FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What the Finkelstein Tenure Fight Tells Us About the State of Academia

by ROBERT JENSEN

For two years I have served at the University of Texas at Austin on the faculty committee on “academic freedom and responsibility,” a pairing of concepts that is common in higher education. While there is a fairly broad consensus on what “freedom” means, competing conceptions of “responsibility” lead to two very different ideas about the appropriate role for professors in public life.

On one side is the conventional (which tends to be cowardly), and on the other is the principled (which tends to be progressive). Norman Finkelstein, the controversial DePaul University political scientist, is in trouble because he not only believes in, but puts into practice, this principled interpretation. The conventional view is that professors should be free to investigate any question and go in any direction the truth, as they see it, takes them. But in speaking and writing publicly about their conclusions, faculty should be responsible — which in practice usually means not upsetting people with real power. Faculty who pursue esoteric, self-indulgent, and/or irrelevant research generally will not be bothered (because no one really cares what they are doing), nor will those whose conclusions about relevant subjects are in line with views of the powerful (because their work helps reinforce the structures of power).

The principled view is that faculty members — who have an extraordinarily privileged position in society, being paid to learn and convey that learning to others, with considerable autonomy that is rare in this corporate-capitalist economy, at a more-than-livable wage — have a responsibility to pursue research addressing relevant questions that are meaningful in the lives of real people, especially the most vulnerable struggling for justice. That kind of research is likely to lead to trouble (because it challenges the prerogatives of the powerful to rule as they please).

In other words, academics pursuing their work in responsible fashion (in the principled sense) are the most likely to be labeled irresponsible (in the conventional sense).

Such is Finkelstein’s fate.

The controversy over Finkelstein’s tenure case at DePaul puts on public display the clash of those conflicting definitions of responsibility. He is an accomplished scholar (many who disagree with his Finkelstein’s conclusions acknowledge the quality of his research) and a superb teacher (even his detractors acknowledge his classroom skills). The political science department voted 9-3 and the college committee 5-0 in favor of tenure. But the College of Liberal Arts dean then wrote a letter undermining those endorsements, which suggests that the strong support for Finkelstein among his peers may be ignored by the university’s top administrators, who are expected to decide in June.

By the promotion standards of universities such as DePaul, Finkelstein clearly deserves the job security that comes with tenure. But we all have a stake in his fate — if we want universities to be a place where critical thinking is encouraged.

Finkelstein has been a provocative scholar since graduate school, when he dared to critique Joan Peters’ 1984 book From Time Immemorial, a fraudulent attempt to discredit Palestinian claims to their land occupied by Israel. Displaying considerable courage in the face of those happy to use Peters’ book to justify undermining the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, Finkelstein challenged the bogus factual claims of the book and embarrassed those in the political and academic establishment who had praised the book.

>From there, Finkelstein has pursued research not only about the Israel/Palestine conflict but the Holocaust and the politics of reparations. His recent books and public comments have only increased the numbers who would like to silence him and the intensity of those campaigns. Finkelstein’s critique of the work of Alan Dershowitz has upped the ante; the media-savvy Harvard law professor has made it a point to torpedo Finkelstein’s career.

I have never met Finkelstein, though I did once interview him over the phone for a radio program I produced about Middle East issues. I have listened to, or read transcripts of, interviews with him, and I find him contentious but consistently insightful. I have read his well-researched and well-reasoned books on the Middle East and found them helpful in my work. I’ve concluded that Finkelstein is (1) probably not temperamentally suited for the role of a facilitator or mediator, and (2) unquestionably a first-rate intellectual doing important work to bring to light sometimes harsh truths about the way power is exercised in this world.

In short, Finkelstein is using his academic freedom responsibly.

Yes, he is polemical in public, sometimes harsh toward opponents, maybe even a bit cantankerous at times, which leaves me wishing Finkelstein were a colleague at my university. If I were a student at DePaul, I would sign up for any class he was teaching. We could use more like him in academic life.

When personnel decisions at DePaul are made next month, if Finkelstein’s name is not on the list of those granted tenure it will be no doubt a difficult day for him and a tragic one for anyone who cares about free and responsible intellectual inquiry.

In the United States there are fewer and fewer spaces where truth-telling is possible. Electoral politics has become a poll-driven, sound-bite enterprise. Mass media specialize in the superficial and shallow. Universities, though dominated by corporate money and the corporate mentality, still provide one of the few remaining spaces for open and honest engagement. Protecting that space is important not only for those of us in the privileged position of faculty, but for the society more generally.

If Norman Finkelstein is denied tenure by DePaul, it won’t be because he was irresponsible but because he took his responsibility too seriously. If he is denied tenure, the loss will be not only Finkelstein’s and DePaul’s but also the larger project of real academic freedom and responsibility.

ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

 

 

 

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, fall 2015). http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Radical-Living-Learning-Gracefully/dp/1593766181 Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Notes. [1] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106. [2] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). [3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, edited and with a revised translation by Susan McReynolds Oddo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), p. 55.

More articles by:
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Fearsome: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
Binoy Kampmark
Headaches of Empire: Brexit’s Effect on the United States
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail