Thursday, August 30, 2007

Academic Freedom in Question: Part II

Yesterday I wrote a post admonishing DePaul University’s decision to suspend Dr. Finkelstein from teaching classes this academic year. Today a good friend and fellow DePaul alumnus wrote a contrary article defending DePaul’s decision to deny Finkelstein tenure. I felt it important to call attention to some issues that must not go unchallenged.

First and foremost is the most recent action by DePaul to cancel Dr. Finkelstein’s classes and place him on administrative leave. Further, he was barred from his office which held his personal and professional effects. This indignity and improper process of dismissing a professor is the most unsavory of occasions that has arisen from this entire debacle. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has now twice written DePaul University sharing its concern over the university’s treatment toward Dr. Finkelstein.

As I count Dr. Finkelstein has four different to protest:
1) His denial of tenure.
2) His denial for an appeal of the tenure decision.
3) His placement on administrative leave (and effective cancellation of his classes).
4) His being banned from his personal office.

1 – Dr. Norman Finkelstein’s denial of tenure.
Rachel’s article most specifically addresses Dr. Finkelstein’s denial of tenure and her reasoning for the ‘apt’ decision. However, it should be noted how the process developed. First the political science department committee voted and arrived at a 9-3 for tenure vote. Second it went to the LA&S college tenure committee, which voted 5-0 for the tenure. Third, at the university level tenure committee however voted 2-4 against tenure. In sum he was overwhelmingly supported by the tenure committees 16-7.

Rachel’s argument for support of the denial of tenure primarily rests on the reasons given by the department committee minority opinion – written by the three opposing faculty. The article, "Academic Freedom On Trial, Peg Birmingham, a DePaul University professor, does a suburb job of showing the shallow and insipid claims those against Dr. Finkelstein’s scholarship are alleging.

Of course my own conviction of scholarly merit will hold little weight. However, on the radio show Democracy Now two Middle-East expert scholars praised Dr. Finkelstein’s work: "We speak to two world-renowned scholars in these fields: Raul Hilberg, considered the founder of Holocaust studies, and Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at Oxford University and an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Shlaim calls Finkelstein a "very impressive, learned and careful scholar", while Hilberg praises Finkelstein's "acuity of vision and analytical power." Hilberg says: "It takes an enormous amount of courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him." His academic credentials far exceeded those of most political science professors that were tenured at DePaul and his international attention and praise are representative of such.

Of course, Dr. Finkelstein claim that DePaul University was third rate is simply accurate. As an alumnus of the school it takes a certain amount of humility to say this, but DePaul has for years been ranked as a third-tier school by the Princeton Review. The university has been committed to being a teaching institution and not a researching one (which again emphasizes that a professor with five published books has certainly published enough for tenure). It is simply stating factually and by category what DePaul University was and still is, a third-tier national university.

2 – His denial for an appeal of the tenure process decision.

Dr. Norman Finkelstein’s denial for an appeal of the tenure decision is also inconsistent with its faculty handbook. In a letter from the AAUP the president stated he was concerned with such a denial for appeal. He wrote, “Our concerns arise when you go on to assert that ‘there is simply no basis for any claim that the UBPT failed to uphold the standards and processes set forth in the Faculty Handbook.’” In our view, it is precisely that assertion as well as the question whether the administration similarly failed that bear on the claims by Professors Finkelstein and Larudee that impermissible considerations—involving violations of their academic freedom—contributed significantly to the adverse decisions in their cases.” This seems an undue stance by the university, signaled by the AAUP.

3 – His placement on administrative leave (and effective cancellation of his classes).

After being denied tenure Dr. Finkelstein, as is done with other professors who are denied tenure, was allowed one more year of teaching at DePaul. With rumors that the university might try to bar Finkelstein from teaching the next year it came at little surprise that the university placed him on administrative leave for the year and thus effectively canceling his classes. Another letter by the AAUP warned the university that this was uncharacteristic of the usually process afforded to professors. Dr. Finkelstein was rightly troubled by the development and claimed he would perform a sit-in and hunger strike if necessary so as to be afforded the right to teach.

4 – His being banned from his personal office.

The letter by Dean Suchar, which I shared yesterday, is the apex of this entire spectacle: a full blown circus with the dean miming as a teenaged angst ridden clown. There is little more that needs to be said on this issue.

Rachel has her reasons for suspecting Dr. Finkelstein’s fidelity to truth. Her particular and peculiar story is interesting, but not necessarily insightful enough for me to disregard the more than 1,000 pages of published work he has produced and been praised for. I would like to point out that some of her reservations in supporting Dr. Finkelstein’s work come from his ‘lack of empirical evidence’ in which I would respond where then is your evidence that besides a rather quirky personal anecdote? The empirical evidence you seem to castigate Finkelstein for lacking also seems lacking in your assertions.

It is no secret that Dr. Finkelstein does not play nice. However, that is not what his project is about – it was about truth. This in no way is to suggest this man a martyr, but he is at least a model.

I too have stories from Finkelstein and I will share them here:

The first is when taking a class on Utopias. While in class he recollected how his mother was called to testify, sometime in the 1990’s, against the woman who ran the concentration camp Dr. Finkelstein’s mother was sent to during WWII. Dr. Finkelstein traveled to Europe with his mother to support her during the emotionally grueling ordeal.

At the trial his mother testified against the head of the camp. The ex-Nazi was now an old woman, a hallow shell. She was a mere run-down ghost of what she once so unfortunately was.

After Finkelstein’s mother testified they walked back toward the hotel. Along the way they passed the very woman Finkelstein’s mother had just testified against – who was on bail. Finkelstein’s mother was so enraged by her presence she lost all control and demanded that Norman should attack the woman. She scolded him, “They treated us like dogs, Norman! Like dogs. Get her, Norman! Get her!”

Dr. Finkelstein stopped his lecture there. The entire room was enraptured. My retelling does it no justice. Then of course someone asked, “Well, what did you do?” And he said quite seriously, “I will never tell.” Then what commenced was the best classroom discussion on ethics I have ever had. .

Another time Dr. Finkelstein, on the last day of class on Utopias, asked each student if they believed that political utopias were someday possible for humanity. Of course there were a variety of answers most were of the type that you would expect from idealistic and optimistic undergraduates.

When it was my turn I answered that, no there was no chance for a political utopia. He stopped and mentioned how surprised he was that I would believe that. That moment and that exchange has stuck with me for years now. I always felt like I disappointed him, that I hadn’t gleaned the possibility and promise of humanity from the texts and fellow peers. However, if anything has proven my answer right it has been how Dr. Finkelstein has been treated by the ‘political’ process.

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