Google "Joel Beinin" and prepare for a war of words.
"If one individual can showcase all the flaws of Middle East Studies in academia, Joel Beinin is that man," proclaims Campus-watch.org, a right-wing website affiliated with the neoconservative activist David Horowitz.
A tenured Stanford University professor who is Jewish and a Middle Eastern history expert, Beinin has been an outspoken critic of Israel's policies toward Palestine. As a result, he has been a frequent target of accusations his views are anti-Semitic, among other things. A second article on Campus-watch.org calls him an "apologist for terrorists."
On Nov. 3, Beinin brought that controversy to Oregon when he visited Portland State University as a candidate for a tenure-track appointment in PSU's history department.
Two weeks later, the repercussions are still reverberating on campus—testament to Beinin's notoriety and the volatility of Mideast studies at universities nationwide.
"This is one of those flashpoints," says professor Ken Ruoff, chairman of the search committee for the appointment in PSU's history department. "This is the real test [of academic freedom]."
One of four candidates for the appointment, Beinin says two PSU professors asked him his political views on Israel. If that's true, such questions would be inappropriate hiring considerations, says Gregory Scholtz, a director at the American Association of University Professors.
"Particular political views are irrelevant," Scholtz says.
But in an email to members of PSU's history department as well as one of the other job candidates, Beinin accuses PSU of holding his political views against him and disregarding the principles of academic freedom separating politics and scholarship. Yet he never let it get that far.
On Nov. 4, less than 48 hours after visiting the campus and giving a public lecture to students and faculty members on the "political economy of Islamic social movements" as part of the job application process, Beinin said he no longer wanted the appointment. (Beinin declined to discuss the matter, but others have said he was considering the post because he has family, including a son, in Portland. Also, PSU offers a focus on modern Middle Eastern history that Stanford lacks.)
"Regretfully, I feel I have no choice but to withdraw my name from consideration for the modern Middle East position," Beinin wrote in the Nov. 4 email obtained by WW (see the entire email below). "At all levels at PSU there is a serious lack of appreciation for academic freedom. This is especially unfortunate for a public institution."
To those involved at PSU, it's not clear if the dust-up was the result of intentional actions or just plain clumsiness.
Beinin, considered a world-class scholar, writes in his email that Tom Luckett, a French history expert, and Michael Weingrad, a Judaic studies faculty member, asked him questions that amounted to "political vetting."
Luckett and Weingrad both disagree with that assertion. And while Luckett says he can't comment on a particular job candidate, he also says he is confident no ethical boundaries were breached. "The department, the university and I have made it very clear we believe in academic freedom," Luckett says.
Weingrad says his questions were appropriate, too, but that he "felt bad about the outcome."
"I wasn't there to politically vet him," he says.
Beinin's visit to PSU earlier this month is actually his second go-round. Last winter, Beinin was a candidate for a visiting professorship.
Around that time, Marvin Kaiser, dean of PSU's college of liberal arts and sciences, spoke with community members, including Jordan Schnitzer (the wealthy benefactor whose last name adorns the university's Judaic studies program) and Robert Horenstein (a director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland).
Kaiser calls those conversations "a matter of courtesy" that aren't entirely unusual.
"None of them ever said, ‘You shouldn't be doing this,'" Kaiser says. "They all recognize the responsibility and the right of the university to hire whomever it wants."
Horenstein confirms Kaiser met with him months ago. But he says the Jewish Federation has had no communication with PSU regarding Beinin's most recent application and that it has no leverage over hiring at PSU.
His proof is the fact that Beinin was offered the job as a visiting professor, despite Horenstein's desire to see hires who are "balanced" and "fairly neutral." Beinin didn't take it because PSU's benefits package didn't meet Beinin's needs, says Linda Walton, an East Asia expert who is the immediate past chairwoman of PSU's history department.
But Kaiser also delayed that offer by spending time informing people of the hiring, Walton says. "The dean wanted to talk to people in the community," she says. "He said, ‘He wasn't asking their permission.'"
And Beinin knew "what the delay was about," Walton says, adding, "I know that there's baggage from that."
From: Joel Beinin
Sent: Tuesday, November 04, 2008 10:36 PM
Regretfully, I feel I have no choice but to withdraw my name from consideration for the modern Middle East position.
I appreciate very much your willingness to protest to the dean regarding Michael Weingrad's words to me at our breakfast meeting. But a protest to someone who already has a record of even more egregious disregard for academic freedom can't begin to address the problem. If Michael Weingrad's comments were the only issue, it would not be of major concern to me. I'm quite sure he has no idea that what he said was inappropriate. In fact, we got on rather well, and I wouldn't be surprised if he came away from our meeting well-disposed towards me.
Much more serious, as I told you on the phone, is that Tom Luckett asked me a highly inappropriate political question during my private meeting with him. He too, was unaware of the impropriety of this line of discussion. And when I mentioned, as light heartedly as I could, to Marvin Kaiser that I had been politically vetted by Michael Weingrad, his response was, "Of course." It appears then, that at all levels at PSU there is a serious lack of appreciation for academic freedom. This is especially unfortunate for a public institution.
It is obvious that despite the improprieties, which are a matter of public knowledge although it has not yet reached the media, regarding the possibility of my joining the PSU faculty last year, insufficient measures were taken to ensure a fair and professional process this year despite my initial willingness to give PSU a second chance.
Under these circumstances, my further participation in this process can only signal that I regard it as legitimate. And it is not.
I sincerely hope that PSU will set to work at repairing its deeply flawed institutional culture. Until it does, I will urge my colleagues to exercise the greatest caution before considering applying for or accepting a position at PSU.