YIISA’s Fate and the Corruption of the Peer-Review Process

Jamie Kirchick pens what’s likely to be the definitive account of Yale’s controversial decision to terminate the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA). Kirchick convincingly demonstrates how a toxic combination of anti-Israel sentiments from some key faculty members combined with Yale’s desire to cultivate Middle Eastern donors (as part of the university’s self-conception as a “global” institution) to doom YIISA. The lengthy article is well worth reading in full; it’s both illuminating and thoroughly depressing.

Kirchick’s tale is also important for reasons beyond the YIISA affair. When confronted by outside criticism, defenders of the academic status quo invariably cite the peer-review process to justify conditions on campus. Specialists know best, they note, and outsiders need to defer to the superior judgment of trained experts. Yale’s termination of YIISA, for instance, came after two levels of peer review. The first was a report from outside academic evaluators. The second was feedback from an oversight committee of Yale faculty. How could anyone object to a decision with so many safeguards?

As to first level of peer review, the university has consistently refused to release the report on which it allegedly based its decision. And comments from members of the Yale faculty committee–especially Sociology professor Jeffrey Alexander–suggest that ideological bias, rather than disinterested scholarly analysis, motivated their reaction to YIISA.

Even though the peer-review ideal presumes decisions made according to scholarly expertise, Alexander was named to the evaluation committee without any apparent research background in anti-semitism. (As with the refusal to release the evaluators’ report, the university has refused to disclose the criteria through which it chose members of the YIISA oversight committee.) After a series of inflammatory comments in previous interviews, Alexander went on the record with Kirchick.

In the equivalent of former senator Rick Santorum’s recent “I have gay friends” disclaimer, Alexander wanted Tablet readers to know that he considers himself a Zionist. (The fanatically anti-Israel Andrew Sullivan regularly employs this tactic before penning yet another post criticizing Israeli security policies.) He then criticized YIISA for allowing the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s director for combating anti-Semitism to open an August 2010 conference. Some might consider that line of criticism rather peculiar coming from a committed Zionist.

In his comments to Kirchick, Alexander offered his “academic” explanations on why YIISA needed to be Israel.” Perhaps, of course, this analysis of YIISA’s shortcomings is correct. But in demanding YIISA’s termination, Alexander (whose most recent book is The Performance of Politics–Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power) substituted his judgment for that of the many trained experts who participated in YIISA conferences. So much for peer review ensuring that academic decisions are made by specialists who possess more in-depth knowledge than outsiders.

Alexander (and other YIISA critics) also condemned YIISA for engaging in “advocacy” at all. This is certainly a strange line of attack given the blend of advocacy and occasional scholarship that permeates contemporary higher education, especially in many “studies” programs. Kirchick asked Alexander if his anti-advocacy approach extended across the board, specifically noting that most “studies” programs (African-American studies, women’s studies, gay/lesbian studies, etc.) tend to be sympathetic to their subject matter (and often feature faculty who do far more advocacy than research). The answer was unsurprising: “Israel is not an oppressed group that we’re supposed to feel this enormous sympathy for, in the same way as gays and center.’”

In other words, don’t expect the new Yale center to engage in much analysis of contemporary anti-semitism, either in the Islamic world or (under the guise of “anti-Israel” activities) from the left wing in Europe and the United States. But there’s no need to worry—the Yale faculty has committed Zionists like Jeffrey Alexander on its staff.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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