One of the more absurd claims emerging from the controversy over giving tenure to Norman Finkelstein at DePaul is the assertion that any opinion on the fitness of a candidate for tenure coming from outside the university is a violation of faculty rights. According to Gil Gott, a professor of international studies at DePaul who is chairman of its Liberal Arts and Sciences' Faculty Governance Council, if a scholar at another university sends an unsolicited letter to a tenure committee or university president, "the sanctity of the tenure and promotion process is violated."
The unsolicited scholarly letter addressed to a tenure committee has a long and honorable place history. Many universities specify the acceptability of unsolicited outside letters. Here is a typical passage from the UCLA personnel handbook.
"Unsolicited letters of evaluation. If an unsolicited letter of evaluation is to be included in the dossier, a letter should first be sent to the writer setting forth the Statement of Confidentiality and asking that individual to respond whether in light of this University policy the letter of evaluation should be included or returned. Please write "Unsolicited" at the top right corner of letter."
It is true is that for a scholar to write and send an unsolicited outside letter is very rare, that when such letters are written they have usually been solicited by the candidate for tenure, and that such letters will be given less weight than outside letters solicited by the committee.
Unsolicited outside letters are coming into increasing use in the sciences, particularly in fields that are developing rapidly. According to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, "Many institutions allow "unsolicited" letters; these will be weighed less than solicited letters are, but they usually will be read, so make sure your most ardent supporters write on your behalf."
The context here has to do with young scientists in rapidly developing fields having trouble getting appointments because stogy old professors divide the world into discrete departments while a lot of cutting-edge work is interdisciplinary. As the AAAS puts it
"So what, exactly, is the problem? On its face, it's that standards of scholarship vary from one field of science to the next. The degree of precision expected by some analytical chemists, for example, may be unattainable by environmental biochemists studying sludge collected from sewage treatment plants. Because a new field has ill-defined standards, or because they aren't widely known, each evaluator may end up applying a different set of standards."
The outside scholarly letter plays a crucial role in explaining the scholarly standards of new and cross-disciplinary fields.
Norman Finkelstein publishes a very different kind of sewage. His career has primarily consisted of publishing a series of vicious ad hominem attacks on Joan Peters, Eli Wiesel, Daniel Goldhagen and, most recently, Alan Dershowitz. Although Finkelstein's body of work has been carefully examined and found wanting by scholars in the fields he writes on, the intense anti-Semitism of his work appeals strongly to certain highly politicized members of the faculty in the social sciences at DePaul.
So Alan Dershowitz wrote an unsolicited outside letter. The letter was requested not by the committee but by an individual, Patrick Callahan, Professor of Political Science at DePaul. Professor Callahan has earned our deep admiration and gratitude.
The correct thing for Alan Dershowitz to have done after receiving Porfessor Callahan's request would have been to send the unsolicited letter directly to the tenure committee, or, on the assumption that this tenure committee was likely to ignore it, to the College Dean or President. But Alan Dershowitz was an angry man, a justifiably, righteously angry man. Finkelstein has smeared and slandered him. Dershowitz struck back not with a discrete, gentlemanly letter to the Dean detailing the myriad outright falsehoods and lies of omission in Finkelstein's work, but with a letter sent to the entire faculty.
There was a time when a gentleman in Alan Dershowitz's position was allowed to call the slanderer out and punch a hole through him with a dueling pistol at twenty paces. In those days, gentlemen only called out other gentlemen. A gentleman dealt with a libelous maw-worm like Norman Finkelstein by horsewhipping him in the public square.
The problem at DePaul is broader than the slander-posing-as-scholarship of Norman Finkelstein. Segments of the DePaul faculty are apparently so intensely anti-Semitic that they are willing to grant tenure to patently inferior scholarship as long as it upholds a hate-narrative of Jewish greed. A tenure or appointment committee formed by such a faculty will naturally solicit letters of evaluation from outside scholars who share their anti-Semitic and Holocaust-minimizing view of the world.
In such a case, the unsolicited outside letter is perhaps the only way that responsible scholarly opinion can reach a fair-minded Dean or College President. To their credit the faculty and administration at DePaul read Alan Dershowitz's letter. All decent people owe a vote of thanks to the honorable and courageous Dean of the College, Charles Sucher, who has recommended that Norman Finkelstein not be given tenure.
As for the unsolicited outside letter, I predict a brilliant future for this step-child of the tenure process. Sometimes a department or an entire scholarly discipline is hijacked by political commitment so intense that even markedly inferior scholarship is applauded and tenure given not because a body of work meets even minimal academic standards, but because it advances a political agenda. In such cases, the unsolicited outside scholarly letter should become the weapon of choice in recovering the academy for disinterested, evidence-based research.