At first glance, the Joseph Massad tenure battle looks like one of the most civil academic controversies ever to engulf Columbia's Middle Eastern studies community. Phrases like "tenure battle" and "controversy" read like overstatements—there have been no petitions, no protests, no 30,000-word articles in The New Yorker, and, perhaps most telling, no Spectator opinion articles by anyone other than me. Nat Hentoff, the Village Voice columnist who blasted the University for convening a "committee of insiders" to clear Massad during the 2004 Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department row, has yet to write about the tenure bid of a professor who, according to the columnist's research, "told students that the killers of the Israeli Olympic athletes in the 1972 massacre in Munich were not Palestinians or Germans—but Israelis." And when the famously outspoken Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League gave a speech at Columbia last year, the question-and-answer period revealed that he had scant idea of who Massad even was.
The associate professor of Arab intellectual history's tenure review has been everything that Norman Finkelstein and Nadia Abu El-Haj's weren't, namely low-profile and concealed from public scrutiny. This is surprising, since Massad's review has been interminable. The Provost's Office has confirmed that his file is still under review, which means that this "controversy" has had over a year to simmer. It's also deliberate, and the appearance of "civility"—itself a symptom of the lack of visible debate over the frightening possibility of Massad's promotion—has more to do with the school's conscious attempts at forestalling controversy than it does with some newfound politeness among Middle East scholars and their critics.
If the specifics of the Massad tenure case were well-known, there would be outrage on both sides of the debate—from detractors wondering why it's taken Columbia this long to fire a man who once justified Haj Amin Al Husseini's alliance with the Nazis as a legitimate means of "opposing Zionist colonialism," and from supporters who rightly see the Massad case as a replay of the Finkelstein tenure battle at DePaul University. In that situation, the school's provost, in denying the candidate tenure, unilaterally struck down the decisions of two previous review committees. He correctly decided that a heinously permissive notion of academic freedom shouldn't operate as an institutional suicide pact.
Provost Alan Brinkley might have reached a similar conclusion 10 months ago. A Nov. 7, 2007 post on Marty Peretz's blog at the New Republic claimed that Massad had been denied tenure. This report was followed by a faculty letter (not signed by Massad) criticizing University President Lee Bollinger over his allegedly lukewarm defense of academic freedom, and by a well-attended book launch that Massad called an "intervention." Rumors that Brinkley had gone against both a departmental committee and an administration-level ad hoc in denying Massad tenure were not just unverified but unverifiable. Membership on an ad hoc committee is kept secret from everyone but the people on it, while the strict confidentiality of the process makes Brinkley the only person with firsthand knowledge of exactly how the decision to deny tenure was reached.
But these rumors gained currency over the summer when the Chronicle of Higher Education published unusually concrete details on a process that the noninstitutional world knew nothing about. The Chronicle reported in early June that "the first ad hoc committee voted 3 to 2 in favor of his tenure bid last year," adding that there's been no word yet on why "the two members of the committee and then the provost decided that Mr. Massad did not deserve tenure." The decision was never made public and led to "months of negotiations between Mr. Massad's supporters and university administrators." The case was subsequently extended, even though "the university did not acknowledge any problems or irregularities in how the first committee had conducted its job."
If this is true, Brinkley effectively backpedaled from a potential faculty revolt by putting off a final decision on Massad—after a final decision had been reached. And if convening a second ad hoc committee and re-reviewing an apparently settled tenure case already seems a shade capitulatory, as well as a waste of the faculty's time and energy, consider the candidate involved. Joseph Massad's papers and articles addressing "Zionism as the new anti-Semitism" and encouraging the violent dismantling of "Jewish society in Israel" have appeared in respected outlets like New Politics and the Journal of Palestine Studies. Even if one discounts his reliably hysterical work for the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, his output is that of a scholar who views the academy not as a venue for scholarship and inquiry, but as a mouthpiece. He does more than reduce this school's discourse on the Middle East to recrimination and innuendo. He jeopardizes Columbia's reputation as a serious place of study.
The only thing worse than this feckless treatment of the Massad question is getting the final answer wrong. If the provost and the University are as concerned about the school's academic integrity and intellectual environment as they apparently are about keeping up appearances, they should do now what they allegedly did 10 months ago: deny tenure to Joseph Massad.
The author is a List College junior majoring in English and Judaic studies. He is editor of the Commentariat, the blog of the Spectator Opinion section.