Juan Cole, one of the country's top Middle East scholars, was poised for the biggest step of his career.
A tenured professor at the University of Michigan, Cole was tapped earlier this year by a Yale University search committee to teach about the modern Middle East. In two separate votes in May, Cole was approved by both the sociology and history departments, the latter the university's largest.
The only remaining hurdle was the senior appointments committee, also known as the tenure committee, a group consisting of about a half-dozen professors from various disciplines across the university.
Last week, however, in what is shaping up as the latest in a series of heated battles over the political affiliations of Middle Eastern studies professors, the tenure committee voted down Cole's nomination. Several Yale faculty members described the decision to overrule the votes of the individual departments as "highly unusual."
The reasons behind the rejection remain unknown; several calls to a Yale spokeswoman went unreturned.
But university insiders say that the uncharacteristic rebuff may have been influenced by several factors, central among them the political commentary Cole writes on his blog, "Informed Comment." They also contend that Cole's nomination was torpedoed mainly by senior professors in both departments who were concerned with Cole's controversial persona.
Often favoring a pugilistic tone and consistently criticizing Israel's policies in the West Bank, Cole has attracted a visibility that has made him a favorite target of several conservative commentators.
When Cole's potential hiring became publicly known, several of his detractors, including the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin and Washington Times columnist Joel Mowbray, took various steps to protest the decision. They wrote op-ed pieces in various publications and Mowbray went as far as to send a letter to a dozen of Yale's major donors, many of whom are Jewish, urging them to call the university and protest Cole's hiring.
Cole, while refusing to comment on the tenure committee's vote, told The Jewish Week he believes that "the concerted press campaign by neoconservatives against me, which was a form of lobbying the higher administration, was inappropriate and a threat to academic integrity.
"The articles published in the Yale Standard, the New York Sun, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, and the Washington Times, as part of what was clearly an orchestrated campaign, contained made-up quotes, inaccuracies, and false charges," he said. "The idea that I am any sort of anti-Jewish racist because I think Israel would be better off without the occupied territories is bizarre, but I fear that a falsehood repeated often enough and in high enough places may begin to lose its air of absurdity."
"The issue is complicated," according to one Jewish official at the University of Michigan who asked not to be named, "because Cole is seen as a scholar who does not intimidate students in class with his Mideast views, but has an appalling Web site, highly critical of Israel. So what are the boundaries of outside behavior affecting academic decisions?"
Opponents Go On The Offensive
Cole's saga with Yale began earlier this year when a search committee was formed to find a Middle Eastern studies professor to teach at the Yale Center for International and Areas Studies, a joint position of the history and sociology departments.
Political science professor Frances Rosenbluth, who was part of the search committee, said that Cole emerged as a clear choice.
"The committee read his work very thoroughly, in conjunction with the work of other scholars," Rosenbluth told The Jewish Week. "We interviewed other people, we sent out letters to the field of contemporary Middle Eastern studies, and [Cole] is very highly regarded as a scholar. That's why the committee made its recommendation."
But before Cole was even named as a candidate, some opponents took to the op-ed pages of various newspapers to press their case.
Writing in the Yale Daily News on April 18, Rubin, a neoconservative who often writes about the need for a strong U.S. policy against Iran, accused Cole of having "abandoned scholarship in favor of blog commentary."
The same day, Eliana Johnson, a Yale undergraduate, and Mitchell Webber, a Yale graduate who is now a law student and a research assistant for Alan Dershowitz at Harvard Law School, published an op-ed in the conservative New York Sun. Echoing many of Rubin's points, Johnson and Webber referred to Cole as the "professor best known for disparaging the participation of prominent American Jews in government."
Those op-eds had little to say about Cole's academic background, focusing most of their criticism on what the Michigan professor had written on his blog. Both pieces appeared to blur the distinction between American Jews and some Bush administration officials. On Aug. 29, 2004, for example, Cole wrote a blog entry calling several Bush neoconservatives "pro-Likud intellectuals" who wish "to use the Pentagon as Israel's Gurkha regiment, fighting elective wars on behalf of Tel Aviv."
Referring to the entry in his op-ed for the Yale Daily News, Rubin contends that Cole "accuses Jewish Americans of using the Pentagon as Israel's Gurkha regiment." Similarly, Webber and Johnson claim that "according to Mr. Cole, American Jews both inside and out of government are primarily loyal to Israel and subvert American interests for those of the Jewish State."
"These articles," said Cole, "attempted to make my critiques of the Likud, on both sides of the Atlantic, look like an attack on American Jewry in general, which is manifestly not the case. For these people, Likud equals Israel equals Jews, so all criticism of revisionist Zionism and Greater Israel expansionism is anti-Semitic."
Despite the op-ed pieces, Cole's nomination was brought to the history and sociology departments, both of which voted in late May, to approve Cole's hiring. The history department, according to several sources in the faculty, approved Cole with 13 members supporting the appointment, seven opposing it and three abstaining.
The approval gave rise to a renewed wave of activity. Writing in the conservative Washington Times on May 22, columnist Joel Mowbray wrote a sharp critique of Cole, attacking the professor's tendency to label those who disagree with him as Likudniks, Zionists or neocons.
Letter To Donors
Then Mowbray went a step further. He drafted a letter, which he forwarded to a dozen of Yale's prominent donors, most of whom are Jewish, urging them to make their disapproval of Cole's hiring known.
"Yale is poised to hire and award tenure to a professor who doubts that the 9-11 attacks had any connection to fundamentalist Islam, blames Israel for causing terror attacks against the U.S. and contends that Iran's nuclear ambitions are only a threat in the minds of American ‘neocons' and their Tel Aviv counterparts," reads the letter, a copy of which Mowbray sent to The Jewish Week.
"A large measure of the university's reputation is based on the respect of its scholars and the authority of their published work. So who is this ‘scholar' that Yale so desperately wants to hire?"
The letter goes on to address Cole's "non-scholarly temperament" (citing one particularly profane entry from Cole's blog), as well as his "predilection for name-calling over honest debate."
Last week, as Cole's hiring was being discussed by the tenure committee, the letter's recipients apparently weighed in, according to sources. Several faculty members said they had heard that at least four major Jewish donors, whose identity the faculty members did not know, have contacted officials at the university urging that Cole's appointment be denied.
And while most faculty members contacted for this piece agree that it is highly improbable that outside pressure played a part in the tenure committee's decision, the letters and the subsequent calls suggest a campaign to discredit Cole.
The major opposition to Cole, most faculty members interviewed for this story agree, came from within the departments themselves. At least two faculty members said they had witnessed senior professors at both departments attempt to influence their peers to vote against Cole.
One university insider familiar with the case said that there may be several reasons why the tenure committee shot down Cole's appointment.
First, according to the source, most of Cole's scholarship pertains to the Baha'i faith and is limited to the 18th and 19th centuries, a liability for a professor charged with teaching about the contemporary Middle East.
Second, the source continued, Cole appears to lack in collegiality, as his penchant for combative blog entries and personal spats with detractors might make him an unnerving fixture on Yale.
Finally, Cole's politics may have played a role, though a less important one than the other two factors, said the source.
Whatever the reasons, Cole will not be relocating from Michigan to Connecticut, and the campaigns, both internal and external, over the nature of Middle Eastern studies in campuses across the country seem unlikely to abate.