Sunday, August 19, 2007

Voting Prof. Nadia El-Haj Off the Island

Paula Stern, a Barnard alumna, has organized a petition campaign to try to block Professor Nadia El-Haj’s professor’s tenure bid at her alma mater. This is the first paragraph of the petition:

To: Columbia University/Barnard College

As concerned alumni and friends of Barnard and Columbia, we urge you to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El Haj, a professor of anthropology whose claim to scholarly recognition is based on a single, profoundly flawed book.
That’s about as far as I read before I wondered how low my graduate alma mater had sunk in handing out degrees to people who haven’t a clue about tenure, and how the tenure process works. Does Paula Stern really think that Columbia/Barnard is going to influenced by an online petition campaign, ribono shel olam?

Stern and the other signatories should be intellectually flogged for presuming to influence a tenure decision. I don’t care if the professor in question is a Holocaust-denier, a Nakba-denier or – well, pick your own intellectual sin. Alumni and friends can express their dismay over a tenure decision or their hope for a reversal of one.They can be upset about the views of a controversial faculty member, and they can stop contributing money to their alma mater. But for outsiders – and in tenure decisions, anybody outside the regular channels, even other faculty members, is an “outsider” -- to appeal to a university to deny someone tenure is outrageous. There is a process, and that process has to be respected.

The tenure process includes evaluating a candidate’s teaching, research, and service to the university. Letters from experts are solicited, a departmental subcommittee is formed, tenure is voted on at various levels, etc. There is always the delicate issue of balancing the integrity of the tenure process with the candidate’s right to know the reasons for her approval or rejection But tenure decisions are not public trials or elections.

How does one explain an appeal like Stern’s? Well, part of the responsibility has to placed at the doorsteps of the universities, which are becoming increasingly like vocational schools, and which never bother to explain to their students some of their values, like academic freedom and tenure.

In this case, De Paul University may share some of the blame because of its flawed tenure process in the case of Finkelstein and Larudee. Protestations of the De Paul president notwithstanding, there is a strong suspicion that the school was influenced by the Dershowitz campaign against tenure– if only because they did not like the publicity for the school. But even if that is unjust – and I am prepared to give De Paul the benefit of the doubt – the president’s own letter implies a flawed process, as I wrote several months ago here. In that post I called for an American Association of University Professors’ investigation, were the president not to clarify his remarks. I hope that such an investigation will take place.

In any event, one would have thought that Ms. Stern would have learned something from the Finkelstein and Larudee case, where the De Paul president explicitly criticized outsiders for interfering in the process. But they apparently feel that the tenure process is like a reality-show where viewers call in to vote people off the island.

I want to stress that even if everything in Stern’s petition is absolutely correct – and it is apparently full of distortions, half-truths, and falsehoods, as Richard Silverstein has already pointed out – she and her cosignatories are way out of line in their campaign.

My own BA is from Yale, and I would like to think that my own alma mater wouldn’t have alumni like this. But who am I kidding? In a country where college professors are often treated like personal shoppers, and universities like Walmarts, what can one expect from the consumers?

...And let's not forget l'affaire Juan Cole

2 comments:

Jonathan Mark said...

"""There is a process, and that process has to be respected. """

The process in 2007 is for everyone to yack about the tenure decision online and give advice.

If you don't like the tenure process then choose another line of work that doesn't involve applying for tenure.

"""Letters from experts are solicited,""""

Some universities, such as USC, also permit outsiders to submit unsolicited letters. Such letters are considered.

"""In this case, De Paul University may share some of the blame because of its flawed tenure process in the case of Finkelstein and Larudee.""""

Oh, so you disagree with DePaul's decision, do you? Well, you are a DePaul outsider! Why do you comment on an internal DePaul decision?

""""Protestations of the De Paul president notwithstanding, there is a strong suspicion that the school was influenced by the Dershowitz campaign against tenure"""

First you say Stern is a fool to think she can influence a tenure decision, then you say Dershowitz was able to influence a tenure decision.

Which is it? If Dershowitz was able to do it, might not Stern succeed as well?

"""In any event, one would have thought that Ms. Stern would have learned something from the Finkelstein and Larudee case, where the De Paul president explicitly criticized outsiders for interfering in the process."""

First you say the anti-Finkelstein outsiders were successful in influencing the process, and then you say that Stern should have learned not to influence the process.

If the outsiders were successful at DePaul, as you suggest they were, then maybe they can succeed at Columbia as well. So why not do it?

"""But they apparently feel that the tenure process is like a reality-show where viewers call in to vote people off the island."""

No, it is like a political process during which people express their opinions.

Claudia said...

Another excellent post (along with 'Voting Prof. Nadia El-Haj Off the Island'). Speaking up for academic freedom and against the politization of scholarship is important to all of us, in or out of academia.