Muffti has to admit he’s biased: given his job, he has strong reasons to like and admire the tenure system. However, there is a long history of venerable justifications for the system: it allows professors a measure of job security thus attracting good people into professorships and it protects an academic’s freedom of speech. One cannot be fired for following lines of inquiry that sometimes run very much counter to public sensibilities and long held beliefs. On the downside, as with any right to free speech, people don’t always bring a great deal of wisdom to the table when they excersize that right and sometime tenure protects people who do irresponsible work.
An interesting recent case is Norman Finkelstein’s. He teaches at DePaul University and is the author of several controversial books including Beyond Chutzpah, The Holocaust Industry, A Nation on Trial and others. He’s tussled with Alan Dershowitz. He’s widely known as a Jewish anti-semite and anti-zionist. The story, of course, appears more complicated when you scratch the surface. His refutation of Dershowitz, for example, draws heavily on such sources as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations that are widely regarded as Anti-Israel.
He’s also up for tenure this year at DePaul. His department voted 9-3 in favour of tenure and the university committee voted 5-0. Usually, (if external reviewers in some cases agree), this is basically sufficient for being granted tenure. However, the Dean of DePaul, Chuck Suchar, in a rare event, stepped in to try to block granting tenure. Suchar claims,
I find this very characteristic aspect of his scholarship to compromise its value and find it to be reflective of an ideologue and polemicist who has a rather hurtful and mean-spirited sub-text to his critical scholarship â€” not only to prove his point and others wrong but, also in my opinion, in the process, to impugn their veracity, honor, motives, reputations and/or their dignity…I see this as a very damaging threat to civil discourse in a university and in society in general.
Dershowitz has harsher words for Finkelstein:
He totally distorts my positions, uses quotes out of context, and simply makes things up. He assumes that his readers will not have read the material he criticizes, because if they did, they would not recognize his characterizations of them. Indeed I challenge any reasonable reader to peruse my writings and then Finkelstein’s characterization of them and decide whether his characterizations are even close to what I actually said.
It was President Bush who once famously said, â€œI don’t do nuance.â€ Well at least Finkelstein has that much in common with our president. Any effort by a pro-Israel writer to be reasonable, balanced or nuanced is turned by Finkelstein into a justification for genocide.
Finkelstein himself had some rather unkind words for Dershowitz. Oddly enough, Finkelstein himself is the child of holocaust survivors.
Notice, however, interestingly that the Dean’s comments relate to Finkelstein’s tone; he explicitly praises Finkelstein’s teaching abilities and says very little about the level of scholarship. Sadly absent from the discussion is a thorough discussion of Finkelstein’s abilities as an academic. While Muffti isn’t in any position to make such judgments (he doesn’t judge historians and hopes that they don’t judge philosophers), there are some rather unkind words for his work from others in the academy:
In the New York Times, Prof. Omer Bartov (Brown University historian) described Finkelstein’s book on the Holocaust as a â€œnovel variation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,â€ the fraudulent essay concocted in the late nineteenth century by the Czarist secret police. He also described Finkelstein as â€œjuvenile,â€ â€œarrogant,â€ and â€œstupidâ€ (Aug. 6, 2000). Professor Marc Saperstein described Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history as a â€œprolonged diatribe,â€ replete with â€œoutrageous ad hominem attacksâ€ and written in the â€œrhetorical style of the arrogant academic pit bull.â€
The eminent historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has dismissed Finkelstein as an anti-Semitic crackpot, as a pseudo-scholar, and as an apologist for the Hamas terrorists. The historian Israel Guttman dismissed Finkelstein’s book as an anti-Semitic buffoon. Professor Hans Momsen from Germany described it as â€œa most trivial book, one that appeals to easily aroused anti-Semitic prejudices.â€ University of Chicago Professor and author Peter Novick dismisses Finkelstein’s writing as â€œtrashâ€. Novick has written,
â€œSuch an examination reveals that many of those assertions are pure inventionâ€¦ No facts alleged by Finkelstein should be assumed to be really facts, no quotation in his book should be assumed to be accurate.â€  He adds,
â€œI had not thought that (apart from the disreputable fringe) there were Germans who would take seriously this twenty-first century updating of the â€˜Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ I was mistaken.â€ (Offene Fenster und Tueren,’Sueddeutsche Zeitung, February 7, 2001)
Yikes. So probably on account of the Dean’s poor choice of focus and lack of external review, Finkelstein will get tenure (at this point he has threatened to sue the university if he doesn’t) and probably for all the wrong reasons.