Friday, June 15, 2007

Postscript on Finkelstein

Some readers have pointed out in response to my post criticizing the De Paul president's letter that the school can do what it wants with respect to its tenure decisions. Actually, that is only partially true. Candidates denied tenure quite often sue universities if they feel that the decision is grossly unfair, violates procedures, etc. There have been cases when university presidents have been forced out in the aftermath of failed tenure proceedings.

But let's not get carried away. It is more likely for a university administration to undergo censure from the American Association of University Presses. For a list of administration censured by the AAUP, see

Finally, I can't see how any defender of Dershowitz can be happy with the tenure denial, since Finkelstein's research wasn't seriously criticized, at least according to the president's letter. A university decides that it doesn't want to have a troublemaker like Finkelstein and it gets rid of him. Maybe it has a right to do so; maybe it doesn't. But wouldn't Dershowitz's supporters have been happier had Finkelstein been denied tenure on the weakness of his scholarship than on his personality?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

De Paul's President Libels Norman Finkelstein

That Norman Finkelstein has been denied tenure at De Paul is not in itself a cause for concern. Many professors, good and bad, are denied tenure. But what is a cause for concern are the reasons offered by the university-wide tenure committee, and, worse, De Paul’s president, Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, for the tenure decision. A reading of Rev. Holtschneider’s letter to Finkelstein should set off bells for anybody concerned about fairness in tenure considerations.

For those who have not been following the case: Finkelstein was recommended for tenure by a nine-to-three vote by his peers in the Political Science department, and by its chair. The two outside reviewers also recommended his scholarship. His dean wrote against his tenure, and the university-wide tenure and promotion committee voted four to three to deny him tenure. The president upheld that decision.

The president’s letter to Finkelstein explaining his own decision implies quite openly that Finkelstein was not denied tenure because of the quality of his scholarship. Neither the external reviewers nor the members of the political science department that supported his tenure accused it of being inaccurate, derivative, unoriginal, sloppy, or any of the vices associated with bad work. The three members who opposed his tenure were said to be “critical of the accuracy of some of the evidence” and the “cogency of some of his arguments” (emphasis added). This is hardly a damning critique.

So if Finkelstein’s tenure case was not decided on the strength of his scholarship, then what were the reasons? Essentially, they boiled down to this: Norman Finkelstein is not considered by some to be a polite scholar. According to the tenure committee report, “…some might interpret parts of his scholarship as ‘deliberately hurtful’ as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect…Criticism has been expressed for his inflammatory style and personal attacks.” Note that the tenure committee apparently itself did not come to these conclusions, but either leaves them as hypothetical (“some might interpret”) or attributes them to unnamed individuals (“criticism has been expressed” – by whom?) And finally, “It was questioned by some whether Dr. Finkelstein effectively contributes to the public discourse on sensitive societal issues.” If being an effective contributor to the public discourse were a criterion for tenure, how many thousands of academics would be looking for a job? But, agree with Finkelstein or not, he certainly has been effective in contributing to the public discourse.

So much for the university-wide tenure committee. Much more disturbing, however, is the President’s attempt to justify the committee’s decision with reference to four obligations of professors borrowed from the American Association of University Professors. According to the AAUP, professors are a) “not to discriminate against or harass colleagues”; b) “to respect and defend the free inquiry of associates;” c) “to show due respect for the opinions of others”; d) “to acknowledge academic debt and strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues.” Now, Norman Finkelstein is rightly categorized, in my opinion, as an abrasive, polemical, and intemperate public intellectual. But what does that have to do with the four obligations listed above? Has he harassed colleagues? Has he tried to intimate associates? Has he failed to acknowledge academic debt? Has he denigrated objectivity? Has he even been accused of any of these things? Does he stand accused of them in the various tenure reports? It seems that Rev. Holtschneider, in his desire to justify the reasonableness of De Paul’s decision by appealing to criteria of outside organizations, has gone beyond any (publicly) known facts about Finkelstein.

Has Finkelstein shown due respect for the opinions of others? It seems to me that the record shows that he agrees with some opinions, disagrees with others, and dismisses others after he has argued (sometimes ad nauseum) against them. If respect for an opinion means treating that opinion seriously rather than peremptorily, then there are few people whose opinions Finkelstein respect more than Alan Dershowitz – he has devoted considerable space in attempting to refute them. Surely “respect for the opinions of others” should not preclude harshly criticizing those opinions as erroneous, poorly reasoned, unsound, preposterous, or worse.

Still, let us grant that Norman Finkelstein is, at times, and certainly on his website, an academic pit-bull. Is he any more so than Alan Dershowitz, or for that matter, Richard Dawkins, who cannot be said to show much “respect” for the opinions of creationists? Dershowitz has made many outrageous and nasty ad hominem claims against Finkelstein. Anybody who is in academia knows, or has heard of vituperative criticism, harsh book reviews, etc. One can bemoan the loss of civility in academic discourse. But why should Dershowitz, or Dawkins, or a host of acerbic academics, be protected by tenure, whereas Finkelstein is not? That is a basic unfairness that the president’s letter does not address but that concerned academics should.

The letter gets worse. Finkelstein stands accused of “not respecting the rights of others to hold different opinions,” and “of not exercising impartiality in passing professional judgments on others.” His writing is said to “violate professional ethical norms.” Now, I have not read the tenure file, obviously. But nothing in the public record, or in the president’s letter, is remotely relevant to these serious accusations. Has Finkelstein taken steps to silence his critics? Did he, for example, attempt to dissuade a publisher from publishing one of Alan Dershowitz’s books? Has he attempted to advance, or block the advancement, of someone because of partiality? What “professional ethical norms” has he violated “in his published writings”? It may be that “ad hominem attacks threaten, rather than enhance academic freedom.” But can anybody seriously think that the victims of Finkelstein’s attacks, most notably, Alan Dershowitz, have thereby had their academic freedom threatened or jeopardized?

It is difficult to avoid the impression that either Rev. Holtschneider misunderstood these academic vices that he was accusing Finkelstein of, or that, not wishing to seem to deny Finkelstein tenure on the grounds that he was not nice, stretched them to make them apply to his case. He may have grounds for these accusations, but he certainly has not given them. If there are grounds, I would recommend that he make them available for the public record, or at least to the American Association for University Professors. Otherwise, I don’t see how De Paul can avoid an academic censure from that organization. The president's letter is found at: (,Norman06.08.2007.pdf )

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Avrum Burg Comes Through

A must-read

Let's hope that Haaretz translates the entire interview.

Well, I knew it would happen sooner or later...Avrum Burg, a past Secretary General of the Jewish Agency and Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, has given up on Israel and Political Zionism. Why? Well, partly because he is Jewish, and as the sign in Meah Shearim says, "Judaism and (Political) Zionism are diametrically opposed." Mostly because he realizes that the problem with Israel is not the Arabs but Israel itself. The Jewish people have are suffering from a collective Holocaust trauma.

Oh, sure, he is not a deep thinker, and he has a tendency to say the sort of outrageous things that I said in the previous paragraph. But all his critics should ask a certain question -- here is a guy who grew up Israeli, served in the IDF, achieved high position -- and he has had enough.


Or to put it another way -- show me a single person in another (non-communist) Western country who achieved high political office and then slammed the door on his country, without betraying it.

If Burg were just another blankety-blank ("self-hating Jew," "traitor," etc.) you could easily dismiss him, right?

But if you can't give me another example, maybe the problem is not with him.

It's with Israel.