For two years I have served at the University of Texas at Austin on the faculty committee on “academic freedom and responsibility,” a pairing of concepts that is common in higher education. While there is a fairly broad consensus on what “freedom” means, competing conceptions of “responsibility” lead to two very different ideas about the appropriate role for professors in public life.
On one side is the conventional (which tends to be cowardly), and on the other is the principled (which tends to be progressive). Norman Finkelstein, the controversial DePaul University political scientist, is in trouble because he not only believes in, but puts into practice, this principled interpretation. The conventional view is that professors should be free to investigate any question and go in any direction the truth, as they see it, takes them. But in speaking and writing publicly about their conclusions, faculty should be responsible — which in practice usually means not upsetting people with real power. Faculty who pursue esoteric, self-indulgent, and/or irrelevant research generally will not be bothered (because no one really cares what they are doing), nor will those whose conclusions about relevant subjects are in line with views of the powerful (because their work helps reinforce the structures of power).
The principled view is that faculty members — who have an extraordinarily privileged position in society, being paid to learn and convey that learning to others, with considerable autonomy that is rare in this corporate-capitalist economy, at a more-than-livable wage, have a responsibility to pursue research addressing relevant questions that are meaningful in the lives of real people, especially the most vulnerable struggling for justice. That kind of research is likely to lead to trouble (because it challenges the prerogatives of the powerful to rule as they please).
In other words, academics pursuing their work in responsible fashion (in the principled sense) are the most likely to be labeled irresponsible (in the conventional sense).
Such is Finkelstein’s fate.
The controversy over Finkelstein’s tenure case at DePaul puts on public display the clash of those conflicting definitions of responsibility. He is an accomplished scholar (many who disagree with his Finkelstein’s conclusions acknowledge the quality of his research) and a superb teacher (even his detractors acknowledge his classroom skills). The political science department voted 9-3 and the college committee 5-0 in favor of tenure. But the College of Liberal Arts dean then wrote a letter undermining those endorsements, which suggests that the strong support for Finkelstein among his peers may be ignored by the university’s top administrators, who are expected to decide in June.
By the promotion standards of universities such as DePaul, Finkelstein clearly deserves the job security that comes with tenure. But we all have a stake in his fate — if we want universities to be a place where critical thinking is encouraged.
Finkelstein has been a provocative scholar since graduate school, when he dared to critique Joan Peters’ 1984 book From Time Immemorial, a fraudulent attempt to discredit Palestinian claims to their land occupied by Israel. Displaying considerable courage in the face of those happy to use Peters’ book to justify undermining the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, Finkelstein challenged the bogus factual claims of the book and embarrassed those in the political and academic establishment who had praised the book.
From there, Finkelstein has pursued research not only about the Israel/Palestine conflict but the Holocaust and the politics of reparations. His recent books and public comments have only increased the numbers who would like to silence him and the intensity of those campaigns. Finkelstein’s critique of the work of Alan Dershowitz has upped the ante; the media-savvy Harvard law professor has made it a point to torpedo Finkelstein’s career.
I have never met Finkelstein, though I did once interview him over the phone for a radio program I produced about Middle East issues. I have listened to, or read transcripts of, interviews with him, and I find him contentious but consistently insightful. I have read his well-researched and well-reasoned books on the Middle East and found them helpful in my work. I’ve concluded that Finkelstein is (1) probably not temperamentally suited for the role of a facilitator or mediator, and (2) unquestionably a first-rate intellectual doing important work to bring to light sometimes harsh truths about the way power is exercised in this world.
In short, Finkelstein is using his academic freedom responsibly.
Yes, he is polemical in public, sometimes harsh toward opponents, maybe even a bit cantankerous at times, which leaves me wishing Finkelstein were a colleague at my university. If I were a student at DePaul, I would sign up for any class he was teaching. We could use more like him in academic life.
When personnel decisions at DePaul are made next month, if Finkelstein’s name is not on the list of those granted tenure it will be no doubt a difficult day for him and a tragic one for anyone who cares about free and responsible intellectual inquiry.
In the United States there are fewer and fewer spaces where truth-telling is possible. Electoral politics has become a poll-driven, sound-bite enterprise. Mass media specialize in the superficial and shallow. Universities, though dominated by corporate money and the corporate mentality, still provide one of the few remaining spaces for open and honest engagement. Protecting that space is important not only for those of us in the privileged position of faculty, but for the society more generally. If Norman Finkelstein is denied tenure by DePaul, it won’t be because he was irresponsible but because he took his responsibility too seriously. If he is denied tenure, the loss will be not only Finkelstein’s and DePaul’s but also the larger project of real academic freedom and responsibility.