What We Can’t Teach: Norman Finkelstein, DePaul and the Suppression of Academic Freedom

This paper was presented at the Associated Colleges of the Chicago Area (ACCA) Symposium on Pedagogy at  Lewis University, October 17, 2009. The proposal was submitted prior to its publication which appeared a few weeks before the conference.* It also includes transgressions and assaults from other opponents of progressive exchange in the classroom such as Daniel Pipes’s conformist Campus Watch and the noted conservative editor and author David Horowitz.

During war, American democracy is imperiled less by external threats than by demands for internal conformity that restrict free speech. Despite the mythic belief that America’s wars extend democracy and preserve civil liberties, they frequently are accompanied by rampant nationalism that dehumanizes the enemy and demands reverential patriotism. “War is the health of the state” was the sardonic observation of essayist and progressive intellectual Randolph Bourne during World War I when ruling elites maximized their power  by seeking total allegiance to the state.[1] Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler abolished academic freedom on his campus in 1917 during the Great War when he issued at commencement a “warning to any among us … who are not with whole heart and mind and strength committed to fight with us to make the whole world safe for democracy.”[2] Edward Bemis may have been the first professor dismissed for extramural activities while teaching at the University of Chicago. He tried to mediate an end to the epic Pullman Strike in 1894. Scott Nearing, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, became the first fired progressive professor for opposing child labor in the coal mines in 1915.[3] Supporting antiwar and internationalist activism have replaced antiestablishment economic advocacy as the most likely to unleash challenges  to academic freedom.

During the height of cold-war McCarthyism from 1952 to 1954, nationalistic show trials and suppression of dissent was notorious when hundreds of academics were fired for resisting congressional inquiries into alleged Communist Party affiliation. First Amendment and Fifth Amendment efforts to avoid self-incrimination were disallowed by this crusade for militant anticommunism. Thirty-seven presidents from leading universities issued a statement disparaging the “fitness” of any professor unwilling to report or silence alleged communists or opponents of the cold war. Also, hundreds of secondary-school teachers were purged after a “local loyalty probe” or following testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.[4]

Academic freedom is defined by the landmark American Association of University Professors “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” Academic freedom gives professors the right to pursue research and publish its results; academicians have “freedom in the classroom” to determine their pedagogy. Instructors have the right to “speak and write as citizens …[and] should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”[5] Professors should strive for accuracy, respect the opinions of others, and not claim to speak for their institution.[6] “A faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for continuing service. …In a democratic society freedom of speech is an indispensable right of the citizen.”[7] In Keyishian v. Board of Regents, academic freedom was dramatically elevated by the Supreme Court to a quasi-constitutional right. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. delivered the majority opinion:

Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. … The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth.[8]

While not as sweeping as Keyishian, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke reaffirmed “academic freedom, though not a specifically enumerated constitutional right, long has been viewed as a special concern of the First Amendment.” A university must have the “freedom… to make its own judgments as to education …”[9] Nevertheless since World War I, academic freedom has periodically been vulnerable to war’s conformist regimen and its attendant emphasis on ideological obedience.

The threat to academic freedom is multidimensional. Overt government repression, “departmental colleagues, university administrators, students, trustees, media pundits, organized campaigns by groups unrelated to the university and local politicians” attempt to police and regulate academic speech, teaching, and research.[10] Subsequent to September 11, 2001, there emerged a comprehensive campaign against academic freedom. The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, followed by the “Global War on Terror,” now called “Overseas Contingency Operation” by the Barack Obama administration, exacerbated the culture wars and unleashed organized crusades against critical thinking. At risk were academicians who denounced the Iraq war, questioned the innocence of America prior to the 9/11 attacks, and rejected U.S. support of Israel’s continued brutal occupation of Palestine and Syria’s Golan Heights.

Norman G. Finkelstein was an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University. He is a transformative, daring scholar who published The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.[11] Finkelstein claimed that elements of the Jewish community exploit the sufferings of the Holocaust to advance Israel’s geostrategic interests and gratuitously exaggerate the prevalence of anti-Semitism in order to deflect criticism from its forty-two year occupation of Palestinian land with its expanding settlement population. The son of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein’s parents survived the Warsaw Ghetto and Nazi death camps during World War II.[12]

In Beyond Chutzpah, Finklestein relentlessly assails Alan M. Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel.[13] He claims the work is inaccurate, that Dershowitz disingenuously cites primary sources that were not consulted but instead lifted from other authors’ footnotes, and that the entire work is essentially derivative from the discredited scholarship of Joan Peters. Peters claimed erroneously an absence of a Palestinian presence in the areas from which Israel was created in 1948. The Case for Israel is dismissed. The book is portrayed as mere propaganda to justify Israel’s colonization of Palestine.[14] Dershowitz, Frankfurter Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, attempted to prevent the University of California Press from publishing Beyond Chutzpah with a direct appeal to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and threatened defamation litigation if charges of plagiarism and nonauthorship of The Case for Israel were not redacted from the published text.[15] The governor’s office responded by informing Dershowitz that, “You have asked for the Governor’s assistance in preventing the publication of this book … [but] he is not inclined to otherwise exert influence in this case because of the clear, academic freedom issue it presents.”[16]

For almost two years Dershowitz tried to derail Finkelstein’s application for tenure and promotion through a sustained media blitz. Dershowitz used the Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post, InsiderHigherEd.com, The New Republic online, FrontPageMag.com, his own website, and other venues to oppose the granting of tenure to the DePaul professor. Dershowitz referred to Finkelstein as an “anti-Semite,” his publications as “trash,” and called him a “neo-Nazi supporter, a Holocaust trivializer, and a liar … and … like a little worm.”[17] Political Science Professor Patrick Callahan requested on June 15, 2007 that Dershowitz share with the Political Science Department Personnel Committee more than 50 pages of allegations concerning Finkelstein’s putative academic misconduct. Callahan opposed granting tenure to Finkelstein and warned the Personnel Committee that if it did not consider the Dershowitz dossier, he would distribute it to the entire department.[18] Dershowitz eagerly complied and sent these j’accuse materials to the Department of Political Science and even the DePaul University College of Law faculty.

The twelve-member Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Faculty Governance Council decided on November 17, 2007 to send a letter to the president of Harvard University, the Harvard Law School dean, and DePaul University President Reverend Dennis H. Holtschneider. The Faculty Governance Council wanted their support in ending Dershowitz’s highly publicized intrusion into the proceedings of the university’s personnel-review process.[19] The Political Science department’s Personnel Committee unanimously rejected by 4-0 all charges of academic misconduct and dishonesty claimed by Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, and Peter Novick. The Department of Political Science recommended by a 9-3 majority the granting of tenure and promotion to associate professor. The five-person College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Personnel Committee voted unanimously for Finkelstein’s tenure and promotion. Callahan, a former department chair, Michael L. Mezey, the previous dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Jim Block submitted a minority report opposing Finklestein’s tenure.

The dean of the college, Chuck Suchar, rejected the departmental and college-level recommendations for promotion and tenure in a memorandum on March 22, 2007, which was first published in its entirety on my web log on April 5, 2007.[20] Suchar’s main argument in opposing Finkelstein receiving tenure was the tone and supposed lack of civility in his writings and interactions with colleagues. The dean’s outrageous claim that the professor lacked collegiality toward departmental colleagues was based upon a rumor from the “General Consul’s  [sic] office,” that Finkelstein “was considering filing a law suit” against those opposing his tenure.[21] The right to litigate and sue is an American right that should not be cited as a lack of collegiality to deny an academician tenure and promotion to associate professor.

He avers that “the tone and substance … [are] inconsistent with DePaul’s Vincentian values.” Suchar provides a single example from a huge body of published work to claim grave rhetorical misconduct: “My reading of Dr. Finkelstein’s work, especially The Holocaust Industry, where in one chapter alone Goldhagen, [Benny] Morris, [Elie] Wiesel, [Jerzy] Kosinski and many others are collectively attacked as ‘hoaxters and huxters,’ typifies his apparent penchant of reducing an argument and oppositional views to the inevitable personal and reputation damaging attack, demeaning those with whom he disagrees.”[22]

DePaul University is a Roman Catholic institution founded under the charism of the Vincentians, a priestly religious order. In The Holocaust Industry, the second chapter, pp. 39–78, is titled with correctly spelled words: “Hoaxers, Hucksters, and History.” This is in reference to Zionists who used the Holocaust to exaggerate Israel’s vulnerability and to extract excessive reparations from successor governments or financial institutions allegedly complicit with Germany during World War II.

Dershowitz’s compilation of alleged Finkelstein transgressions also contained this accusation: “Among the dozen or so Jewish writers whose careers Finkelstein has tried to destroy with the same accusations—‘fraud,’ ‘huxter,’ ‘shake-down artist,’ ‘plagiarist’—he has only ever written a full book about one other: Daniel Goldhagen”[23] (emphasis added). Suchar also misspelled “huckster” as “huxter.” It is arguable the DePaul University dean used Dershowitz’s misspelling of “huckster” and other egregious charges in compiling his anti-tenure memorandum.

The Finkelstein case became a cause célèbre that galvanized groups across the political spectrum. The Guardian, Haaretz, and The Jerusalem Post provided spacious coverage of the academic freedom controversy. [24] The Middle East Studies Association, the Illinois Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the DePaul Academic Freedom Committee wrote letters and conducted public fora in support of Finklestein. Opponents included neoconservatives and ardent supporters of an Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy.[25]

On May 11, 2007, DePaul’s University Board on Promotion and Tenure (UBPT) voted 4-3 against the granting of tenure to Norman Finkelstein. On June 8, 2007, Holtschneider announced that Finkelstein had been denied tenure and on September 5, 2007 a settlement was reached between the parties.[26] Mehrene E. Larudee, assistant professor of International Studies and director-designate of the International Studies Program, was an intrepid supporter of Finkelstein.[27] She was the only other probationary-faculty member in 2007 who was denied tenure in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Unlike Finkelstein, Suchar recommended her for tenure and promotion but Larudee was still denied tenure by Holtschneider upon receiving a non-recommendation by the UBPT.[28]

Ideologically inspired interest groups that engaged the post–9/11 world in cold-war Manichaean terms of good (United States) versus evil (“Islamofascism”), have attempted to cleanse ideologically progressive internationalists from the academy. In September 2002, Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, launched his “Campus Watch” website to blacklist and marginalize progressive Middle Eastern scholars who were described as fifth columnists, supporters of “radical Islam,” and apologists for terrorism. Middle East specialists who did not support Israel in its conflict with the stateless Palestinians were smeared with charges of ideologically distorted scholarship and displaying bias toward pro-Israel students. Pipes’s censorious campaign triggered a robust challenge when hundreds of nonspecialists demanded that their names be included alongside the Campus Watch blacklist. Pipes then published a companion list with a McCarthyism-invoking title, “Solidarity with the Apologists.”[29] Both lists were eventually removed from Pipes’s Campus Watch website.

In 2004, the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership produced an incendiary film, “Columbia Unbecoming,” that attacked Columbia University’s Middle East Asian Languages and Cultures Department as anti-Semitic and discriminatory against ideologically oppositional students. Although Columbia’s Barnard College anthropology Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj was granted tenure in the fall of 2007, her seminal monograph, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, generated websites, blogs, and online petitions that demanded her dismissal.[30] Her book instigated a propaganda campaign between Israel Firsters, who charged the book was fatally flawed and even anti-Semitic, and revisionists—who supported her critique of Israeli archeologists who politicized and extrapolated a dubious biblical claim to the territory of the current State of Israel.[31]

Like the Phoenix, a New McCarthyism has arisen as academicians are bullied and intimidated by highly partisan ideological-presssure groups. Thought police contributing to this recrudescence of a new age of conformity include NoIndoctrination.org, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, founded by Lynn Cheney, David Horowitz Freedom Center, Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom, media pundit Laura Ingraham and Roger Kimball, editor and publisher of The New Criterion. Horowitz’s online magazine, FrontPageMag.com, engages in a relentless stream of vituperative attacks [32]against socially activist academics.[33]

His most daring book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, attempts to identify the most radical and “un-American” scholars and is quite similar to the 1950 McCarthy-era Red Channels blacklist. Horowitz argues that social sciences and humanities faculties are riddled with disloyal professors who “spew violent anti-Americanism, preach anti-Semitism, and cheer on the killing of American soldiers and civilians.”[34] His most recent work, One Party Classroom, continues his allegation that professors have transformed traditional pedagogy into crusading Marxist and victim-emphasizing propaganda. Horowitz berates and mocks socially conscious instructors who offer courses in Peace Studies, Women Studies and race and ethnic discrimination. [35]

Such is the state of academic freedom in America today.

[1]. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 297.

[2]. Robert Post, “The Structure of Academic Freedom,” in Academic Freedom after September 11, ed. Beshara Doumani (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2006), 61. Somewhat ironically Butler shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Jane Addams in 1931.

[3]. Bertell Ollman, “The Ideal of Academic Freedom as the Ideology of Academic Repression, American Style,” 1, “Freedoms at Risk Conference,” New York University, February 23, 2008.

[4]. Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd ed. (New York: Bedford Books, 2002), 37–38.

[5]. “1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure,” A.A.U.P. Policy Documents and Reports,“Redbook,” 10th ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 3.

[6]. Ibid., 4.

[7]. “Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances,” A.A.U.P. Policy Documents and Reports, “Redbook,” 9th ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 32.

[8]. Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 DELETE, 603 (1967); Thomas L. Tedford and Dale A. Herbeck, Freedom of Speech in the United States, 5th ed. (State College, PA: Strata Publishing, 2005), 316–317.

[9]. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).

[10]. Project of the Taskforce on Middle East Anthropology, “Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility after 9/11 : A Handbook for Scholars and Teachers,” 2006, 4–5.

[11]. Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Human Suffering, 2nd ed. (New York: Verso Press, 2003); Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[12]. Patricia Cohen, “Outspoken Political Scientist Denied Tenure at DePaul,” New York Times, June 11, 2007.

[13]. Alan Dershowitz, The Case for Israel (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

[14]. Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial (New York: Harper and Row, 1984).

[15]. Alan Dershowitz, “Tsuris over Chutzpah,” The Nation, August 29/September 5, 2005, 2.

[16]. Jon Weiner, “Weiner Replies,” The Nation, August 29/September 5, 2005, 2, 30.

[17]. Jeffrey Felshman, “Whose Holocaust Is It Anyway?: Why Alan Dershowitz Wants DePaul Professor Norman Finkelstein Fired,” Chicago Reader, August 26, 2005.

[18]. DePaul Political Science Department, “Personnel Committee,” November 1, 2006, http://english.sxu.edu/sites/kirstein/?p=696.

[19] Michal Lando, “Dershowitz, Finkelstein and a Bitter Tenure Battle,” Jerusalem Post, April 19, 2007, http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?apage=2&cid=1176152838045&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull ; Christopher Brown, “Academic Repression Update/A Question of Scholarship,” The Advocate (CUNY Graduate Center), May 4, 2007. http://gcadvocate.org/index.php?action=view&id=151.

[20]. Peter N. Kirstein blog: http://english.sxu.edu/sites/kirstein/?p=680.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Ibid., http://english.sxu.edu/sites/kirstein/?p=680;

[23]. Ibid., http://english.sxu.edu/sites/kirstein/?p=691.

[24]. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jun/12/usa.highereducation; http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1176152838045; http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/901583.html.

[25]. For opposition to the granting of tenure see Steven Plaut, “The Finkelstein Affair,” FrontPageMag.com, April 23, 2007, http://frontpagemag.com/Articles/Read.aspx?GUID=9B47A2C9-CA6B-43DE-9D09-970B2EE29405; Phrase “Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy” from Roger Cohen, “The Fierce Urgency of Peace,” New York Times, March 26, 2009.

[26]. http://sherman.depaul.edu/media/webapp/mrNews2.asp?NID=1655.

[28]. Sierra Millman, “DePaul Professor Who Supported Finkelstein Also Was Denied Tenure,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2007.

[29]. Colin Wright, “Editorial Introduction”; “Campus Watch: Surveying a Non-Apologetic Solidarity,” Situation Analysis 3 (Spring 2004): 1–20.

[30]. Jane Kramer, “The Petition: Israel, Palestine, and a Tenure Battle at Barnard,” New Yorker, April 14, 2008, 50–59.

[31]. “Israel Firster” term encountered on Tikun Olam blog, http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/.

[33]. Steven Plaut, “The Eviction of Norman Finkelstein,” FrontPageMag, May 29, 2008. Finkelstein’s denial of tenure is embraced and he is slandered as a “crackpot” and for supporting “Holocaust denial.” http://frontpagemag.com/Articles/Read.aspx?GUID=94D46D9E-C1E5-4CE9-99BF-7C1EF803CADA.

[34]. David Horowitz, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2006); Quotation is from inside cover. I was included among the 101 professors. See also David Horowitz, Indoctrination U (New York: Encounter Books, 2007).

[35]. David Horowitz, One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy (New York: Crown Forum, 2009).

*These were excerpted from the recently published book chapter:  “Challenges to Academic Freedom Since 9/11,” in Matthew Morgan, ed., The Impact of 9/11 and the New Legal Landscape: The Day That Changed Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 57-74.


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