As contingent workers in the CUNY system, many members of the Graduate Center community have become inured to the constant threat of losing their teaching positions at short notice. Following Governor Patterson's budget cuts last summer, many long-serving adjuncts found themselves out of a job as department chairs balanced budgets on their backs. So it may not be surprising to hear that Bard College, a private liberal-arts school in Dutchess County, New York, recently terminated the teaching appointment of one of its untenured faculty members.
Unless that faculty member is Joel Kovel, a long-time professor of social studies, internationally renowned lecturer, and erstwhile holder of the presidentially appointed Alger Hiss chair at Bard College. According to the Graduate Center's own Stanley Aronowitz, distinguished professor of sociology, "Joel Kovel is one of America's major social, ecological and psychological theorists. His White Racism remains a classic in the analysis of the psychology of racism; Enemy of Nature is one of the major contributions to radical ecology." An author of ten books and numerous peer-reviewed articles, Kovel is a familiar name across a wide array of academic departments, including psychology, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, and environmental studies. Joel Kovel is also a public intellectual in the truest sense of the word. Not content to merely write op-eds for newspapers, serve as president of a professional association, or lend his name to petitions and causes, Kovel consistently grounded his intellectual agenda in political and moral concerns. Following decades of antiapartheid and ecological activism, one of his chief engagements in recent years has been with the question of Israel/Palestine. What he has had to say on the issue is controversial–so controversial that it cost him his job at Bard earlier this year, he claims.
He is not alone. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) have taken Kovel's allegations of academic oppression seriously, along with dozens of blogs and academic email discussion lists that have posted his statement. A Facebook group of the radical professor's supporters has grown to over 670 members.
The story as Kovel tells it is fairly straightforward. It portrays his recent termination as the result of a series of escalating responses to his anti-Zionist activism. These punitive responses were made possible by quietism and a lack of principle that has come to pervade Bard's campus community and now renders open discussion of Zionism impossible. At the center of the allegations is long-time Bard College president Leon Botstein, who also serves as the musical director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Company. He rejects Kovel's allegations as "patently ludicrous."
First, the allegations: In the fall of 2002, Kovel published an article in Tikkun Magazine, the progressive publication edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, arguing as a morally concerned Jew for the need to acknowledge the nefarious underbelly of "Jewish exceptionalism." In the piece, Kovel pinpointed Zionism as the source of the moral failures manifest in Israel/Palestine. Within a few weeks President Botstein summoned him to his office and informed him that his presidential appointment as Alger Hiss professor would be terminated in 2004. Following another Tikkun article a few months later, a college dean, Michele Dominy, suggested at executive vice president Dimitri Papadimitrou's behest that Kovel, then sixty-six years old, should consider retirement. Kovel refused. Subsequently the administration decided to keep him on faculty on a five-year, halftime contract as "distinguished professor," cutting his pay and teaching load by 50 percent while continuing to grant him full benefits. This is the contract the university is refusing to renew when it expires later this year.
Over the course of the next three years, Kovel worked on the manuscript of his most recent book, Overcoming Zionism, which argues in favor of a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine. It extends his earlier line of argument, namely, that Jewish exceptionalism is at the root of the violence and unrest in the region and has to be overcome as a precondition for lasting peace and justice in the Middle East. During campus talks this argument was construed by some of his detractors as a call for "the destruction of Israel." When the book was published by British publishing house Pluto Press in 2007, the Michigan chapter of a Zionist group founded by neocon Daniel Pipes successfully pressured University of Michigan Press to halt its distribution of the title in the United States for several weeks. Eventually 650 letters of support persuaded Michigan to resume sales, but Kovel was disturbed to find that none of his tenured Bard colleagues joined in protesting the press's self-censorship. The only support from Bard came from two non-tenure-track faculty. Kovel cites this as one among numerous occasions that forced him to recognize the degree to which critical debate on campus was stifled despite Bard's image as the college that puts the "liberal" into liberal arts. (After all, they have a chair in honor of Alger Hiss, the McCarthy-era State Department bureaucrat accused of being a Soviet spy that anticommunists love to hate.) As a scholar who asks uncomfortable questions he was marginalized on campus.
Kovel argues that the 2008 evaluation of his work, which cited declining quantitative and qualitative indicators of student satisfaction with Kovel's teaching, must be seen in this context and that the decision not to rehire him in the fall was not simply based on practical, pedagogical or financial considerations. The evaluation was produced by a committee that included Bruce Chilton, a New Testament scholar characterized by Kovel as a Christian Zionist activist. His involvement in "Zionist circles" places Chilton "on the other side of the divide from myself," Kovel writes in his statement. The fact that Chilton served on the evaluation committee is "highly dubious" and made it impossible for the committee to produce fair, good-faith results. In light of this, Kovel argues, his termination should be considered invalid.
So much for the allegations. In an interview, Botstein stated that Kovel's claims were "trumped up" and lacking a credible evidentiary base. In response to the implication that Botstein decided to remove Kovel from the Hiss chair after he went public with his anti-Zionist views, he cited the donors' intent that the chair should be a revolving chair in the humanities. They decided it should be passed on to somebody else. In an email, Tony Hiss, Alger's son, confirms this. To fulfill the aim of exposing students to a wide variety of ideas and insights, "it was arranged from the start that it would be a 'rotating' chair, one that would be handed on periodically from one discipline to another, in order to celebrate all the humanities." This is also the reason why the chair is outside the tenure system. "We all admired Joel Kovel, but felt that after his fifteen years in the chair, the purposes of the endowment suggested that it might be time for other voices and disciplines to have a chance to step forward." While Botstein had no direct say in deciding that the chair should be given to someone else, he did make a proposal for a successor that the donors accepted. The new Alger Hiss professor is Jonathan Brent, a scholar of literature and history, ardent anticommunist and editor of Yale University Press's Annals of Communism series who comes just short of being an apologist for McCarthyism. Needless to say, he believes Alger Hiss actually was guilty of espionage. "Why he would have been offered such a position–or accepted it–is beyond me," Kovel told the Advocate.
Regarding Kovel's allegation that he was pressured to retire after losing the Hiss chair, Dean Dominy told a student forum in March: "I've never said to Professor Kovel that it's time to retire. He was never asked by his colleagues to retire." Providing a somewhat different perspective, Botstein said he "had the clear indication that [Kovel] was going into semi-retirement" when they sealed the deal of keeping him on as halftime distinguished professor: "The five-year contract was understood as a closing contract." He claims Kovel requested part-time status to make time for traveling and writing, and that the administration explicitly said "it was discretionary whether we would renew him or not" at the end of the five years, though they offered the prospect of yearly extensions of the contract after its expiration. Kovel refutes this characterization. The part-time agreement was not reached in the understanding of being "transitional to retirement." The letter of appointment to the half-time position states that, aside from going to half-time, "[t]he other conditions of your current contract will remain in place."
According to Botstein the decision not to renew Kovel's contract was based on two main considerations: financial constraints and increasingly negative student evaluations. Like many colleges around the country, Bard College has seen a drop of philanthropic income, making it difficult to cover the 20 percent of the college budget covered by nontuition sources. Botstein, an oft-quoted expert in the art of fundraising, called the approximately three million dollars recently lost in board member Ezra Merkin's Ponzi scheme "trivial" compared to the budget shortfall caused by decreased philanthropy. The only way to close the gap was to cut personnel cost. Ten administrators were dismissed and all senior administrators, Botstein included, have taken a 10 percent pay cut. On the faculty side, the goal was to cut "at the margins of the faculty." This means that "re-arranging" has concentrated on adjuncts teaching less than half time and who do not advise students–an integral part of the Bard curriculum, according to the college president. He mentioned, however, that Kovel, though teaching half-time, did some advising as well. Botstein specified that most of part-time positions were eliminated–and at times replaced by full-timers–in the dance, general education, and language departments. In Kovel's division, international relations and politics were most effected, but that reflects a reduction in the number of visitors the college hosts in these disciplines. The nonrenewal of Kovel's contract thus does not fit the college-wide pattern of dismissals.
Matthew Deady, professor of physics at Bard and president of the local AAUP chapter, followed up on Kovel's charges that the evaluation process was riddled with irregularities. In an email excerpting key passages from the report on the inquiry into his allegations, Deady writes: "This investigation found no procedural or contractual improprieties which contributed to the decision to not renew Prof. Kovel's contract." The report adds that all representatives of Kovel's division were properly consulted, and concludes, "no evidence was found to support a claim that any member of the Bard community acted out of a political disagreement with Prof. Kovel, nor was any evidence found that his political positions weighed into his [College Evaluation Committee] evaluation or the non-renewal decision." Kovel responded to the report in an email to the faculty list which so far has gone uncontested. In it, Kovel pointed out five flaws in Deady's report that call into question its conclusions, among which a failure to "consider strong evidence from students that their own evaluations of [Kovel's] teaching had been manipulated" stands out.
This leaves the final contention raised in the ousted professor's statement: that Bard grants Israel impunity, stifles meaningful debate, and exhibits a lack of principle. Botstein rejected this assertion forcefully: "Joel Kovel is a liar. It's completely a delusional, narcissistic form of lying which has no credibility." He enumerated several reasons. Kovel himself was allowed to teach a course on "expounding his views on the question of Israel and Zionism." In March, Noam Chomsky spoke on his views on Israel at Bard. "The discussion of Israel has been an open and constant debate on this campus." Bard also has hosted the Palestinian intellectual Mustafa Abu Sway, an outspoken critic of the state of Israel, as visiting professor of Islamic studies. The college recently announced its partnership with Abu Sway's employer, Al Quds University, a Palestinian institution located in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The George Soros-funded venture will enable Palestinian students to attain joint degrees with Bard College and is the first of its kind to be initiated by an American university.
Kovel is doubtful these examples suffice to establish that critical discourse has a place on the Bard campus. In an email, he wrote that "what constitutes critical discourse is not to be measured like the blood level of hemoglobin. Its determination is subtle and qualitative; nor is it a function of who shows up to teach or lecture, but rather of the circumstances and power relations according to which things happen." That a faculty member of two decades would be permitted to teach a course on Zionism is not surprising, though he adds that approval was granted grudgingly and with the proviso that he not admit naïve freshmen. Chomsky was invited by students and naturally the administration could not intervene without causing an uproar. Abu Sway acted as a liaison for Bard's Palestinian partner institution, so naturally he was allowed to teach as well. Regarding Bard's engagement in Palestine, Botstein told a New York Times reporter in February, "It is clear that being a Zionist and favoring the security and healthy future for the State of Israel is absolutely compatible with creating a Palestinian state. That's why we're very proud of what we're doing." Given this attitude, it is debatable to what extent Zionism is really being put into question. Writes Kovel: "Critical discourse is to cast a cold eye on the program and not to just assume it is an unqualified good, like food shipments to a famine. A critical eye would see the various factions within Palestinian society and reflect on the fact that Israel would have a special interest in strengthening those factions that favored accommodation with the Zionist state, thereby weakening Palestinian resistance."
Botstein explained the lack of an official response to University of Michigan Press's self-censorship as follows: "We were completely out of the loop of the publication of his book. We did nothing to advance or suppress it." Had Kovel informed the college administration of his difficulties, "we would have been in favor of the book being published." Then, Botstein blustered about "Joel Kovel's so-called controversial views," claiming that nothing he writes on the subject of Zionism is truly controversial. If that was the case, Kovel responded, would Overcoming Zionism have been banned in the United States after being decried as "hate speech"? Would University of Michigan Press have terminated its lucrative distribution contract with Pluto Press over Kovel's book if there was nothing controversial about it? Asked about his other critical works and their reception by the Bard community, Kovel mentioned that his book on ecosocialism, The Enemy of Nature, while widely debated, never got any attention from his own college's environmental studies department. "This may have something to do with the fact that its thesis is that global capitalism must be brought down if civilization is to survive," the author wrote. While President Botstein attempts to explain away the controversy and attribute it to a paranoiac "delusion" on the part of the ejected professor, there are enough indications of a conflict.
Deady, the AAUP chapter president, pointed out that Bard at present has "a system that has too much potential for terminations that leave no one satisfied." The fact that Botstein can have academics like Kovel serve at his convenience reflects what many have called his grandiose leadership style, but also the erosion of the tenure system in the United States and academia more widely. While the last word on the Bard controversy is yet to be spoken, discrimination cannot be ruled out due to a lack of transparency or paper trail in the hiring and firing process.
- 1988: Joel Kovel is appointed Alger Hiss professor of social studies at Bard College by President Botstein with a five-year contract. He replaces the inaugural holder of the chair, the anthropologist Stanley Diamond. This endowed chair is outside the tenure system.
- 1994: Kovel is reappointed.
- 1999: Kovel is reappointed.
- 2004: After fifteen years, the Alger Hiss chair goes to Jonathan Brent, a scholar of literature and history. Kovel is moved to a five-year, halftime distinguished professor contract.
- 2009: Kovel is told his contract as distinguished professor will not be renewed and he will be moved to emeritus status at the end of the academic year. Subsequently, he publishes a statement that alleges the noncontinuation of his contract was politically motivated and invalid due to procedural irregularities.