Tuesday, June 12, 2007

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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 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.

posted by Dan on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM


Sure you've heard of Verso; every political scientist has at least one Vesro book on his or her shelves. It published Imagined Communities.

It's a self-proclaimed "radical publisher." It's a pretty major presence on the intellectual left-- publishes Benedict Anderson, Perry Anderson, a good political theory series under the "Real Utopias" project, Richard Falk, Tarik Ali, Zizek, etc. I think some of its authors are ridiculous scholars/ intellectuals, but many of them are serious folks.

The press publishes a lot of serious scholarship that's slightly public-intellectual in character, and then some public-intellectual books on current events from a far-left perspective. I can't tell from Finkestein's book titles whether they're works of scholarship or pieces of commentary on the contemporary Middle East, but if they're works of scholarship then Verso's an entirely legitmate press for them.

(Not a comment on any other part of the case, just an observation about Verso.)

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

The man who accuses Mearsheimer and Walt of "piss poor social science" wants to give Norman Finkelstein tenure? Interesting. . .

posted by: wow on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

Maybe it's just because he's been so lucky as to be highly informed about unfair and unreasonable denials of tenure. Maybe it's because he's a remarkably evidence-driven non-ideological-in-the-invidious-sense scholar. But anyway, among the many discussions of the Finkelstein case that obviously start from "I agree with or dissent from Finkelstein's conclusions" and work backwards, Drezner's is notable in starting from the questions "what should determine a proper tenure decision?" and "what determined this one?" and then going to provide answers steeped in a dispassionate reading of the evidence.

posted by: Cheered on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

Drezner: I've never read any of Finkelstein's work.

Cheered: Drezner's is notable in starting from the questions "what should determine a proper tenure decision?" and "what determined this one?" and then going to provide answers steeped in a dispassionate reading of the evidence.

Shouldn't a "dispassionate reading of the evidence" include, uh, reading the primary piece of evidence--Finkelstein's actual work? How can Drezner conclude that Finkelstein got a "raw deal" without ever having read anything the man's ever written? There are reasons that universities don't entrust tenure decisions to departments alone.

posted by: wow on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

I'm puzzled. I take your point that the books on which a tenure decision is based should be read by those who make the decision, and ideally, by those who comment on the decision and comments on the decision.

But that shouldn't stop me from noting that the president, the outside-the-department decision-maker, says his decision was not based on reading Finkelstein's book nor on an assessment of the substance of Finkelstein's scholarly accomplishments. Rather, it was based on a judgment that Finkelstein had written to be "deliberately hurtful" and provocative for inflammatory effect. (Though the finding of deliberate hurtfulness is ascribed to others.)Further, the president feared that Finkelstein's hurting and flaming might adversely affect the reputation of the University.

Leaving aside DePaul's tender reputation, this seems to go to motives, to turn on Finkelstein's intending to hurt and seeking to inflame. Aren't departmental colleagues best situated to ascribe such motives? And more to the point, should tenure decisions at any level be based on such considerations? The statement Drezner quotes from the AAUP gives reasons to think not, reasons not refuted above.

Suppose Finkelstein did intend to hurt and seek to inflame. So what? I daresay that even a Harvard law professor or two may have done likewise--in a good cause, of course.

posted by: Cheered on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

Just wanted to concur that the collegiality clause is subject to abuse. We can measure teaching (sort of), publications (sort of), so collegiality becomes an out that folks can take to get rid of people who have done what is necessary to earn tenure.
The big red flag on this case (and I don't know the guy or his work) is that the folks most likely to be impacted by his style would be the department, who happened to give a 9-3 vote.

Still, Depaul may be one of those places where a 9-3 vote is a shocking outcome that always leads to rejection at the higher levels. Places do vary in how much consensus is required.

posted by: Steve Saideman on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

I don't think "deliberately hurtful" is the key phrase. Rather, I'd focus on this sentence: "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."

Finkelstein is a polemicist. He has taken positions on the Holocaust that many find difficult to defend on intellectual grounds (reflected in his original intent--subsequently withdrawn--to attend the Holocaust denial conference in Tehran a while back).

One can write all the books in the world, but it doesn't entitle him to tenure if they lack intellectual merit.

On the departmental vote, as the previous poster suggests, a 9-3 vote would actually raise flags at many places. If 25% of my department opposes my tenure in a few years, I will likely not get tenure.

posted by: Wow on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

In respect to Drezner's comment that he has never heard of the publishers of Finkelstein's books, in addition to Jacob Levy's first comment, i will just add that Finkelstein's latest book was published by California University Press (http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/10505.html). Despite how much it sounds like Drezner wants to dislike Finkelstein, this is a peer reviewed press and also one of the better ones for works on the Middle East region. Verso is sometimes questionable, but University of California is not. Also, Drezner is flatly wrong to say that he has never published a peer reviewed article. The most obvious counterexample to this is that he has the lead article in the current issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies (the journal is also published by University of California Press) about how unfair Dennis Ross was to the Palestinians in his work as advocate (oops, i mean negotiator) for the government of Israel (oops, i mean USA. Maybe he should have been fair and then i would not make those mistakes). I don't know whether he has been published in journals other then this article, but it is a respected journal (though, if it is his only peer reviewed article ever, i agree that's not good). Anyway, point being, Drezner is factually wrong on those points. I assume he knows the California University system has a publisher.

Anyway, that aside, being the resident Palestinian who comments on this blog, I am pretty familiar with the controversy around this case. Having been aware of Finkelstein's work for some time now, I do want to say that I find him to be an excellent speaker but a pretty uninteresting writer. having seen him give several lectures in the past, i think that i would very much like to be in his classroom on a daily basis. not only because i agree with his views, but because he is engaging and in those conditions i think a very very large amount would be learned about the Middle East, and especially if there were informed students who oppose his views in the class. Being that DePaul is not exactly a university where the most ground breaking research is being done, it would seem to me that his classroom presentation would probably be strong and a likely reason for the 9 votes in his favor by his department.

That said, as i said, i have never been impressed with his writing. I find it dense and overly concerned with minutia. I could see that as a potential reason for his being denied tenure IF that was cited as a reason. That it was not, and that his academic record was not challenged as much as his attitude to his critics was, his being denied smells pretty bad to me.

It reminds me very much of the witch hunt that was done against Joseph Mossad at Columbia University over his strong objection to Israel's record of violence, destruction and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. It does indeed seem to me that there is a lot less room for those who challenge Israel then there is for those who support it.

having said this, i wonder what Drezner thinks was the reason for DePaul using the "deliberately hurtful" standard to judge Finkelstein rather then a normal academic standard? I personally have never heard of another scholar being denied on this basis, and it also seems to me that there is no other field that causes so much passion to be raised then does debating the Israel/Palestine conflict. In my estimation scientists are often "deliberately hurtful" against theories of "intelligent design" or the like, yet this would never be a reason to deny them tenure, and especially if that didn't cause problems with students. But since there simply are two very strong and divergent narratives in the palestine/israel debate, and since it is ongoing and extremely passionate conflict, and since the Palestine side is at an extreme disadvantage in terms of its political clout, i can't help but think that the likes of Dershowitz and other prominent and powerful people influenced the decision. Had the decision been taken by his department, that would be another story and i would be likely to believe that his immediate peers just didn't consider his work good enough. but considering that there was such a fuss by dershowitz and his like (including the former IDF soldier and current congressman who represents the district that Depaul is in, Rahm Emanuel), I assume the university got scared about its funding and exposure to criticism and denied Finkelstein tenure on unfair grounds.

posted by: Joe M. on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

Joe M. - yes, well put. Two minor points of disagreement:

1) Yes, Verso sometimes does publish things which are not hte best or highest quality. But then again, so do most presses - for instance, Hardt and Negri's 'Empire' (Harvard UP), one of the worst academic books I have ever read, down there with Anne Norton's 'Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire' (Yale UP). I can't say, btw, that I have read anything from U of California Press that approached the depths of those two books.

2) The fact that Finklestein does not write well is really neither here nor there. If that were grounds for tenure, most economics departments would be pretty bare. (Have you read Robert Barro's work? Ugh. I have tried repeatedly to read Joseph Stiglitz 'Globalization and its Discontents' only to flounder every time.) The fact remains that he can conduct original research and string together an original argument, which is why he keeps getting published.

posted by: Dr. Green on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

It's a sad commentary on American IPE that Drezner -- whose work is all about conflicts of material interests -- hasn't even heard of Verso. Even if he finds nothing of value in contemporary Marxism, he should at least be familiar with what it's about and who's publishing it. For example, Verso published Benno Teschke's award-winning "Myth of 1648," parts of which appeared in the top-tier peer-reviewed journals "International Organization" and "European Journal of International Relations."

One more thing: Finkelstein's charge that Dershowitz is guilty of plagiarism isn't "deliberately hurtful" if it's true. Which it is.

posted by: a political scientist on 06.12.07 at 09:41 AM [permalink]

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