DePaul University president Rev. Dennis Holtschneider’s 8 June 2007 letter to Norman Finkelstein is a masterpiece of contradiction and obfuscation.
In the letter, Holtschneider cites the University Board on Promotion and Tenure (UBPT)’s written decision: “By a majority vote the [UBPT] does not recommend promotion to associate professor with tenure to Norman Finkelstein.”
Majority vote in this case was by the slimmest margin possible: one. The vote was 4:3. However, in the grand totality of votes, the majority vote was overwhelmingly in Finkelstein’s favor — 17:9. To this number add the University’s Faculty Council 27-3 vote calling for an appeal to be made on behalf of Finkelstein and professor Mehrene Larudee* citing “violations of academic freedom” and procedural problems in the tenure process. Thus, 44 votes are pro Finkelstein and 12 votes are contra. Clearly, democracy is not being observed. The votes indicate a dictatorial sway at DePaul U.
Finkelstein’s record of accomplishment is acknowledged by the UBPT. He is described as an “excellent teacher, popular with students and effective in the classroom.”
The UBPT states, “He is a nationally known scholar and public intellectual” and then it delves into contradiction. The board notes “some division of opinion on the soundness of some of his scholarship.” [italics added] The UBPT does not claim that there is much opinion in its favor. It instead notes there is “some division of opinion.” Furthermore, it must be emphasized that the UBPT confesses that it is, in part, basing its decision to quash the promotion of a “nationally known scholar” and “excellent teacher” on “opinion.”
The UBPT criticizes Finkelstein’s limited service at the departmental level and zero service at the college or university level. Did the UBPT take into account Finkelstein’s service for humanity? Finkelstein’s convictions directed him to stand against the criminality of Zionism and to join the struggle for justice of the dispossessed and oppressed Palestinians. Does partaking in college fund raising (or whatever passes for college/university level service) supersede fighting for the survival and dignity of fellow humans? Is this what a Catholic university prioritizes?
Subjectivity permeates the complaint against Finkelstein. The UBPT expresses concern over Finkelstein’s “persona as a public intellectual.” This is despite the UBPT’s acknowledgment of Finkelstein as a “nationally known … public intellectual.”
The UBPT maintains that “some might interpret parts of his scholarship as ‘deliberately hurtful’ as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions.” [italics added] This is a weasel-worded criticism. First, it is noted that the words used are “some might” and NOT “some do.” Thus, it could also be that “no one might” — undermining the entire criticism. Second, what is being criticized is not a direct reading of his scholarship but an “interpretation.” Third, how did the UBPT determine that the scholarship was “deliberately hurtful”? Does the perceived hurtfulness of Finkelstein’s scholarship derive from factual inaccuracy or mendacity? If not, then the common aphorism “sometimes the truth hurts” would seem to apply. Fourth, what is being challenged, as the UBPT notes, are NOT “facts” but rather “assumptions.” That a university board could so transparently reveal its agenda to dismiss Finkelstein through such non sequiturs is condemnatory and is prima facie evidence of shoddy argumentation and, perhaps, points to a need to investigate for sloppy scholarship on the part of the board members.
The UBPT considers its criticisms of Finkelstein’s style pertinent because “an academic’s reputation is tied to the institution of which he or she is affiliated.” In other words, the board is arguing in favor of guilt (or non-guilt) by association — a thoroughly risible concept for a university, which purports to uphold academic freedom, to propound. Nonetheless, while the concept is epistemologically unsound, insofar as there is an iota of veracity to the UBPT’s assertion, it must apply equally, or more so, to the UBPT since it is reporting directly on university matters whereas Finkelstein’s scholarship holds no matter what institution he is affiliated with or not.
This is particularly relevant when one reads the next sentence from the UBPT: “It was questioned by some whether Dr. Finkelstein effectively contributes to the public discourse on sensitive social issues.” [italics added] The UBPT cloaks its words in vague language. It is difficult to get a grip on what the board is saying. First, it was “questioned” — not “proven” or “affirmed.” Anyone can question. But a question is not an answer or proof. Second, again the word “some” pops up. How many are “some”? Two, three, a thousand …? And “some” what? Some scholars? Some people in the street? Third, what does “effectively” mean in this context? Who decides what is effective? Who decides what is a “sensitive social issue”? And sensitive to who? What is with the ambiguity? This is a matter crucial to the career of a man. If the man is to be dismissed, then the least DePaul U can do is to honestly and straightforwardly spell out how the university deems him to be deficient.
The words are a clear indication of the subjectivity by which the UBPT has reached its decision. Yet, the board asserts, “Great effort was made to remain objective.” Does the mere statement of a great effort made reify the objectivity of the board’s decision?
The UBPT concludes, “The vote accurately reflects the complexities of the case.” What “complexities” might those be? The UBPT must elucidate and explain the “complexities.” The decision was a split decision — the difference being just one vote. By a majority of one vote, the board of academics has decided, in its wisdom, to terminate the employment of a man who is a “nationally known scholar and public intellectual,” “excellent teacher,” and indefatigable advocate for the human rights of Palestinians.
The president adds, “In the opinion of those opposing tenure, your unprofessional personalized attacks divert the conversation away from the criticism of ideas, and polarize and simplify conversations that deserve layered and subtle consideration.” [italics added] The president’s words share the same ignominy of uncertain rhetoric that the UBPT’s words suffer. First, the president of DePaul U concedes that the decision against Finkelstein is based on “opinion” — not fact or proof. Second, what is the rationale for the president criticizing polarization? What does such a criticism mean in a debate where there are two poles? That one must seek out the middle? Is this academically honest? Third, what is Holtschneider’s evidence for his contention that Finkelstein has been simplifying conversations? Fourth, Holtschneider thoroughly undermines his proffered weak rationale when he states that such conversations “deserve layered and subtle consideration.” Where is the layered and subtle consideration for the fate of Finkelstein?
“As such,” continues the father, “they [Finkelstein’s detractors on the board] believe your work not only shifts towards advocacy and away from scholarship, but also fails to meet the most basic standards governing scholarly discourse within the academic community.” [italics added] Was the reverend reading the same UBPT passage that he included in his letter? First, the reverend again reveals the uncertainty of the case against tenure for Finkelstein. It is based on belief and not certainty. Second, what is the evidence for a shift to advocacy from scholarship? Since when are advocacy and scholarship mutually exclusive? Scholars are presenting, discussing, and deriving conclusions from their research and study. They are not merely stating facts and results devoid of meaning and ramification. What is this nonsense unrelated to scholarship and academics coming from a university president?
Indeed, as the American Association of University Professors has recognized, all professors have basic obligations, as colleagues in the community of scholars: (1) to “not discriminate or harass colleagues,” (2) to “respect and defend the free inquiry of associates,” (3) to “show due respect for the opinions of others,” and (4) to “acknowledge academic debt and strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues.”
Holtschneider charges Finkelstein with violation of the basic obligations. If the DePaul U president wishes to insinuate such violations, then where is the evidence? Is a two-way dispute between professors discrimination and harassment on the part of only one professor when both are vigorously engaged in the tussle? Is the scholarship of both professors not open to the scrutiny of the academic community and wider afield? Is not respect a two-way street? Most condemning of all: where is the respect of the DePaul U president, four members of the UBPT, and one departmental dean, Chuck Suchar, for objectivity in the case against Finkelstein? I submit that the objectivity of this case has been thoroughly debunked.
“Scholars must be free to write about even the most controversial issues and to disagree vociferously about each others’ [sic] work.” So while the president earlier in his letter chides Finkelstein for polarization, now he embraces it.
Where the president draws the line is at ad hominem. I agree with the president. Ad hominem is deplorable and should be left out of human discourse. But, the president also knows that in the heat of debate people do falter and say things that they had better left unspoken. Also, in the heat of debate when one side engages in ad hominem it is all too often the response of the person attacked to respond likewise. Still, Holtschneider has not presented evidence of Finkelstein’s alleged ad hominem.
The reverend concludes by stating he “cannot in good faith” but agree with the UBPT decision to deny tenure to Finkelstein. Supposedly, his agreement to deny tenure is based on “good faith.”A question arises, however, of how the university’s mission “to ennobl[e] the God-given dignity of each person” applies in the case of Finkelstein?
DePaul U’s demonstrably feeble case (based on mights, somes, opinions, beliefs, and contradictions) against tenure for Norman Finkelstein has enormous importance to the individual professor concerned. It also has enormous significance to society’s access to a diversity of views. Ultimately, the decision indirectly has life-and-death significance for millions of Palestinian victims who would see the academic silencing of a proponent of their human rights. So the weasel words of the DePaul U president and the UBPT have profound significance beyond the case of Norman Finkelstein. The decision sends a chilling message through academia. It sends a threatening message throughout human society.
* With apologies and all due respect to professor Mehrene Larudee, who I, unfortunately, know little of, but who stood by her colleague Norman Finkelstein and was denied tenure despite staunch support from departmental and college level reviews, and to who much of this article’s support must also be thrown.
In Part 2, how academia and society can defeat the suppression of academic freedom and free speech.
In Part 3, deconstructing the bathetic minority report.