[Note: Correction issued; please see bottom of article.]
A committee of five academics—including the director of Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies—issued a petition earlier this week to limit "outside interference" in university tenure decisions and maintain "academic freedom" at institutions of higher education.
The petition, which currently lists 231 signatures including six Harvard affiliates, highlights pro-Israel groups as the main sources of tenure interference.
"These groups have targeted scholars who have expressed perspectives on Israeli policies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with which they disagree," the petition said.
The committee's petition also quotes a paper by Harvard sociology professor Neil Gross as saying that "a greater percentage of social scientists today feels their academic freedom has been threatened than was the case during the McCarthy era."
The professors on the committee said advocacy groups' influencing tenure decisions is inimical to the values of the academy.
"Outside pressure does not belong in the consideration of the credentials of the university faculty," said committee member Joan W. Scott of Princeton.
One of the cases cited by the committee was Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz's lobbying DePaul University not to grant tenure to political scientist Norman G. Finkelstein.
At one point during the long spat between the professors, Dershowitz sent letters to DePaul faculty and administrators attacking Finkelstein's scholarship and urging the university to deny him tenure.
Though Finkelstein was ultimately not granted tenure, the university has denied that the outside pressure had any bearing on the case.
Other cases have included Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard College, and Wadie Said of Wayne State University. The two drew ire during their tenure processes last year from outside groups for their criticisms of Israel.
Said is the son of the late Edward Said, a noted Palestinian literary critic who was the target of many pro-Israeli groups throughout his tenure.
Although many of the tenure cases involve Israel, committee members said that the group's mission went beyond political issues.
"This is a very broad spectrum that endorses this position, and it's not about politics," said committee member Jeremy Adelman, a Princeton historian.
History professor Edmund Burke of the University of California at Santa Cruz emphasized the harm that outside voices could cause to tenure decisions.
"[T]he future of the university is increasingly under a cloud if it's possible for people who are not part of the community of discourse...to suppress views with which they disagree," he said. "We're concerned in general about what seems to be a tendency for external individuals and groups to intervene to seek to squash views with which they disagree."
Steven C. Caton, the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the one Harvard professor on the committee, did not respond to requests to comment over the past few days.
CORRECTION: The Oct. 26 news article "Profs Protest Tenure Interference" incorrectly stated that Palestinian intellectual Wadie Said was up for tenure at Wayne State University. In fact, Said was never on the school's faculty—he was under consideration as an outside candidate for an appointment. In addition, due to an editing error, the article gave the wrong school affiliation for Joan W. Scott. She is a professor at the Princeton, N.J.-based Institute for Advanced Study, not Princeton University.