I was surprised to read Alan Dershowitz's guest column in Monday's DP. Although it reiterates some views that I have been told he expressed in a talk at Penn last week, I thought by now he would have looked into the facts.
Let me clarify how our department decides whether to cosponsor an event at the request of a Penn student group.
We vet such requests frequently. I typically (certainly in this case) consult with colleagues who have expertise on the subject to be addressed at the event. This usually helps us (as in this case) to find out if the proposed speaker is a person who is sufficiently important, interesting and qualified to make his/her presence on campus a useful way to inform the Penn community or (as in this case) to encourage discussion and debate. I was assured by one of our eminent Middle East experts that Professor Finkelstein was indeed a worthwhile, though controversial, speaker.
Finkelstein earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University and is currently an Assistant Professor at DePaul. He has published books and articles that address important issues about which scholars and public intellectuals sharply disagree.
Although some have mistakenly claimed otherwise, Finkelstein does not deny the fact of the Nazi holocaust that killed millions of Jews. He does, however, controversially assert that some have subsequently used the reality of the holocaust to serve political and personal agendas with which he disagrees.
Regardless of what one thinks about the persuasiveness of Finkelstein's published work, it is viewed by others as serious and worthy of discussion. Dershowitz cites one review of Finkelstein's book, but ignores many others that critically engage his work, rather than dismissing it.
Such critiques underscore an important point: Those who disagree with Finkelstein have a right, some would say an obligation, to refute his argument by addressing its evidence, logic and conclusions. That is what we do at universities in a free society.
Professor Dershowitz wonders, "Would the political science department co-sponsor a talk by David Duke?" Almost certainly the answer is, "no."
As Dershowitz surely understands, Duke has not established himself as a serious scholar doing serious work. He does not meet the criteria for co-sponsorship that I explain above. Duke is, in fact, no more than a red herring that Dershowitz introduces to confuse the real principles of free speech and academic freedom that are at stake.
But perhaps it would be helpful for me to be specific about the types of co-sponsoring requests that I routinely reject. I turn down requests from groups who seek co-sponsorship to bring a political candidate or interest group to campus to recruit supporters. Thus, I have rejected entreaties from candidates for the U.S. Senate and from at least one Philadelphia mayoral candidate, explaining to them that I could only consider sponsoring such events if all contenders were on hand.
Finally, let me add one final point about such decisions. Even when I do decide to co-sponsor events, when they touch on sensitive topics, I normally prefer that speakers with diverse views are given an opportunity to come to campus.
Indeed, at the same time I decided to co-sponsor the Finkelstein talk, I agreed to co-sponsor another Penn student group which is bringing Walid Phares to campus. Mr. Phares is known for his strong support for Israel, and as I understand it (partly thanks to consulting my colleague who knows the field) close to the neo-conservative camp in D.C. when it comes to recommending appropriate US policy towards Israel and the Middle East.
I wish that Professor Dershowitz had bothered to contact me to ask about the facts and procedures I have described. It is troubling that he did not, but more troubling that he feels justified in demanding that Penn act in a fashion that would jeopardize the sort of climate of academic freedom and free speech that should prevail on a university campus. Students and faculty should be free to hear competing views, challenge them on their evidence and logic, and learn from the experience.
Dershowitz is asking us to bow to certain criteria of political correctness that he embraces as a litmus test for screening speakers. I am unwilling to bow to that kind of pressure from any direction and hope others, especially those at whose pleasure I serve, share that view and will join me in making it clear where Penn stands on the matter of free inquiry and debate.
Avery Goldstein is the chairman of the Political Science department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.