Just in time for a new school year, another controversy involving Mideast politics has erupted at Columbia University, this time over whether to grant tenure to an anthropology professor of Palestinian descent.
Critics of Barnard College professor Nadia Abu El-Haj are trying to block Columbia from granting her tenure, while supporters worry that the controversy over her scholarship will stifle academic freedom.
Abu El-Haj has been teaching at Barnard since 2002. Her book, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," looks at the importance of archaeology in forming Israel's national identity.
The 2001 book discusses how archaeological discoveries have been used to defend the country's territorial claims and contributed to the idea of Israel as the ancient home of the Jewish people. She argues that Israel has used archaeology to justify its existence in the region, sometimes at the expense of other nationalities like the Palestinians.
The book has garnered both praise and criticism, with opponents challenging her conclusions and her research. That challenge has spilled out of academia and onto the Internet, with a Barnard alumnus starting an online petition against the professor's tenure. Her supporters have an online petition too.
That outside protest is "just preposterous," said Laurie Brand, director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California and the chairwoman of the committee on academic freedom for the Middle Eastern Studies Association.
She said tenure decisions should be based on the opinions of other experts in the field, and that opposition to Abu El-Haj was coming from critics trying to silence her.
"You don't shut somebody down because of, as a result of honest inquiry, they've come up with conclusions you don't like," she said.
Barnard religion professor Alan Segal said he is against granting tenure to Abu El-Haj based on her work, which he said he has read.
He called the public petitions for and against her tenure "silly" but added that they were unlikely to have any effect on the tenure decision.
"I don't believe it's affected the process in any way," he said, adding that the Barnard faculty, by and large, supports Abu El-Haj.
Barnard officials declined to comment, and Columbia officials were not available.
This isn't the first time that Mideast politics have roiled the Columbia campus. A few years ago, the school had to deal with accusations from Jewish students that they were being intimidated by professors of Middle Eastern studies.
A university report found no evidence to support the accusation, but it did criticize one professor of modern Arab politics and history for inappropriately getting angry at a student in his classroom.
Columbia is not the only campus where academic disputes have arisen over Mideast politics.
Last week, Norman Finkelstein resigned from his job as a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago, months after he was denied tenure at the school where his views and scholarship have come under fire. Finkelstein, a vocal critic of Israel, has argued that some Jewish groups have exploited the Holocaust for political and financial gain.
Columbia may be the target of more protests next month from activists on both sides of the Israel and Palestinian divide.
University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer is scheduled to take part in a panel on academic freedom at the end of October.
Mearsheimer, along with Harvard professor Stephen Walt, recently wrote a book arguing that pro-Israel special interest groups have manipulated the United States to enact policies that favor Israel and work against American interests.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently rescinded an invitation for Mearsheimer and Walt to speak at a public forum this month about the book.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger has defended the panel at the university's Heyman Center for the Humanities, saying it falls within the university's tradition of "engaging in critical discussions about important issues."
"One would hope that those committed to a robust First Amendment would see the vital importance of ensuring that our universities are places where free speech can be exercised, as well as taught," he said in a statement.