Resisting Tyranny in Academia

The Deepening Bathos at DePaul University

It is regrettable that I have been driven to such drastic actions to defend basic principles of academic freedom and my contractual rights, upon which DePaul has been riding roughshod for so long.

— Norman Finkelstein

DePaul University has moved to prevent political science professor Norman Finkelstein from teaching this 2007-2008 academic year. The main question is whether Finkelstein will stand alone against the university’s administration. The answer is already known: no. Every step of the bathos surrounding DePaul University’s tenure process has seen Finkelstein backed by colleagues, students, and progressives. But will it be enough?

The bathetic and corrupted process at DePaul has seen a minority impose their will over that expressed by the majority.1 The DePaul president, Dennis Holtschneider, and one dean, Chuck Suchar, rejected the departmental and College Personnel Committee’s recommendation for granting Finkelstein tenure (and his supportive colleague Mehrene Larudee). This, by definition, indicates a tyranny at DePaul.

The Vincentians at DePaul, backed by AIPAC and the spin doctors at Howard Rubenstein,2 are hanging in against a growing tide opposed to the unjust tenure denials. The recent cancellation of Finkelstein’s classes, for reasons not made public, and the denial of access to an office have raised the ire of supporters of academic freedom. DePaul stated that it had put Mr. Finkelstein on leave “with full pay and benefits for the 2007-8 academic year.”3 If so, isn’t the use of an office one of the benefits of being a professor?

Kicking in with disapproval of the latest DePaul administration denial of due process to Finkelstein is the American Association of University Professors: “We have taken strong issue with the argument, which we encounter from time to time, that an administration discharges its obligation to a faculty member on term appointment by relieving the individual of his or her teaching duties while continuing payment of salary for the duration of the term.”4

The DePaul administration is entrenched in its faulty tenure decision. To abet this tenure rejection, the administration has engaged in a demonization of Finkelstein. One reporter at the Chicago Tribune presents a tendentious depiction of events pointing to Finkelstein as a danger. The Tribune cites allegations by DePaul provost Helmut Epp such as: “Oral and physical confrontations between Finkelstein and university officials began shortly after his tenure denial, according to a memo written by university Provost Helmut Epp” and … “Finkelstein physically tried to keep the door from closing, according to the provost’s account.”5 Physically? Hmmm. Is there another way to keep an elevator door open?

It is like a bad script from another Hollywood drama where an innocent protagonist has a heinous deed wrongfully pinned on him. Instead of calmly and rationally rejecting such allegations, the protagonist becomes, understandably, upset and vehemently responds to the allegations revealing a surly persona, hence creating an impression of an unsympathetic person who, by implication, appears guilty. One wonders about any involvement from DePaul’s hired spin doctors who boast of their media connections.

No denials or counters from Finkelstein were mentioned in the article.

Professors realizing that, ultimately, the machinations against Finkelstein affect all of them are beginning to speak out.

Ellen Schrecker, professor of history at Yeshiva University, a private Jewish university in New York, wrote DePaul provost Helmut Epp out of concern about the DePaul administration “overriding the faculty recommendation for tenure for Professor Norman Finkelstein and […] summarily depriving Dr. Finkelstein of his final year of teaching.” Schrecker lamented the “serious damage [to] intellectual freedom so necessary for responsible scholarship and a democratic polity.”

Epp acknowledged the email impatiently, criticizing Schrecker’s “utter misapprehension of facts.”

The facts, according to Epp’s email, are: “the university board consisting of 7 full professors from 5 different colleges and selected by an elected faculty council without any administrative input made a decision using secret ballots not to award tenure. Our rules are that these faculty decisions are to be overruled by the president only under the most compelling circumstances.”

The fact is that Epp never cited one instance of Schrecker being unfactual. Instead he merely trotted off on another tangent and talked about a somewhat related matter.

As is obvious from Epp’s email, DePaul continues to attempt to block calls for disclosure and appeals for due process.

At the forefront of the battle for academic freedom have been a devoted group of students. The DePaul Academic Freedom Committee — a student organization at DePaul University — has organized a mass public symposium for October 12, at the University of Chicago campus, in defense of academic freedom. The students have lined up such prominent speakers as Dr. Akeel Bilgrami, Noam Chomsky, Dr. Tony Judt, Dr. John Mearsheimer, Dr. Neve Gordon (Ben-Gurion University, Israel). The event is to be hosted by Tariq Ali from the New Left Review .

Joining the activist students is a core group of professors at DePaul, including English professor Matthew Abraham (courageously, in that he is also without tenure), Peg Birmingham, Bill Martin, Azza Layton, Gil Gott, and Sumi Cho. The articles appearing in the progressive media also help to counter corporate media disinformation or omission.

What the actions by the students and DePaul, and other university, professors demonstrate is a stark and utter refutation of the DePaul administration’s main reason for denying tenure to Finkelstein: namely, that he is, allegedly, not a nice guy. Such an outpouring of support for academic freedom and Finkelstein thoroughly disgraces DePaul administration heads.

Professor Abraham tells me: “Students will take Norman into the building where NGF’s office is housed, at which point, Norman will probably be arrested. He intends to engage, along with the students, in civil disobedience.”

The people are important. Finkelstein has said that he will appeal to the court of public opinion. This issue is about academic freedom, and Finkelstein symbolizes fidelity to the cause of academic freedom. The issue affects all of us, and it affects the coming generations. What is to be taught must not be determined solely by a tyranny. Therefore, the more people who are marshaled to Finkelstein’s dissent, the better for the cause of academic freedom.

And, it is not just academic freedom because academic freedom touches on all information. In the case of Finkelstein, academic freedom touches on the unrelenting oppression and dispossession imposed on the Palestinian people. The denial of academic freedom must be considered in its wider context. DePaul is not just attempting to shut up Finkelstein; they are burying the iniquities and humiliation suffered by the Palestinian people.

How is that for Vincentian values?

DePaul has foolishly put itself in a corner now. There is a big chance for all to this backfire with the latest action of canceling classes. Imagine if enough faculty and students get over any apathy or fear to rally to Finkelstein when he tries to go to his office or to teach a class. Imagine if they all stood in solidarity when/if Finkelstein is arrested?

What kind of egg would that be on the faces of DePaul’s administrators, alleged plagiarist and Finkelstein nemesis Alan Derschowitz, as well as another blot on AIPAC.

Of utmost importance, though, is the crucial triumph of Finkelstein and academic freedom.

See also the related article: “Standing Firm With Norman G. Finkelstein and DePaul’s Heroic Students: A Defining Moment

  1. Kim Petersen, “Minority Rule at DePaul University: Bathos at DePaul University (Part 3),” Dissident Voice, 4 July 2007. []
  2. Bill Williams, “Does Norman Finkelstein Constitute a Security Threat to DePaul University?: You Bet He Does!Dissident Voice, 27 August 2007. []
  3. Jennifer Howard, “DePaul U. Cancels Courses of Professor Who Lost Tenure Bid, but He Plans to Teach Them Anyway” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 August 2007. []
  4. B. Robert Kreiser, “AAUP writes DePaul yet again,” Norman G. Finkelstein, 27 August 2007. []
  5. Ron Grossman, “DePaul memos tell of run-ins with professor,” Chicago Tribune, 3 September 2007. []
Kim Petersen is an independent writer and former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on September 6th, 2007 at 4:57am #

    You have to hand it to Derschowitz! He certainly has succeeded beautifully! He has manipulated Finkelstein and friends into attacking the Catholic Church! Derschowitz started this fight, cynically and deliberately. It was he, not Finkelstein, who attacked an institution of the Catholic Church. Catholics are probably furious with him, but no one else is attacking him! He must be laughing his head off!

    Moreover, you can’t win a fight with the Catholic Church. A billion people worldwide. 50% of the world’s Christians. 64 million Americans. You can’t win against the Catholic Church. Derschowitz knew that. He didn’t dare attack DePaul himself, so he provoked Finkelstein into committing professional suicide. Double whammy, in fact! Finkelstein’s violent and irrational reaction is proving Derschowitz’s point that Finkelstein is both a poor academic and a “troublemaker”.

    Vincentian values. Who are you to dictate their content, Mr Petersen? Are you thinking of joining the order? The Catholic Church has its position on Palestine and the Israelis/Israel Lobby don’t like it one bit, but what Finkelstein wants is to force the Church to give him a platform to express HIS views. That is not appropriate in a Catholic university.

    The freedom at issue here is the freedom of the Catholic Church to run its universities as it sees fit.

    By the way, if Yeshiva University thinks so highly of Norman Finkelstein, why have they not offered him a job? As I said, Derschowitz must be laughing his head off!

  2. jaime said on September 6th, 2007 at 9:00am #

    This one had me fall out of my chair laughing! Thanks!

    Hahaha! That’s rich!

    “…He (Dersh) didn’t dare attack DePaul himself, so he provoked Finkelstein into committing professional suicide….”

  3. ashley said on September 6th, 2007 at 10:35am #

    Kim, from the luxury of the perspective of the (rightly) despised armchair warrior, to me it is simple: Finkelstein is well rid of working at a place whose leadership is unprincipled and corrupt even if he does enjoy a certain amount of support from the grass roots. So rather than fight them, he should let them have their victory and along with it, lack of honour and integrity.

    Furthermore, anybody at St. Paul’s who feels the leadership is corrupt, should resign or leave that institution. People can vote with action rather than indulging in fruitless argumentation. Again: there is no way to win the battle since the leadership will remain corrupted. So the best thing to do is walk away and find institutions more worthy of one’s participation either as student, staff or faculty.

    Einfach!

  4. Joseph Anderson said on September 8th, 2007 at 12:12pm #

    I have a great deal of respect for Norman Finkelstein. I think he’s a very courageous person — and obviously a meticulous scholar (as one would certainly have to be, dealing with his academic subject matters). I signed the petition (#1376, if I correctly recall) for his tenure. I consider him a highly valued friend. We have communicated on numerous occasions. And I see him whenever he comes to the San Francisco Bay Area.

    But, I consider it very ironic that THE ISRAEL LOBBY, whose POWER he once denied (as Chomsky too still completely denies), or said that PROOF of the lobby’s power is indeterminable, is the very lobby that has DESTROYED his career at DePaul University (a CATHOLIC university –not a state or Jewish one– previously known for its supposed liberalness at that!).

    (Finkelstein had just *partially*, say about 30%, shifted to my position –see “The Left and the Israel Lobby”, online– as a result of our previous private analytical discussions.)

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on October 14th, 2007 at 3:09pm #

    Kim Petersen. I’ve mispoken egregiously. In a posting of October 12 concerning the article “We Should Be Outraged,” I assumed DV pays its authors (and by implication its editors), and spoke (in a posted poem) to:

    “Dear post-onlys,

    You don’t deceive yourself and believe
    Anyone who’s paid to write
    Really pays attention
    To the words
    We post

    In any personal way,

    Do you?”

    This is not the entire poem.

    I have read subsequently your own extensive posts engaging posters to other articles of yours than this one.

    You obviously very much do pay attention to posts submitted to your articles, and at this point I really couldn’t care less whether DV is paying you. Thank you for your range of interests, for your courage, and for your remarkable series on the Kalaallit Nunaat and Thule AFB. And thank you for your willingness to jump into the fray and engage us “post onlys” in a very personal way.

  6. Kim Petersen said on October 14th, 2007 at 6:28pm #

    Hi Lloyd,
    Thanks for your kind words. No need to apologize. Since DV does not take advertising (advertising being a major source of what is wrong in media), money is scarce. DV’s writers’ sense of social conscience spurs them to cover topics of social justice that often go unreported or are distorted by the corporate media.
    Without readers, writers would be striving in vain. Readers are most precious to writers. They help to spread the causes dear to social activists.

  7. Lloyd Rowsey said on October 17th, 2007 at 5:21am #

    Thanks, Kim.

  8. Lloyd Rowsey said on October 25th, 2007 at 5:38am #

    Hi Kim,

    I guess I was using the word “egregiously” in the second sense (“conspicuously”) without its “especially” connotation,” ie, without meaning “conspicuously bad”. See Merriam-Webster online: “…2): conspicuous; especially: conspicuously bad.”

    I certainly did not intend to sound like I was apologizing.

    And I certainly did mean my words kindly. On the other hand, my two experiences with submitting my works to DV – both were met with total silence – did little to reinforce your kindly description of your fellow DV editors.

    Please be assured that I too have a sense of social conscience and justice, and it has spurred me to continue writing despite not having been published since I was eight (I’m now sixty-five years old). In fact I have very radical politics, and it is because I perceive a whole new “anti-corporatist” movement among published writers that I’ve taken hope anew, as it were, and begun posting comments here and there.