dick. I'm agnostic about tenure- I suppose his scholarly work could be great. But he certainly came off like someone who would fit in well at Southwest State Community Technical College.

Anon: You realize that Finkelstein as a data point contradicts your position, right? The guy is about as conservative as Noam Chomsky.