We came to DePaul’s graduation to hold banners saying, “Tenure for Finkelstein and Larudee” and we came to support the twenty five or so graduating seniors that were to hand the president, Fr. Denis Holtschneider, a letter of disapproval instead of shaking his hand. Our plan was to hold the signs up for as long as we could, but to do it silently so we would not be disruptive; and this was actually my biggest fear-not getting the message across with tact. My fears quickly went away as I noticed that the graduation was only fractionally as formal as I expected. There were signs, banners, and airhorns- it seemed more like a party than a graduation and the administration accepted this because the moment was about the students, not DePaul.
We were there as each name was read, A-Z, holding our signs and cheering after each graduate handed the president a letter. The process worked like clockwork- the announcer would read a card, the student would walk across stage, shake the president’s hand/ give him a letter, wave to the camera, and then the next person was up. One by one each graduating senior was allowed to express themselves any way they wanted to, be it having their middle name announced, wearing sunglasses, dancing in front of the camera, hugging the president, or slapping him on the behind. Everything was fair game because this was the student’s graduation. But halfway through the letter ‘S’, there was a long pause. As a bystander, there was an obvious problem and you could see it on the announcer’s face. The student had handed the announcer a card that read ‘Norman Finkelstein’ and she did not know if she should read it or not. Finally you could read her lips on the two jumbotrons- “I can’t read this”. So the student leaned over into the microphone and screamed the words- ‘Norman Finkelstein’. At that moment you could see the demeanor of every administrator on stage change. The student made her point.
But what is so wrong with reading the words ‘Norman Finkelstein’? They are words and they can not hurt. An argument can be made that words do hurt, but neither the words ‘Norman’ nor ‘Finkelstein’ have a negative connotation. In fact, it has been my experience that those words are positive around DePaul, especially in regards to students. So why could they not be read? After all, students were walking across the stage and accosting the president of a university for the sake of a show. They were trying to create a spectacle and did so with no repercussions. And that is the way it is supposed to be, its about the graduates. So why not read the name, the name of someone who was so valueless to the university that they let him go a week before?
It’s because those words inspire. Those words inspire students to learn, they inspire students to understand the world they live in, they inspire students to dissent. And those words inspire fear among the administration.
DePaul’s administration wants this entire situation to go away. Fr. Holtschneider can talk all he wants about civil disobedience, like he did on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but in actuality he just wants to maintain the status quo. He wants an apathetic core of students that buy into the rah-rahness of ‘Vincentian values’ so they donate as an alumni. The idea of ‘Vincentian values’ is so vague and ambiguous that they themselves morph into whatever is most beneficial at that moment. It is a level of control.
Maybe I am being paranoid about DePaul wanting to rid the campus of this F-word. But when I called the school’s bookstore (actually both of them) to see if they had any copies of Professor Finkelstein’s books, the nice older lady from the bookstore downtown said that up until about a week ago they always carried at least one of his books or had them coming in, but that have since removed them from the store. Maybe there is something to it and maybe there isn’t. But at this point of desperation for DePaul, I would not put it past them. What better way to get rid of the thought of a professor than to take away his texts? Without his voice on campus and without his books in the store, the professor disappears and his ideas go away; life at DePaul continues to be comfortable.
But that is not the case of Norman Finkelstein. DePaul can’t kill off his ideas, no matter how hard they try. Maybe its because his classes were transformative experiences-after taking one, you are never the same person. Maybe its because you can see his sacrifice for social justice in his face and hear it in his voice. Or maybe its because his heart has the same ambition and aim that ‘Vincentian Values’ once had, before DePaul got a hold of them and bastardized their worth for the sake of a marketing ploy. Regardless, Professor Finkelstein, unintentionally, is bigger than not just the Political Science department, but DePaul as a whole, and that scares people.
So DePaul not reading the words ‘Norman Finkelstein’ does not surprise me. It shouldn’t. This is a university that puts dollars as its top priority, just ahead of finding professors who follow the norms and don’t ask questions. I guess I should be thankful that there is quality faculty that has tenure. But having to be thankful for professors sliding in under the radar was not what I expected the last time I wrote my tuition check.