Professor Kirstein Quoted in InsideHigherEd and Reflections on Dr Finkelstein Academic Freedom Case

This is an excerpt from the article by Scott Jaschik, the senior and nationally respected reporter for InsideHigherEd. While I am identified as “a leader” of the Illinois A.A.U.P. Conference, for purposes of clarification, I am currently an at-large member and will become Vice President this fall. Professor Jerry Kendall of John Marshall Law School will be president and Leo Welsh is currently acting president. I claim to speak for no organization or institution.

Why Some Are Concerned

While Finkelstein’s anger and Dershowitz’s satisfaction with the decision are to be expected, others see broader significance to the case.

“This case is important because we must allow an academic to speak with emotion and to speak freely,” said Peter N. Kirstein, a professor of history at Saint Xavier University and a leader of the Illinois conference of the AAUP. Kirstein’s blog frequently focuses on academic freedom and he has broken the news of several of the developments in the Finkelstein tenure case.

Kirstein said that the criticisms of Finkelstein in the president’s letter all amount to collegiality questions of the sort that AAUP recommends shouldn’t be the basis of tenure decisions and that aren’t appropriate to raise. “He has scholarly credentials that have been vetted by elite university presses’ but DePaul seems worried about issues of tone and assertiveness, Kirstein said.

If such collegiality issues are allowed into tenure cases, Kirstein said, academics of a wide range of politics and personalities can unfairly lose tenure bids. He cited as an example the case of KC Johnson, who won tenure on appeal — but who had offended some of his Brooklyn College history colleagues despite an unquestioned record as a teacher and a prolific author with top publishers.

[Also Mr Jaschik has revealed more on what was first reported here, that another professor was denied tenure under unusual circumstances: Dr Mehrene Larudee.]

[Anne] Bartlett, the Faculty Council president, said that while the Finkelstein case raises governance issues, she didn’t think it should be portrayed as a case of the administration reversing the faculty generally. She noted that the committee on which the president relied was a faculty panel. The issue that is more appropriately raised, she said, is one of what appropriate review should happen after a department votes on a candidate.

She said that she viewed the universitywide panel’s job as one of reviewing “the way the process was carried out,” not “retrying the case.” She said she wasn’t sure that this time there wasn’t a retrying of the case.

Concerns over that issue are reinforced by Friday’s tenure denial to Mehrene Larudee, who teaches international studies at DePaul, and whose work is in economics (and on issues having nothing to do with Finkelstein’s research). Larudee had strong backing throughout the process, until the final committee review and presidential decision to reject her. Via e-mail, she said that many at DePaul are wondering about the “startling departure” from university principles in her case and Finkelstein’s.

“I personally support, and have always supported, the right of every faculty member, including Norman Finkelstein, to fair and equitable treatment by the university, and in particular to fair and equitable treatment in the tenure process,” Larudee said. “DePaul University claims to have a deep commitment to social justice. The decisions handed down on Friday, June 8 to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein in no way reflect any such commitment.”

[These are further reflections I have on this situation]:

People have noted that it is easier to criticise the State of Israel in Israel than in the United States. It would be naive to conclude that Dr Finkelstein’s position on the Middle East and the Palestine Question had no bearing on DePaul’s decision to deny him tenure. Yet only the strong it seems can survive such scrutiny and denunciation of their position on these issues. President Jimmy Carter, Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have broken taboos in their books and articles on Israel and the Israel Lobby but one is a former president and Noble Peace Laureate and the others hold endowed professorships at the University of Chicago and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Dr Finkelstein had no such security. He hoped, as did many of us regardless of our ideologies, that DePaul would recognise the greater social good that the protection of his academic freedom would have on the academy in particular and the society at large.

We are a country at war. During wartime the demand for intellectual conformity and blind patriotism is particularly accentuated. It is essential that universities, the last bastion of critical thinking and dissenting viewpoints, not fall victim to popular opinion, or surrender their mission due to threats and intimidation.

Yes the specific issue is whether academic freedom can be sustained and vigorous criticism of Israel and the treatment of the Palestinians will be permitted in the United States. The broader issue is can academia continue to provide that independence, that revisionism, that questioning and that courageous refusal to abide by the canon that invigorates our democracy and protects us from a chilling conformity that degrades and reduces our sense of humanity?

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