“The Firing of Finkelstein”

I authored this article that appeared in Illinois Academe, the award-winning newsletter of the Illinois Conference of the American Association of University Professors, Fall 2007.

While the tenure-denial case of Norman G. Finkelstein has seemingly ended with the September 5, 2007 settlement between the professor and DePaul University, this distressing episode will continue to reverberate throughout the academy for the foreseeable future. From the day I first published on April 1, 2007 the revelation that Dr. Finkelstein was experiencing opposition to his application for tenure and promotion, I have been consumed with the egregious violation of his academic freedom and the failure of a university to resist the unwarranted intrusion of external partisans such as Alan Dershowitz, Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University.

Mr. Dershowitz was enraged that Dr. Finkelstein, in his latest book, Beyond Chutzpah had written a scathing attack of his The Case for Israel. Mr. Dershowitz was determined to use the power of his position at Harvard and his connections with powerful supporters of Israel to launch an international media campaign of vilification and character assassination that had a single purpose: to silence and destroy Dr. Finkelstein through the denial of tenure. I felt at times that the efforts of Mr. Dershowitz, an internationally known attorney and legal scholar, reflected a campaign of such anger and relentless fury that it revealed a personal animus bordering on hatred. Normally a heated exchange between academicians is confined to content and interpretation of a given topic. It rarely evolves into an orchestrated effort on the part of a powerful, affluent, tenured professor to deny continued employment of a junior faculty member seeking promotion to associate professor and the granting of tenure.

DePaul University has consistently stated that although it resented external pressures on the institution’s internal review processes, it was not unduly influenced by external forces prior to President (Rev.) Dennis H. Holtschneider’s, C.M. denial of tenure letter on June 8, 2007. Yet Professor Dershowitz sent a dossier of ad hominem attacks to both the DePaul University College of Law and Department of Political Science. One member of the Department of Political Science, Professor Patrick Callahan, pressured the department’s Personnel Committee to accept fifty pages of material that he had solicited from Alan Dershowitz. The Personnel Committee, which “found no evidence… of academic misconduct or dishonesty,” in the scholarship of Dr. Finkelstein, reluctantly acceded to the former department chair’s demand as revealed in its November 1, 2006 report: “[I]ndeed, it represented a departure from our initial desire to keep unsolicited material from entering our deliberations, trusting instead the processes of external and departmental review that have served us well over the years.” This exhaustive thorough vetting of Dr. Finkelstein’s scholarship resulted in a unanimous 4-0 vote of affirmation of the quality and integrity of his scholarship. I am unaware of any other faculty body at DePaul University that engaged in such a thorough, comprehensive review of his oeuvre. Indeed as the Dershowitz allegations were unraveling before the detached review of “specialists” in the field of political science, the Department of Political Science affirmed with a 9-3 majority the integrity of Dr. Finklestein’s research, and concluded he should be granted tenure and promotion.

Dr. Finkelstein taught in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and its Personnel Committee voted unanimously (5-0) to recommend the granting of tenure and promotion to associate professor. Even though Dr. Finkelstein’s research had been assessed as satisfying DePaul’s tenure standards for scholarship by three units of review–the Political Science Department Personnel Committee, a majority of the department (9-3) and the college’s personnel committee-one witnesses a dramatic and shocking departure from the accepted norms of the assessment of scholarship in Dean Chuck Suchar’s infamous memorandum of March 22, 2007 that appeared initially on my blog. The dean of the College of Liberal Arts Sciences does not charge that Professor Finkelstein is guilty of research misconduct, fabricated evidence, plagiarism or unsubstantiated conclusions, but instead concludes that tenure should not be granted due to a rhetorical tonality that is “hurtful,” “inflammatory” and lacking “civility.” Dean Suchar then concludes that the passionate, no-holds-barred scholarship, that is characteristic of Dr. Finkelstein, is a breach of the Vincentian charism of the university. The dean also avers that Dr. Finkelstein should not be granted tenure because “he was considering a lawsuit against DePaul…,” which confirmed the lack of “values of collegiality.”

Let me be clear. A powerful dean of the nation’s largest Roman Catholic university is using a rumor that an academician under his charge might pursue legal redress as grounds for recommending the denial of tenure. The die was cast and the word was out. Dr. Finkelstein, who all conceded was an “outstanding” and brilliant teacher, would be denied tenure due to the tone but not the substance of his pioneering and transformational research on the Palestinian occupation and the utilization of the German Holocaust during World War II for personal financial reward.

In a 4-3 vote the University Board on Promotion and Tenure recommended the denial of tenure, and chose to reject the carefully constructed and elaborately presented peer assessment at the departmental and college level. The U.B.P.T. essentially adopted the Suchar Memorandum’s emphasis on tonality by condemning the lack of niceness in Dr. Finkelstein’s monographs. These non-specialists lacked any evidentiary material that could be used to deny tenure legitimately. According to Fr. Holtschneider, when he proclaimed the DePaul decision to deny Dr. Finkelstein tenure, the U.T.B.T. was upset that books such as Beyond Chutzpah and The Holocaust Industry were “deliberately hurtful,” and possessed an “inflammatory style.” [Emphasis added.]

Without attempting to be reductionist, were the personal feelings of Alan Dershowitz, who ironically claimed to be a victim, the predominant reason for the denial of tenure? Is passion in scholarly discourse when investigating the absence of self-determination and the presence of apartheid in Palestine a violation of Vincentian values? Is scholarship that triggers international debate and awareness of topics that are central to international peace and security worthy of condemnation and dismissal by a university community? Is a professor, upon intensive review, who is exonerated from baseless allegations of academic misconduct, to be crucified on the grounds of pitch and demeanor?

The Norman G. Finkelstein case represents more than one individual’s tragedy and expulsion from the academy. It represents a closing of the American mind. It affirms that revisionist or dissenting scholarship on Israel, the Palestinians, the Holocaust and the influence of the Israel Lobby is fraught with peril that only the tenured few can survive. Graduate students and non-tenured faculty, I am afraid, will avoid legitimate inquiry into these seminal topics for fear that a Dershowitz or other organized entity might engage in a campaign of personal destruction and succeed in intimidating and eviscerating a university’s capacity to exercise impartial judgment and evaluate fairly non-tenured faculty during their probationary period. The DePaul University’s abdication of its responsibility to honor A.A.U.P. guidelines on academic freedom and due process, and to construe itself as a responsible custodian of the broader academic community, suggests the battles ahead for academic freedom, critical thinking and basic justice will require even greater resolve and dedication. “We are all Professor Finkelstein” emblazoned the shirts of the intrepid professor’s supporters at the DePaul University fall convocation and during the first day of classes. Indeed we are: now and forever.

Peter N. Kirstein is professor of history at Saint Xavier University and Vice President of the American Association of University Professors-Illinois Conference

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