Don't look now, but there's a revolt afoot. It arguably doesn't matter whether Nadia abu al-Haj, author of the controversial and theory-bloated Facts on the Ground (the curious can find almost the entire book on Amazon Reader), is granted a lifetime post at this University. What matters is that non-academics now believe they should have a voice in what have previously been internal decisions made by sequestered groups of scholars.
It's a revolt that was probably long in coming. If there was any doubt in George Orwell's conclusion that intellectuals want "a hierarchical society where their hands are on the whip," tenure vindicates him: a Sept. 10 New York Times article reported Barnard President Judith Shapiro as calling the tenure process "one of the linchpins of academic freedom and liberal arts education" while emphasizing the need to undertake it "thoughtfully, comprehensively, systematically, and confidentially." But a deliberate lack of transparency doesn't equate with academic freedom, careful thought, and systematic analysis, especially when that same article reported that 33 out of 37 Barnard professors had made successful tenure bids over the past five years.
This past March, the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures chair Sheldon Pollock expressed dismay at the notion that anyone would even publicly comment on tenure without having been privy to page proofs and referee letters that only Pollock and a few others could possibly have seen. In a letter printed in Spectator, Pollock slammed Medical School professor Marc Arkovitz for suggesting that MEALAC assistant professor Joseph Massad should be denied tenure without, among other things, having read "scores of student evaluations from Prof. Massad's courses." Shapiro, Pollock, and others would protect the "confidentiality" of the tenure process—or rather, their considerable power over the intellectual life of our University—at the expense of open discussion and debate. They are urging us not to care about a "linchpin of liberal education," or at least not to care enough to want to be involved in it. Hands on the whip, indeed.
But debate is now crucial. While al-Haj's work as a dilettante archeologist and geneticist (in addition to writing on the political motives of the institution of Israeli archeology, she has given public lectures entitled "Bearing the Mark of Israel? Genetics, Genealogy and the Quest for Jewish Origins" and "Jews—Lost and Found: Genetics and the Evidentiary Terrain of Recognition") would make anything but public debate over her a troubling sign of widespread intellectual passivity, Massad's work is even more problematic than hers.
In an execrable article for New Politics entitled "On Zionism and Jewish Supremacy," Massad claimed "Israeli Jewish supremacists are reviving anti-Semitic ideas ... that had accused Jews of seeking to control the world." His evidence: an article in Ma'ariv in which a Washington, D.C. rabbi said the U.S. has "an administration in which the Jews are full partners in the decision-making at all levels." To a level-headed reader, this is a benign and factually correct statement on Jewish integration into modern America. To Massad, it's evidence that Zionism aims to "turn the Jew into the anti-Semite."
Yet Massad will receive one of the highest honors in academia so long as his farcical "scholarship" proves acceptable to an unchecked group of self-righteous faculty and administrators. Massad exposes a flaw in the tenure system that should by all rights kill it: that it insulates both undeserving tenure candidates and academics who, for less than scrupulous reasons, consider the process to be sacrosanct.
If people actually logged onto JSTOR and read "On Zionism and Jewish Supremacy" (which I urge all of you to do), the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures would have quite a mess on its hands. In his letter to Spectator, department head Pollock wrote: "Tenure decisions are based on the candidate's scholarship, teaching, and service, not his political views." Are we to believe he and other administrators are ignorant to the fact that Massad's "scholarship," teaching, and service are all inseparable from his political views? And if he is ignorant to it, what position is he in to grant or deny him, or anybody else, tenure?
Professors have jealously protected the tenure process, but if they give a sanctimonious go-ahead to psuedo-scholars like al-Haj and Massad, the protection of a process in which a small scholarly elite covertly rubber-stamps one of its own into a permanent position of influence and power will be even less defensible—especially since Pollock and Shapiro not only demand that we unquestioningly accept their decisions, but take the offensive tack that it is a breach of academic integrity if we don't.
Astronomy professor David Helfand realized this system was unsalvageable when he famously refused tenure in the early '80s. Academics can't be expected to let go of the whip and opt for a rational hiring process, especially when the ones here are so resistant to outside criticism. But it's telling that tenure has become so contentious and damning that there are so few David Helfands.
The author is a sophomore in List College.