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The Poisoning of Academic Freedom

by BILL WILLIAMS

So, what exactly went through Rev. Dennis Holtschneider’s mind on as he signed Norman G. Finkelstein’s and Mehrene Larudee’s tenure denial letters, which were dated June 8th, 2007? Perhaps Father Holtscheider thought he was, in some sense, picking the lesser of two poisons. By upholding the University Board’s decision to deny tenure to Finkelstein, he could successfully remove one of the most effective and outspoken critics of Israel from DePaul’s precincts, and in turn, curry favor with those who could put DePaul’s endowment in an enviable place. After all, what-beyond financial gain and other forms of political capital-could accrue from ejecting Finkelstein, one of DePaul’s most popular and accomplished teachers, scholars, and public intellectuals from campus under the specter of a witch-hunt? In brief, Holtscheider, assuming the decision to uphold the UBTP’s votes on the Larudee and Finkelstein cases was really his and not that of someone above and beyond him, chose to make a politically expedient decision instead of an academically sound one.

Most likely, what went through Holtschneider’s head was that, at least in Finkelstein’s case, DePaul University could avoid twenty years of continual controversy if it denied this world renowned public intellectual lifetime employment. After all, who wants to receive weekly or even daily missives from the Anti-Defamation League or Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, who led the year-long campaign against Finkelstein’s tenure, intervening through the former head of DePaul’s political science department, and just a year before attempting to intimidate the University of California Press into dropping the publication of Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History? Where the U. California Press stood firm, DePaul faltered.

Of course, DePaul maintains that Dershowitz’s “interference” had absolutely no effect on its tenure and promotion processes. Along similar lines, DePaul probably wagered that it could deal with the outrage of angry students and faculty and progressive fellow travelers, but could not withstand the financial and political backlash of the pro-Israel right and the Israel Lobby if it tenured Finkelstein. But DePaul University is dependent upon student tuition dollars, not the growth of a large endowment, right? Will DePaul’s administration make available for public scrutiny the university’s endowment figures for the next five years, even though it is a private university? Probably not, but these figures are worth asking for.

Surely, neither the UBPT or Holtschneider actually believed Alan Dershowitz’s argument that Finkelstein has no scholarship and only churns out one-sided agit prop. There are clearly no sound academic arguments that were offered either by Holtscheider or the UBPT that help any of us, make sense of the “decision.” This was one of my favorite sentences in Finkelstein’s denial letter: “In [being mindful of how important it is to follow the policies in the faculty handbook] the [UPBT] was reminded of broader expectations and professional standards by which faculty are DePaul are obliged to comport themselves as members of the academic profession and as members of the DePaul intellectual community.” Who reminded the UBTP of these broader expectations?

Alan Dershowitz? Although the external reviews written by two distinguished political scientists were solidly behind Finkelstein’s tenure and promotion, the Dean of Arts and Sciences framed his rationale for withholding Finkelstein’s tenure application around the political science department’s <http://english.sxu.edu/sites/kirstein/?p=754>minority report, which was authored by three individuals who are not experts on the Middle East or the Holocaust.

Holtschneider also mentions in his letter that he could not in good conscience view Finkelstein as actually promoting a scholarly debate, but instead simplifying and polarizing discussions that require layered and subtle consideration [“In the opinion of those opposing tenure, your unprofessional personal attacks divert the conversation away from the consideration of ideas, and polarize and simplify conversations that deserve layered and subtle consideration.”] [“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 opinion of others,’ and ‘strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues’.”]

Well, all of this is very funny since DePaul hired Finkelstein into a tenure-track position with four of the five books, which he put up with his tenure dossier, already out in the public sphere. The one book that Finkelstein published since he started at DePaul is Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Univ. of California), which of course, is critical of Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel and its various misrepresentations of diplomatic, legal, and historical aspects of the conflict. So, if one wades through the various ins and outs of Holtschneider’s prose, one can conclude that Finkelstein’s real “mistake” was to have gone after a big-shot like Alan Dershowitz. Finkelstein’s four other books, The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years (Minnesota), Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso), A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (Holt Books), and The Holocaust Industry: The Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso), were all published before Finkelstein started his tenure-track odyssey at DePaul.

Is one to understand that before he was hired, neither his colleagues in the political science department nor DePaul’s administration knew about the contents of these books or that Finkelstein wrote about highly charged topics with clarity and conviction? And that it was only through the publication of Beyond Chutzpah, the exigency of Finkelstein’s tenure proceedings, and Dershowitz’s outside interference, that his critical and polemical edge came to light? Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History could hardly have been a surprise as the latest addition in the Finkelstein corpus, since it’s a natural extension of Finkelstein’s other work-exposing spurious scholarship on the U.S.-Israel-Palestine conflict, which receives widespread praise within an intellectual culture that is eager to lend itself to upholding central tenets of the propaganda system, while denouncing those who pose a threat to it.

In his three-part essay, Bathos at DePaul, Kim Petersen effectively and completely deconstructs Holtschneiders, the UBPT’s, and by implication, DePaul University’s General Counsel’s logic, demonstrating that beyond obfuscation there’s simply no substance behind the reasons offered for the denial. It’s not even clear that Holtscheider understands the portions of the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics that he cites. This statement, as AAUP-Illinois Council President Leo Welch recently made clear in his letter to Holtscheider, is not to be used for tenure evaluations. Beyond this, the AAUP’s statement on collegiality makes clear that:

The current tendency to isolate collegiality as a distinct dimension of evaluation, [however], poses several dangers. Historically, “collegiality” has not infrequently been associated with ensuring homogeneity, and hence with practices that exclude persons on the bases 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 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.

The administration needed another denial out of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to make the Finkelstein denial appear legitimate-Larudee provided the perfect target. Although she had received unanimous support from her department, the College Personnel Committee, and the support of Dean Charles Suchar, she could also be made an example of for resisting the administrative line on Finkelstein. After Suchar’s March 22 memorandum became public, Larudee joined a small faculty committee that met regularly to strategize about how the administration might try to undermine Finkelstein’s candidacy. Beyond this, her brother is one of the most active members of the International Solidarity Movement, which defends Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza from demolition. Rachel Corrie was a member of the organization when she died in Rafah, Gaza on March 16th, 2003. Was Larudee simply a convenient political target? There were only two denials out of the College of Arts and Sciences-Finkelstein and Larudee.

Academic freedom and tenure, if they are to have any meaning, must protect dissenting intellectuals like Norman Finkelstein and Mehrene Larudee from the political forces that have conspired within and without DePaul University. If nothing else, the Finkelstein and Larudee tenure denials have proven that academic freedom apparently was never meant to be extended to critics of U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East. Isn’t that the real message of the last few months at DePaul University, the largest Catholic University in the United States? Dershowitz and a number of other U.S. supporters of Israel have made the answer crystal clear.

BILL WILLIAMS is an independent writer who lives in Toledo, Ohio. He can be reached at wassup7525@aol.com

 

 

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