DePaul Flubs Up On Finkelstein

It’s difficult to be anything but pleased by the failure of Norman Finkelstein’s DePaul tenure bid. He’s a figure of repulsive opinions, given to frequent invective and doubtful scholarship. Yet all should look more carefully at DePaul University’s explanation of the step before celebrating. The logical foregrounding for their tenure decision would have been problems with his published scholarship; instead, DePaul justified their decision chiefly with talk of “respect for colleagues.” There’s little doubt that Finkelstein is a jerk, but DePaul’s grounding of its refusal in that fact – instead of holes in his academic work – leaves it open to justified criticism. “Collegiality” is a potentially insidious concept – just ask Walter Kehowski, a professor at Glendale Community College, who was just released from a forced administrative leave for the crime of emailing George Washington’s Thanksgiving address to fellow professors. The crime? Creating a “hostile environment.” Finkelstein’s faults are clearly of a higher order than this, but all should be wary of arguments premised upon a professor’s sociability, instead of his scholarship.

Consider what the University has said about Finkelstein and the case. The University Board on Promotion and Tenure labeled him an “excellent teacher” as well as a “nationally known scholar and public intellectual, considered provocative, challenging, and intellectually interesting.” The Political Science department voted for him by a measure of 9-3, and another review board approved him by a 5-0 margin. Then Finkelstein encountered trouble. The Performance and Tenure board voted 4-3 against him. They cite the departmental minority’s objections to his scholarship – the “accuracy of some of the evidence he uses in his scholarship and the cogency of some of his arguments” – yet passed over that point, on to express concern about:

…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 scholarship as “deliberately hurtful” as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions.

The DePaul President followed in this vein in his rejection letter to Finkelstein:

Moreover, on the record before me, 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 opinions of others,” and “strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues.” Nor can I conclude that your scholarship honors our University’s commitment to creating an environment in which all persons engaged in research and learning exercise academic freedom and respect it in others.

Each account touches upon “scholarship” but then crafts it to mean collegiality. As Dan Drezner put it, “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 regrettable fact, though, is that, at the level of the University President and Tenure board, they might have made a better argument against his work – but didn’t do so. Many opponents, and the departmental minority noted in the report, advanced questions about Finkelstein’s work. The later stages of tenure review could have been a useful occasion to more fully investigate these questions. Instead, the President’s letter provides the appearance that they have been passed over. If there was truth to these accusations, it should have been clearly stated; if not, Finkelstein should have been exonerated on these charges. A tenure denial presenting scholarly irregularities and professional discourtesy would have packed a respectable punch. As it is, we’re left with a haze.

DePaul’s ham-fisted handling of the case provides ammunition for radicals quick to dub Finkelstein the latest martyr in a McCarthyite purge, with his place directly after Ward Churchill’s in the pantheon of martyrs. Inflammatory speech landed each of them under the microscope, and the left-minded are quick to assert that the DePaul and the University of Colorado have simply caved to “right-wing pressures.” These accusations are inevitable, but there are crucial genuine distinctions between each case. The University of Colorado insulated themselves from such a charge far more effectively than did DePaul, however. Theirs was a meticulous inquiry into reported errors in Churchill’s scholarship, many of which, to the tune of “falsification”, “fabrication”, and “plagiarism”, turned out to be true. When Hank Brown, President of the University of Colorado, recommended that Churchill “should be dismissed for repeated failures to meet minimum standards of professional integrity” it carried the real heft of tangible findings. Churchill resigned his administrative post.

There’s little doubt that Universities contain a good deal more professors like Churchill, who soar through repeated reviews despite glaring flaws in their scholarship. It would be good to be rid of more of these – Finkelstein’s rejection might have been such a step. Yet granting blanket sanction to rejections on the basis of “collegiality” seems a dangerous path. Really outre radicals might feel the ax, but pressure would likely be far worse on those truly unconventional in the modern academy – conservatives. Walter Kehowski is a cautionary tale – Peter Berkowitz is another. Berkowitz, now a Professor at George Mason University, had been approved for tenure by the government department at Harvard. Yet Harvard President Neil Rudenstine overturned the decision without comment. The suspected source? Berkowitz had recently published a critical review of a senior Professor’s book – a Professor who happened to be a friend of Rudenstine. Finkelstein is a nastier character than Berkowitz by any measure, but his case speaks to the malleability of the concepts “respect for colleagues” and “agreement with them.”
There seems little reason to regret Finkelstein’s fate, but there is cause for concern in DePaul University’s actions. It is entirely appropriate for DePaul to take professional courtesy into account in evaluating Finkelstein’s bid, but to center their case on that quality seems a very poor precedent. Who seems further from the mainstream of the modern academy, and accordingly more likely to prove un-collegial – Peter Berkowitz or Norman Finkelstein? Think about that before applauding DePaul.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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