Daniel W. Drezner

Regarding Norman Finkelstein

I’ve acquired a passing interest in Chicago-based professors of political science who are denied tenure, so I’ve been reading up on DePaul’s decision to reject Norman Finkelstein’s tenure case. Here’s what I think I think…. 1) Finkelstein and his supporters are crying “outside interference” in the form of Alan Dershowitz’s jihad against Finkelstein. As someone ...

I’ve acquired a passing interest in Chicago-based professors of political science who are denied tenure, so I’ve been reading up on DePaul’s decision to reject Norman Finkelstein’s tenure case. Here’s what I think I think….

1) Finkelstein and his supporters are crying “outside interference” in the form of Alan Dershowitz’s jihad against Finkelstein. As someone who has been on the receiving end of a tenure denial, and been told by many, many people that idiotic reason X must be the key explanatory factor, I have to take this kind of charge with a whopping grain of salt. The decision-making process looks a bit odd (more on this below), but the official DePaul letter by President Dennis Holtschneider to Finkelstein explicitly stated that:

I am well aware of the outside interest in this decision, and the many ways in which the university community was ‘lobbied’ both to grant and to deny tenure. Examining the written record, I am satisfied that the faculty review process maintained its independence from this unwelcome attention. As much as some would like to create the impression that our process and decision have been influenced by outside interests, they are mistaken.

DePaul’s press statement quoted its president again on this point: “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.” Are they speaking the whole truth? Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, to issue such statements indicates that at the very least the officials involved believe it to be true. This makes me very skeptical that outside influence was the paramount factor here. 2) Finkelstein’s supporters do not help his case by overpraising him. The final paragraph of the Guardian story on Finkelstein reads,”Mr Chomsky said before the announcement that the dispute was “outrageous. [Finkelstein] is an outstanding scholar. It’s amazing that he hasn’t had full professorship a long time ago.” Well now. Looking at a cached cv and Finkelstein’s Wikipedia entry, a red flag for me is the fact that Finkelstein has been in the field for twenty years and apparently has never published a single peer-reviewed article. I looked on multiple search engines and the only journal articles I found were book reviews. Sorry, Noam, no one deserves a full professorship with that record. [Dude, he’s published five books!!–ed. Yes, but I haven’t heard of his primary book publisher, and peer-reviewed articles remain the gold standard in our field. DePaul ain’t a top-20 institution, but it’s good enough that this should have been an issue.] 3) If Finkelstein’s supporters and detractors agree on one thing, it’s that he’s a nasty sparring partner. He likes to characterize the ADL as “Nazis.” on his web site. His biggest boosters allow that he has a “polemical” writing style — you can guess what his detractors think. [UPDATE: For an interesting conceptual exercise, read Henry Farrell’s post on how to debate David Horowitz and try to apply that logic to Finkelstein.] 4) Despite all of this, DePaul’s decision is really, really troubling to those of us who like academic freedom. The political science department voted 9-3 to grant him tenure, and they also exonerated him of academic misconduct charge that were levied against him. I would have understood if the department or the university had denied him because of holes in his scholarly record, but that was clearly not their reasoning. Indeed, in his letter to Finkelstein, DePaul’s president him as “a nationally known scholar and public intellectual, considered provocative, challenging, and intellectually interesting.” That’s an “above-the-bar” description. Instead, both the academic Dean and the President cited a lack of collegiality in Finkelstein’s responses to his critics. The President quoted from the University Board on Tenure and Promotions [UBPT] report:

Notwithstanding the strength of some aspects of Dr. Finkelstein’s record, the [UBPT] expressed several concerns touching upon his scholarship, specifically what they consider the intellectual character of his work and his persona as a public intellectual. The [UBPT] acknowledges that Dr. Finkelstein is a controversial author, provocative and challenging. Yet, some might interpret parts of his scholarsip as “deliberately hurtful” as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions. Criticism has been expressed for his inflammatory style and personal attacks in his writing and intellectual debates. These concerns are relevant to the [UBPT] in the recognition that an academic’s reputation is intrinsically tied to the institution of which he or she is affiliated.

No question, there’s the whiff of being “deliberately hurtful” in some of the record (Finkelstein accused Dershowitz of plagiarism in writing The Case For Israel). Style is not the same thing as substance, however, and DePaul’s political science department found the substance worthy of tenure and promotion and the critiques of style not to rise to the level of character assassination. Crudely put, you cannot and should not deny tenure to someone just because they’ve been an asshole in print. If you rigorously applied that criteria to the academy, you’d have to kick out a lot more people than Finkelstein. The American Association of University Professors, in a statement on collegiality, observed the following:

Historically, ?collegiality? has not infrequently been associated with ensuring homogeneity, and hence with practices that exclude persons on the basis of their difference from a perceived norm. The invocation of ?collegiality? may also threaten academic freedom. In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display ?enthusiasm? or ?dedication,? evince ?a constructive attitude? that will ?foster harmony,? or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member?s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrators.

I’ve never met Norman Finkelstein, I’ve never read any of Finkelstein’s work, and based on the reviews, I suspect I’m none the poorer for it. I also suspect I wouldn’t like him very much. There might well be valid reasons for having denied him tenure. But reading the paper trail on this case, it’s hard not to conclude that DePaul did not use a valid reason. Indeed, it’s hard not to conclude that Finkelstein got a raw deal.

 Twitter: @dandrezner
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