The history department is considering hiring a Middle Eastern studies professor from Columbia University whose potential appointment last semester to a newly-endowed chair intensified the already-heated debate over the politics of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton.
Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia's Middle East Institute and an advocate for Palestine, was considered earlier this year for the Robert Niehaus '78 Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies.
He is now the only candidate under consideration for the Rosengarten Chair in Modern and Contemporary History. The position is currently held by North Africa and Middle East expert Robert Tignor, a former department chair who is retiring at the end of the academic year, current history chair Jeremy Adelman said in an interview Wednesday evening.
Though Princeton ultimately concluded he wasn't a match for the Niehaus chair, Adelman said that Khalidi so impressed the University search committee that Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin asked the history department to consider him for a position there.
In the spring, some prominent members of the campus Jewish community vehemently objected to Khalidi's candidacy for the Niehaus chair, painting his views as extremist. Others, however, hailed him as a serious scholar whose political views shouldn't be taken into account in a hiring decision. Khalidi has been associated with a storm of controversy at Columbia over a perceived bias in that institution's Middle Eastern studies program.
Khalidi, who is currently at the University for a week-long appointment as the Lawrence Stone Visiting Professor in the history department, declined to comment on his candidacy.
University officials insisted that Khalidi wasn't "passed over" for the Niehaus job because of his political views or otherwise. They said, rather, that the position was more geared toward a scholar of Islam — someone with a primary background in religion, not history. Officials suggested that with so many good candidates in the running, they wanted to find an academic home at Princeton for as many scholars as possible.
"You could have imagined a scenario where all of the candidates interviewed were so breathtaking that the University would try to find positions for all of them in different departments," Adelman said. "So [the administration] made a recommendation for the Khalidi appointment to go to the history department to consider ... The passing over [suggestion] is ridiculous."
Citing his longstanding policy of not discussing personnel matters, Dobkin declined to comment on Khalidi's candidacy for the history job, which was first reported on Wednesday by the New York Sun.
Because the Niehaus chair is not tied to any particular department, professors from several departments were involved in that "University-wide" search. The Rosengarten chair, however, belongs only to the history department.
"The [Niehaus search] committee last year did a very thorough job looking at the field and I trust my colleagues ... made a cogent recommendation to the administration," Adelman said. "The administration thought long and hard about the recommendation [for the Niehaus position] and then they recommended that the history department consider Khalidi."
Though Adelman and Tignor, who was also interviewed Wednesday, both said that a decision has been made about whom the Niehaus position will be offered to, they declined to say who was selected for the job or if the candidate has accepted.
Senior history professors will review Khalidi's candidacy sometime this winter, Adelman said. If the faculty supports him, his name will go to Nassau Hall for consideration by a committee of senior faculty, deans, the provost and the president.
On Wednesday, Adelman reaffirmed comments he made in April that any departmental vote on Khalidi's candidacy would look strictly at his scholarship.
"This would be no exception — up or down on the scholarship," Adelman said at the time. "We have conservatives, radicals, all kinds. It's a big place. And, if we started to be close-minded, we could watch our rankings slide pretty systemically."
Khalidi's candidacy for a position at Princeton was first reported in April and immediately sparked controversy. At the time, Arlene Pedovitch '80, then the director of the Center for Jewish Life, told The Daily Princetonian that some alumni had complained to her about Khalidi's possible appointment. They were concerned that he had a "political agenda rather than a scholarly approach to history," she said at the time.
Her comments immediately drew criticism from Wilson School professor and Center for Jewish Life board member Stanley Katz, who criticized Pedovitch in internal email messages that were leaked to the news media. "I think that CJL has an obligation to make clear that it respects academic judgments and that it can distinguish between politics and academics," Katz said in an email to Pedovitch and CJL board chair Henry Farber GS '77.