Tenure Trouble at Harvard on Halsted: A political science professor stirs up issues of free speech and academic integrity

On June 8, 2007, Professor Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure and subsequently dismissed from DePaul University. The circumstances around the discharge of this renowned Jewish scholar are exceptional; however, they are not as uncommon as one might hope in the current environs of university life. As Americans, we pride ourselves on the idea that our nation promotes the ability to speak one’s mind and ignite discussion among individuals. Colleges and universities act as beacons of collective knowledge lighting the way to a deeper truth through a myriad of various viewpoints and stances.

Norman Finkelstein fulfilled the requirements of academia–the professor researched, read, taught, criticized, and created. The question of whether this political science professor satisfied the demands of his institution is quite another story. For those vaguely familiar with his reputation, the label “anti-Semite” or “radical extremist” may come to mind. For those more attuned to his academic work, the words “prolific” and “erudite” are accompanied by “polemic” to describe his writing style. The son of two Holocaust survivors, Professor Finkelstein has published five books on controversial topics such as the misuse of anti-Semitism, the history of senseless Israeli fighting, and the overwhelming power of the pro-Israeli lobby in American government and society. His most controversial book, “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” discusses the exploitation of the Holocaust for political clout and unfair financial reparations for Jews who had nothing to do with the Holocaust itself. Finkelstein also critiques the influence of radical pro-Israeli lobby organizations like the United Jewish Foundation.

Though many professors throughout the world disagree with his views, they nonetheless respect his intellectual labor, noting that if a professor publishes work everyone agrees on, then he’s probably not contributing any significant finding to his field. The University of Chicago’s own controversial professor John Mearsheimer, also known for criticizing the Jewish lobby, notes, “While I obviously thought his criticisms [of a Mearsheimer article] were off the mark, they were nevertheless intelligent and respectful.” Furthermore, Mearsheimer describes Finkelstein as “a major scholar who is known all around the world,” one who “is making arguments that challenge conventional wisdom about subjects which are difficult to talk about in the United States without getting into hot water.”

The central argument against Finkelstein rests on his incendiary outbursts at specific findings and theories within his field, with a style that is half scholarly debate and half street brawling. In a recent editorial, Finkelstein blasts his Harvard rival Professor Alan Dershowitz as “currently best known for his advocacy of the ‘most excruciating’ torture such as a ‘needle being shoved under the fingernails’ in order to extract a truthful confession.” Dershowitz, sadly, is no better. In the May issue of the New Republic, the law school professor reciprocates: “Like David Duke, who is now teaching in the Ukraine, Finkelstein is a failed academic.” Academic squabble aside, Professor Finkelstein’s incivility seems to stem from his peculiar sense of humor rather than a vile heart. In the classroom, senior political science student Christoph Osterberg recalls an unbiased air of freedom and professionalism: The only time professor Finkelstein ever mentioned professor Dershowitz was when he couldn’t get a projector to work during class and he muttered “Must be Dershowitz.” Who is to keep Finkelstein from stepping on people’s toes? A little healthy debate perpetuates a checks-and-balances system in which not every academic rant is promulgated.

Student groups are working to help tip the balances in favor of the professors. Last Friday, University Without Walls, a tight-knit coalition of DePaul students aspiring for increased academic openness, organized a panel of sophisticated scholars consisting of Tariq Ali, Tony Judt, Akeel Bilgrami, Neve Gordon, John Mearsheimer, and Noam Chomsky (via video message). A frenzied group of DePaul students in formal business attire escorted attendees and panelists through the five-hour long event. A healthy sprinkle of University of Chicago students mixed with a passionate DePaul crowd to hear the case of Mehrene Larudee, a DePaul professor denied tenure for her support of Finkelstein. University Without Walls understands the futility of trying to re-instate Finkelstein as he settled with DePaul a few weeks ago. Larudee’s denial of tenure, explained by three vague sentences from DePaul, remains to be an outrage and the focal point of campaigning for the student-run organization. To better comprehend the situation, the problem must be tracked.

Flash back to the school year of 2006-2007. Finkelstein, the highest ranked professor in the political science department, was approved for tenure by both his students and department, only to be rejected by the dean and president of DePaul. Did DePaul have a right to refuse Professor Finkelstein the venerated position of being a tenured professor? Absolutely. Within a private institution, donations act as a lifeline pumping in more capital for better financial aid packages to students, cutting edge technology for labs, and considerably more grants and funds for research. In DePaul’s specific case, Professor Mehrene Larudee furthermore sets the context of the decision: “Bigger universities with larger endowments are more resistant [to external pressure], but smaller universities with smaller endowments are less resistant to that pressure.” With the potential for financial arteries to be cut with more ease, DePaul does not have the economic luxury as, say, the UofC, where last year an anonymous benefactor contributed $100 million to eliminate student loans for qualified incoming undergrads.

In his speech on “academic corporate calculus,” panelist and Israeli professor Neve Gordon discusses the unfortunate condition of universities across the world: “Universities act as corporations, consisting of producers and selling products–the selling of degrees to the student body.” Fewer resources and a large 15,000-strong undergraduate student body translate into a perilous economic decision as well as a moral one. President Father Holtschneider and Dean Chuck Suchar weighed the financial stability of their institution over the fate of one of their most esteemed scholars. Maybe next year DePaul will find its own $100 million dollar charitable soul.

The question at the root of the controversy is whether the administration, by sacrificing an element of their own ethical responsibility as a university pursuing truth, acted in a way that accurately reflected the opinions of their community. Both the student body and the faculty overwhelmingly voted in support for Finkelstein’s tenure, though neither group had the external pressure of contributors, scholars, and powerful organizations breathing down their necks. Of course, the students and faculty have not settled for the administration’s terms–they’ve mobilized to set their own collective moral standards and received a crash course in the pragmatic aspect of the rights of free speech.

John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of academic freedom, charges that “the function of free speech is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” As President Holtschneider and Dean Suchar had the right to make their own decisions, the DePaul community has a right to voice their own views and correct their administrators. In a pre-recorded video message, Noam Chomsky warned the conference on academic freedom about the perils of allowing an atmosphere of fear to flourish and losing leadership accountability. The emeritus MIT professor believes that tossing terms like anti-Semite around without any backing causes a reversal in the situation: “[Without academic freedom,] what is being lost is a kind of openness–the difference between telling apart critical learning from anti-Semitism. If we can’t tell the difference, we’re only going to end up with anti-Semitism once again.”