The search to fill a newly endowed chair in contemporary Middle East studies at Princeton University reveals the friction that can sometimes occur when politics crosses with scholarship and teaching.
Columbia University Arab studies Professor Rashid Khalidi is reportedly a candidate for the new Robert Niehaus '78 Chair in Contemporary Muslim Studies at Princeton.
Professor Khalidi is director of Columbia's Middle East Institute and a noted scholar in Palestinian, Syrian and Arab nationalism. He also is an outspoken critic of Israeli and American policy in the Middle East, which has made him a target of critics who disagree with his views.
In March, he visited Princeton to give a lecture on the history of democracy in the Middle East in which he challenged perceptions of Islamic nations in the Middle East as hostile to democratic principles. The Columbia Spectator reported in May that the lecture, which reportedly drew a full auditorium at McCormick Hall, was a "job talk" — one component in the assessment of candidates for faculty appointments.
But when The New York Sun newspaper reported earlier that month that Professor Khalidi was considering a move to Princeton, university administrators received e-mails from alumni alerting them to the Middle East scholar's controversial public statements, Princeton Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee confirmed Monday. "We have had some alumni who have expressed concern," Mr. Durkee said. But he went on to say that others have contacted administrators urging them not to permit hiring decisions at Princeton to be swayed by politics. "We had some who have written to us and contacted us to say they hope very much we would not allow political considerations to influence faculty appointments," Mr. Durkee said. "They would want to be sure our normal policies apply in not taking political views in making appointments."
Professor Khalidi left the University of Chicago about two years ago to join Columbia's history department. While at Columbia, he has reportedly been a target of critics who see a pro-Palestinian bias in Columbia's Middle East studies curriculum.
In the media, he has been quoted as calling Israel's policies "racist" and comparing its political system to an "apartheid" state — quotes that he told The New York Times were taken out of context. His books include "Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East" and "Palestinian Identity." Professor Khalidi is traveling abroad and was unavailable for comment.
Arlene Pedovitch, the interim director at the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton, told The Daily Princetonian in April that some students and alumni were concerned about "hiring an individual who has a political agenda rather than a scholarly approach to history."
Professor Stanley Katz, a lecturer at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a former board president at the Center for Jewish Life, reportedly sent Ms. Pedovitch an e-mail defending Professor Khalidi's scholarship and suggesting her comments were "either inaccurate or politically motivated or both."
Neither Ms. Pedovitch nor Professor Katz was available for comment Monday.
Mr. Durkee declined to confirm Professor Khalidi's candidacy for the endowed chair at Princeton. He said this particular chair is a floating one — for example, he said, the candidate could serve in either the Department of History, Near Eastern Studies or Religion. "That's part of what makes this an unusually complicated search," he said.
Mr. Durkee said the Niehaus Chair committee is still reviewing possible candidates. Once the committee makes a recommendation, it must be approved by the department in which the candidate will serve, then by the Faculty Advisory Committee on Appointments and Advancements, and finally by the university trustees. Mr. Durkee said a final decision is expected sometime in the fall.
Professor Miguel Centeno, the chairman of the search committee, declined to comment Monday.