Campus Watch does not take a stand on questions of tenure. It does, however, insist that anyone concerned about the course of America's institutions of higher education has a legitimate role to play in public debates on academe.
This debate has crescendoed over the past year in controversies surrounding professors Juan Cole of Michigan and Norman Finkelstein of DePaul. Not surprisingly, given the decrepit nature of the field, Cole is the former president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), and Finkelstein has the support of that umbrella group's current president, Zachary Lockman of New York University.
When Cole was denied a chair at Yale last year, he and his supporters cried foul, as when Cole told the Jewish Week that "the concerted press campaign by neoconservatives against me, which was a form of lobbying the higher administration [at Yale], was inappropriate and a threat to academic integrity." Lockman leapt to Cole's defense, calling external criticism of him "an assault on academic freedom and the academic enterprise."
Just ahead of these controversies, but well after Middle East studies become the subject of pointed criticism, MESA in 2005 launched the Academic Freedom Fund, which not so much argued as implied that analogous situations exist between oppressed academics in foreign lands and suffering scholars in North America. Victimization being the currency of the academic realm, the portrayal of American academics as beleaguered soldiers battling to speak their minds isn't surprising--writers and activists have for decades found consolation in the belief that around every corner, under every rug, there lurks a reactionary waiting to pounce. MESA also accepts donations for this worthy cause: do you wish to be an advocate, defender, or champion of academic freedom? You pays your money, you takes your choice.
Lockman has penned a letter, written as MESA president, in support of Norman Finkelstein's bid for tenure at DePaul University. (For CW's archive of articles on Finkelstein, see our new category, "Moonlighting: Non-Specialists in the News.")
Addressed to DePaul president Fr. Dennis H. Holtschneider, the letter attempts to neutralize the effects that the many critics of Finkelstein, particularly Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, seem to be having on the case.
The letter acknowledges—almost—the obvious: "We recognize that some people may regard Professor Finkelstein's scholarship as controversial." (Who, you may ask, wouldn't? Even Lockman concedes as much in his act of writing the letter.)
Later comes the standard line:
We fear that it may have unduly politicized and/or prejudiced your university's consideration of Professor Finkelstein's candidacy for tenure. This intervention is particularly distressing because it comes at a time when we have witnessed other instances of efforts by individuals or organizations to influence hiring, tenure or promotion decisions, based not on the candidate's scholarship but rather on his or her political views, real or imputed.
Yet according to a New York Times article from April 12, Finkelstein has engaged in similar behavior:
Mr. Dershowitz said he found it paradoxical that Mr. Finkelstein was complaining about outside interference when Mr. Finkelstein tried to discredit the historian Daniel Goldhagen by publishing a book that excoriated his scholarship on Germany and the Holocaust, and tried to disbar Burt Neuborne, a law professor at New York University, saying he lied and blackmailed Swiss banks when he was representing Holocaust survivors.
• Why do so many MES professors demand a life set apart from the responsibilities, and attendant openness to criticism, borne by most public figures, from businessmen to the clergy? Because their penchant for trendy, intellectually incoherent, self-serving, anti-Western pedagogy and epistemology has rendered their field indefensible in the public square.
• So long as such trends continue, fields sufficiently important to the nation's wellbeing that they can be neither ignored nor allowed to expire will, and should, be the object of external, off-campus criticism. This is particularly true when the gatekeepers, such as the leaders of MESA, defend the status quo.