When Yale formally hires a professor of Middle East Studies sometime in the next few years, students accustomed to comfortably liberal lecturers may be confronted with a notorious anti-Western firebrand. Faculty at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies (YCIAS) have confirmed that Juan Cole, an openly anti-George W. Bush, DC '68, and anti-Israel history professor at the University of Michigan, is under consideration to fill a new slot as an interdisciplinary professor of contemporary Middle East studies. Whether or not the YCIAS search committee ultimately decides to offer the post to Cole, the possibility of such a controversial figure's coming to Yale has reignited the ongoing campus debate about the role of politicized classes and opinionated professors in a college environment.
One of the main functions of YCIAS is to sponsor frequent talks by visiting professors, including a Mon., Jan. 30 discussion presented by Cole on Islamic political movements in post-Baath Iraq. The Center, directed by Sterling Professor of Political Science Ian Shapiro, also hosts 20 senior scholars and professors. These faculty members, some of whom are fully tenured, have been hired through the University's standard search process and are jointly appointed to multiple academic departments. As YCIAS professors, they must teach in a YCIAS academic program, such as the Ethnicity, Race and Migration or International Studies majors. Such faculty members include star History professors John Gaddis and Ben Kiernan.
Last year, YCIAS created the position of contemporary Middle East Scholar, partly in response to curricular reviews suggesting a need for interdisciplinary studies relevant to current events, according to Search Committee Chair and Sociology Professor Julia Adams. In fall 2005, the search committee of five was formed to find a professor to occupy the new position. The committee has publicized its search worldwide to entice potential applicants, along with reviewing hundreds of academic papers.
According to Adams and Political Science professor Frances Rosenbluth, a member of the search committee, Juan Cole is being considered for the post. Cole's online weblog, "Informed Comment," has made him a minor celebrity and a controversial figure for his outspoken leftist opinions. According to the Middle East Forum, a right-leaning think tank that lists "fighting radical Islam (rather than terrorism)" as one of its aims, Cole has called Israel's Likud political party fascist and claimed that Jewish neo-conservatives have manipulated the American government into waging war in Iraq.
Alex Joffe, a former professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University and the director of Campus Watch, a Forum project that reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North American schools, said that Yale is in danger of sacrificing academic credibility in exchange for the attention a professor such as Juan Cole can bring to campus. "Cole's classes in the modern Middle East, because of his reputation and his name, would be exceptionally well-enrolled," Joffe said. "At the bottom line, he's predictable, a reliable commodity that Yale can buy. Is he the best Middle East historian, is he the best teacher, is he the most penetrating mind that's out there that Yale could find? Certainly not."
YCIAS's search committee has developed a set of criteria that it applies in evaluating applicants to its Middle East Scholar position. Adams explained that the criteria that make a strong candidate are impeccable scholarship and a well-reputed publication record. Beyond those, she added, "The Scholar [will be] someone who can move organically among disciplines, in both research and teaching"—a description, she pointed out,that does not rule out politically controversial figures. "Everybody brings some form of their own politics and their own values into their academic life," Adams said. "What we all hope for and what we really strive for is to make those predilections as absolutely explicit as possible, and then you learn to systematically question them and put them aside and do your scholarship in a way to contest them within yourself."
Besides evoking questions of Cole's specific personal views, his potential appointment and its surrounding controversy raise larger questions about the role of politics in the classroom. When professors are teaching students about the most pressing—and polarizing—subjects of the day, is it possible to keep their classes in the neutral zone?
History Professor Ted Bromund agreed that no classroom can be wholly free of politics. "There can be no courses—not even the sciences—that rely entirely on fact without opinions," he said. "Reading, for instance, cannot cover all points of view: Choosing among the almost infinite options must involve opinion. Informed opinion is still opinion."
According to Gaddis, the greatest danger of politicized classes and openly opinionated professors is that they obviate academic discussion. "There's no way professors can separate their own opinions from what they teach, but these should not be the only views they teach," he said. "And they should always treat their students with respect: There's never an excuse for failing to do this."
Though some degree of bias is unavoidable, Bromund emphasized that the search committee's most important task is to hire professors who avoid politics in the classroom as much as possible. "The finest scholars and teachers are not entirely apolitical, or non-political, but they are ones that seek to limit the role of politics" in their scholarship, he said. "Committees should not necessarily shy away from a scholar who has achieved fame or notoriety for non-academic work."
Presenting a wide range of perspectives may be even more central to the mission of YCIAS than other departments: The center often treats the most relevant foreign policy questions of the day, with questions on the Middle East among the most divisive. Nancy Ruther, associate director of the YCIAS, insisted that the center preserves a diversity of views in its faculty and speakers, in accordance with its philosophy of balanced coverage. "We hosted the Taliban foreign minister when the Taliban regime was in charge; we hosted a panel for the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel," she said. "To have all range of views represented in every lecture is simply a pipe dream. Across the board, our Middle Easternists do a very good job keeping a wide range of views represented."
Yet according to Michael Oren, a visiting fellow in international security studies and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, figures such as Cole overstep the boundaries of political freedom in the classroom. On Feb. 17, 2003, Cole wrote in an online post, "Apparently [Bush] has fallen for a line from the neo-cons in his administration that they can deliver the Jewish vote to him in 2004 if only he kisses Sharon's ass." Oren said of this comment, "Clearly, that's anti-Semitism; that's not a criticism of Israeli policy. If you're accusing Jews of manipulating the American government to fight wars for Israel without any evidence, then that's not legitimate criticism; that's in the area of racial hatred."
Still, Cole can claim a number of supporters, especially among his students, many of whom find him dynamic, funny, and enthusiastic. Miriam Liebman, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, said Cole's course "America and Middle Eastern Wars" last semester was substantive and informative. "It was a great class, one of the best classes I've taken at Michigan," she said. Liebman admitted that Cole is openly far left and that his political opinions pervaded his lectures. "But I never saw it as a big deal," she said. "I don't think the goal of the class is to brainwash 250 Michigan students into thinking the way he does. I think any professor you have will be biased one way or another."
But Naamah Paley, another sophomore who took his class, pointed out that a professor can profoundly influence and alter students' perceptions of a controversial and complex topic. According to Paley, Cole's lecture on the history of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was given on Rosh Hashanah, when no religious Jewish students were present in class to contest his views. Moreover, Paley said Cole's midterm exam concentrated on the controversial massacres at the Arab village of Deir Yassin and Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon rather than on balanced coverage of Israeli history.
For Paley, moreover, the close-minded opinions of a political firebrand like Cole can alienate and stifle students. Earlier this year, Paley met with Cole to discuss her interest in studying abroad in Egypt next year. Yet she said she feared engaging Cole in an argument or even mentioning her Judaism or Zionist beliefs. "I didn't want him to see me in his eyes as a Jewish student, but as a serious student of Middle East studies who wanted to talk to him about Arabic," she said.
Respecting student wishes is the driving force behind YCIAS's quest for a Middle East Scholar. Yalies have taken Arabic and Middle East Studies classes in larger numbers than ever before—and have clamored vociferously for expansion in both programs. The stakes are high for the University, where the nation's first Middle East Studies department was established in 1841, and which has struggled to regain its niche since; according to Oren, Yale is no longer the place for top-notch Middle East studies. A careful choice in the appointment of this new scholar could be the first step to returning the University to that position.