Call it "Academic Survivor."
Only instead of an island in the middle of nowhere, the contestants vie in the halls and classrooms of esteemed institutes of higher learning.
Players -- assistant professors -- do what they think it takes to make it through years of grueling work. They publish gobs of research, teach large classes of students and spend nights and weekends performing public service. They foster alliances with other professors and hope to be accepted as a part of the university tribe.
But every year, at thousands of colleges and universities across the nation, some faculty are voted off the island.
They are denied tenure, or the privilege of a lifetime contract to work at the university with little fear of losing their job.
Normally, the entire process takes place entirely behind closed doors. Rarely does a case offer the world a detailed look at the process, as controversial Holocaust scholar Norman Finkelstein's ouster from DePaul did earlier this month.
That look showed just how nasty the fighting can get.
Confidential documents in the Finkelstein case reveal a script worthy of reality TV, including claims of feuding among colleagues, slamming doors and cursing professors.
Factors like "collegiality" -- which no one can really define -- get involved.
"Universities are fraught with politics," said Diane Dean, an assistant professor of higher education administration and policy at Illinois State University who used the "Survivor" analogy to describe the process. "That's how they've always been."
Whether Finkelstein's research was "scholarly" was at the heart of the debate. His supporters said he did solid, cutting-edge research. But his critics claim it was largely political advocacy that was laced with personal attacks on his opponents.
DePaul president Dennis Holtschneider agreed with the critics, noting in his rejection letter that DePaul's handbook compels faculty to "respect and defend the free inquiry of associates" and to "show due respect for the opinions of others."
But it went beyond scholarship. At a personal level, Finkelstein apparently rubbed some people the wrong way.
In a report filed against his tenure, fellow political science faculty members James Block, Patrick Callahan and Michael Mezey claim that Finkelstein had been "mean-spirited" and "unprofessional."
As examples, the report claims that Finkelstein "shunned" a colleague who he believes unfairly evaluated his work, "refusing even to return greetings when their paths cross." Another says Finkelstein's behavior extended to "dramatically closing his office door when his colleague arrives." The report also claims that Finkelstein allegedly called a female staff member a "bitch."
In e-mails to the three authors of the report, Finkelstein demanded they provide proof of the last incident and said the charges "constitute personal and professional libel."
Neither the three authors nor Finkelstein responded to my request for comment on the report, but Finkelstein's supporters in the department say he treated them with respect.
While it's unclear how much weight the report was given in the overall process, William Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, said making tenure judgments based on whether someone is "a nice guy or not" could lead to "a very slippery slope."
"In terms of collegiality, I've seen no agreement on what that is," he said.
Still, Dean notes such factors ultimately play a role in judging whether someone is allowed to join the club.
"If you are going to offer permanent membership in the community, they need to really play well in the sandbox," she said.
While Finkelstein's student supporters have now turned to fasting in an attempt to reverse his tenure denial (and that of a colleague who supported him), the subjective nature of the process is unlikely to change.