The decision of the Political Science department and the Middle East Center to sponsor Norman Finkelstein's speech last night upheld a fundamental duty of the University: to provide an open forum for students and faculty to engage in a well-informed, fair debate and discussion on controversial subjects.
Finkelstein is undoubtedly controversial, and his opinions have generated tremendous debate across campus about the nature of anti-Semitism, Israel and academic freedom. Encouraging this kind of dialogue alone made Finkelstein a worthy speaker, but there are several other reasons why the Political Science department and the Middle East Center were right not to withdraw their offer.
The financial sponsorship of Finkelstein was in no way an endorsement of his views. Rather, the Penn community should have seen it as an opportunity to confront a scholar whose work is hotly contested, not to mention unpopular in many circles.
While his views may seem radical, or even offensive, to many at Penn, that cannot be a reason to tune out what he has to say. A number of future speakers may encounter passionate resistance from certain student-interest groups, and withdrawing sponsorship of Finkelstein would have set a dangerous precedent; departments would no longer invite controversial speakers in the fear of such response.
Whether or not students agree with Finkelstein is up to them to decide. Many have questioned the credibility of Finkelstein's research as well as his thoughts on Israel, but to use this as a reason to withdraw sponsorship would have threatened the future ability of departments to bring in other scholars who represent minority, or even radical, fields of research.
The University is home to academics coming from all walks of life and beliefs. Even if no one at Penn agrees with Finkelstein's research, he is a published, highly public figure. It is our job as academics to engage him in debate as we would with any other person proclaiming themselves to be taking part in scholarly research.