In the world of academia today, professors are constantly under scrutiny for their research findings and published work, especially in the politically polarizing field of Middle Eastern studies. Nadia Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard, has been attacked by fellow professors and alumni for one of her books, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, in which she states that Israeli archaeologists went out of their way to find archaeological remains that would support the long history of a Jewish state in Israel. Because professor Abu El-Haj examines sensitive and often contentious topics, the debate over her tenure has become a heated fight that blurs the line between the merit of scholarship and the implication of her ideas. Columbia must look beyond the strong feelings of non-academics and focus solely on the credibility of the professor's work and scholarship.
Professor Abu El-Haj is no stranger to prestigious universities. She has held, among other positions, a Fulbright Fellowship and additional fellowships at Harvard's Academy for International and Area Studies. In 2002, she was granted an award by the Middle East Studies Association for Facts on the Ground, which the awards committee called a "nuanced, nonpolemic work." Partly due to her distinguished accomplishments, professor Abu El-Haj was offered tenure at Barnard. Now, because of the close relationship between Barnard and Columbia, she must receive tenure from the department of anthropology at Columbia, and then an ad-hoc committee assembled by the administration.
Tenure is a major accomplishment and guarantees a nearly permanent position at a university. A tenured professor is able to pursue his academic work freely and independentl, and can take the initiative to pursue difficult and controversial ideas. As such, the Tenure Process Review Committee, which will decide Abu El-Haj's tenure, must consider the rigor and innovation of a professor's scholarship as its sole criteria for evaluation. Unpopular ideas deserve equal consideration from the committee. After all, a diversity of ideas is critical to the survival of a university.
At the heart of academia is the pursuit of unconventional ideas in the hopes of finding new information. Barnard President Judith Shapiro and University President Lee Bollinger have both acknowledged this and expressed their commitment to honest inquiry. They, along with all other professors, must continue to ensure that the tenure process proceeds fairly and that the scholars who decide Abu El-Haj's case are not influenced by those who seek to turn this tenure decision into a politicized campaign. Anything less than a fair tenure process will only tarnish the University's reputation as a place where academics have the freedom to explore different ideas and break new ground.