Juan Cole's supporters have taken to portraying the antiwar University of Michigan history professor as a victim of a neoconservative cabal that deep-sixed his job application at Yale. There's only one problem with that conspiracy theory: It's not true.
At the same time when Cole's pursuit of a job at New Haven was gaining so much attention, it turns out he was also applying for a job at Duke and getting passed over there, too. Since no one outside the halls of Duke knew about Cole's interest — this is the first time it has been reported — there was no "concerted press campaign by neoconservatives" such as had plagued his application at Yale; he was evidently passed up for the job on the merits.
In November 2005, Duke announced the creation of an Islamic Studies Center complete with a chaired professorship in Islamic studies, with religious-studies professor Bruce Lawrence as the Center's inaugural director. Shortly afterward, Duke began its search for a professor of modern Islamic studies, and Cole was selected as one of the four finalists. The search stretched across disciplines, and the four finalists consisted of two historians and two political scientists. Members of both departments at the university were encouraged to attend the job presentations of the finalists.
As the first finalist to visit, according to school officials, Cole's presentation was well attended. Most professors had high hopes for the lecture, which focused on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Shiite democratic tradition. After all, as Malachi Hacohen, an associate professor of history, religion, and political science at Duke who attended Cole's lecture, explained, "Cole's earlier work was solid."
But according to several professors familiar with the proceedings, Cole's presentation was unimpressive. According to Hacohen, "It was one of the worst job talks I have heard in my life," "[it was] logically faulty," and "the talk seemed as if it were directed more to CNN viewers than to an academic audience." Michael Munger, chair of Duke's department of political science, explained that Cole's lecture "was just not at a level we were expecting...it was more like an undergraduate lecture."
Whereas several observers of the Yale incident cite faculty division as the principal reason for Cole's rejection (in Yale's history department, only 13 of 23 professors agreed to Cole's appointment), he eventually sank at Duke because his limited interest in academic life was so blatant. As Munger explained, "We wanted someone who had a clear commitment to internal institution building. We wanted someone who was going to build the Islamic Studies Center. And...he was honest that he wasn't that interested in that."
According to others, even Cole's supporters were eventually put off by this ambition. He was forthright about wanting to come to Duke because it's closer to Washington than is Ann Arbor, an attitude that led many of Cole's proponents to believe they were being used. As a former Duke professor of public policy explained, "The question was whether or not his commitment to being a public intellectual overrode his commitment to scholarship." At its best, after all, Duke is in the business of cultivating scholars, not television stars.
When news of Yale's rejection broke, anti-Israeli blogs erupted. Frequent Daily Kos blogger Grand Moff Texan blamed "a bunch of Israel-first, rightwing flacks [who] went and scared Yale's Jewish donors, and they in turn scared administrators at Yale. That's three groups of people right there who need to reconsider what country they live in." At TPMCafe, Richard Silverstein blamed Cole's troubles on a "concerted campaign against him from Yale Jewish donors and other Jewish neocons." And in the pages of The Nation, Philip Weiss blamed Yale's rejection on a "neocon uprising." But since "Jewish neocons" were unaware of Cole's trips to Durham, they couldn't have possibly influenced Duke's proceedings.
Making matters worse for Cole's defenders, Duke's search was chaired by Bruce Lawrence, who, like many on Duke's faculty, is known for his progressive politics. Notwithstanding the political sympathies he certainly elicited, it appears Cole's academic credentials simply did not withstand the test. And so Cole remains in Ann Arbor, and his critics await their apology.
— David White is a writer in Washington. This article was written with support from Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.