Following Politicized Dismissal, Norm Finkelstein Gives Details of Tenure Battle

Matt Muchowski January 23, 2012

Norman Finkelstein speaking at Suffolk University in 2005. (Photo by Miguel de Icaza via Wikimedia)

Nor­man Finkelstein’s lec­ture at DePaul’s Lin­coln Park cam­pus last week marked the first time that the polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor has returned to the Chica­go uni­ver­si­ty since his con­tro­ver­sial depar­ture in 2007. The now-infa­mous deci­sion by DePaul to deny Finkel­stein tenure result­ed in part from con­ser­v­a­tive aca­d­e­mics’ cam­paign to paint Finkel­stein, whose research was crit­i­cal of Israel, as a Holo­caust denier.Speak­ing to a crowd­ed lec­ture hall on Jan­u­ary 17, Finkel­stein dis­cussed the expe­ri­ence and for the first time revealed some of the details of his set­tle­ment with DePaul.DePaul’s plot to deny me tenure had noth­ing to do with my faults,” Finkel­stein said. In fact, and iron­i­cal­ly, it vicious­ly attacked me and destroyed my career because of my virtues. Which, although few in num­ber, they still found threat­en­ing.”Full dis­clo­sure: I was a stu­dent of Finkel­stein’s pri­or to his depar­ture from DePaul.
Finkel­stein taught polit­i­cal sci­ence at DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty, the largest Catholic Uni­ver­si­ty in the U.S., for six years. He is the author of sev­er­al books and has lec­tured around the world about the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict. His par­ents sur­vived the Nazi Holo­caust, and he fre­quent­ly crit­i­cizes what he sees as attempts to use the Holo­caust as cov­er for Israel’s ille­gal occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and Gaza strip.When he was denied tenure in 2007, he con­sis­tent­ly had among the high­est stu­dent eval­u­a­tions of any teacher in the polit­i­cal sci­ence depart­ment at DePaul. Many of his stu­dents were out­raged, and camped out in the office of the Pres­i­dent of DePaul for three days and two nights in protest. Many have com­ment­ed that Finkel­stein’s prob­lem was that he touched the third rail of Amer­i­can politics—the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian conflict—before he had obtained the pro­tec­tion of tenure.When a uni­ver­si­ty denies tenure to a pro­fes­sor, the pro­fes­sor is usu­al­ly allowed to fin­ish one more year at the school in order to seek oth­er employ­ment. Finkel­stein’s tenure-track con­tract actu­al­ly had anoth­er year on it, but DePaul refused to allow Finkel­stein to teach that year. As a result, Finkel­stein reached a set­tle­ment with the school, much of which is still con­fi­den­tial – but part of which was that he would be barred from cam­pus.Finkel­stein returned to cam­pus, how­ev­er, after assert­ing that DePaul had vio­lat­ed the terms of the set­tle­ment, which he said he had ful­ly doc­u­ment­ed. I have 500 pages of cor­re­spon­dence. I feel com­plete­ly con­fi­dent that if I am chal­lenged on any word spo­ken today, I can car­ry the day in the court of pub­lic opin­ion.”Asked why he was reopen­ing the wound,” Finkel­stein replied, I did not reopen the wound. The wound nev­er healed, and it can not heal. I can not move on. DePaul destroyed my pro­fes­sion­al call­ing. There’s no where else to move.”Cit­ing the prece­dent that had been recent­ly set where DePaul pres­i­dent Fr. Holtschnei­der reversed a denial of tenure for chem­istry pro­fes­sor, Quinet­ta Shel­by, Finkel­stein made a pro­pos­al to DePaul’s admin­is­tra­tion and board of direc­tors: if you acknowl­edge your wrong­do­ing in my case, if you apol­o­gize for the wrong­do­ing, and grant me the tenure that I earned, and that I deserve, then I would con­sid­er the mat­ter closed.” So far, the admin­is­tra­tion has not tak­en Finkel­stein up on this offer.Finkel­stein went on to assert that the events in 2007 had con­sti­tut­ed a “plot” to destroy his pro­fes­sion­al career, say­ing that many of those who par­tic­i­pat­ed in it had gone on to receive pro­mo­tions.While he did not name the attack­ers, it was clear to this writer and those assem­bled from the DePaul com­mu­ni­ty who he was talk­ing about.He described the Dean of Lib­er­al Arts and Sci­ence, Charles Suchar, who rec­om­mend­ed against tenur­ing Finkel­stein, even after the Col­lege of Lib­er­al Arts and Sci­ence tenure com­mit­tee vot­ed unan­i­mous­ly to grant him tenure. Suchar then spread rumors to fac­ul­ty that he had secret infor­ma­tion” on Finkel­stein.Finkel­stein said that after the set­tle­ment agree­ment had been signed and in fla­grant breach of it,” a DePaul admin­is­tra­tor told an out­side pro­fes­sor that Finkel­stein had been denied tenure because of the “secret infor­ma­tion.”One might ask, what was this secret infor­ma­tion” that taint­ed the tenure process?Anoth­er DePaul admin­is­tra­tor accused Finkel­stein of vio­lent assault and of pro­mot­ing bes­tial­i­ty, incest and rape” in his class­es, which could have been refer­ring to a lec­ture on John Stu­art Mil­l’s book, On Lib­er­ty, tak­en hor­ri­bly out of con­text. Finkel­stein described how DePaul’s provost dropped all the charges when he threat­ened to go pub­lic with this filthy frame-up.”Then there are the rumors and claims asso­ci­at­ed with Alan Der­showitz. Finkel­stein had angered the Har­vard law pro­fes­sor by repeat­ed­ly chal­leng­ing Der­show­itz’s schol­ar­ship on the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict.Der­showitz, a sup­port­er of legal­iz­ing tor­ture and apol­o­gist for Israel’s worst war crimes in the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, launched an effort to smear Finkel­stein’s rep­u­ta­tion.Accord­ing to Finkel­stein, the chair of the polit­i­cal sci­ence depart­ment, Pat Calla­han, entered into a cor­re­spon­dence with Alan Der­showitz and con­spired with him to pre­vent me from get­ting tenure.” Der­showitz claimed that Finkel­stein was a Holo­caust min­i­miz­er at best, a Holo­caust denier at worst. This charge was issued despite the fact that Finkel­stein’s par­ents had sur­vived the Holo­caust and Finkel­stein had ded­i­cat­ed many of his books to their mem­o­ry.DePaul’s law school launched their own inves­ti­ga­tion of Finkel­stein, with infor­ma­tion from Der­showitz that mis­char­ac­ter­ized many of Finkel­stein’s posi­tions and took his state­ments out of con­text. Two DePaul law pro­fes­sors told the law school fac­ul­ty that I was a Holo­caust denier. That I was a part of the Iran­ian-Venezualian world­wide con­spir­a­cy to deny the Holo­caust,” said Finkel­stein.Despite this heavy-hand­ed inter­ven­tion, Der­show­tiz claimed at the time that he had only inter­vened in DePaul’s tenure process when he was asked to by Calla­han.Lat­er, how­ev­er, Fr. Holtschnieder told stu­dents sup­port­ing Finkel­stein that in fact Der­showitz had repeat­ed­ly sent let­ters and attempt­ed to meet with him – attempts that, accord­ing to Holtschnieder, were turned down.The smear cam­paign against Finkel­stein was so effec­tive that his depart­ment chair called Finkelstein’s book, Beyond Chutz­pah, “worth­less.” This same chair ranked Finkel­stein as the worst pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment, despite hav­ing among the high­est stu­dent eval­u­a­tions of any pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment.Finkel­stein invit­ed the chief fig­ures involved in his tenure case to the lec­ture, and offered them the full right to reply. None of them attend­ed or spoke.This episode with Finkel­stein has also high­light­ed broad­er prob­lems with DePaul’s tenure sys­tem as it impacts aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom. DePaul’s denial of tenure of a range of pro­fes­sors who did­n’t fit a par­tic­u­lar mold stands as a bleak reminder of who actu­al­ly con­trols high edu­ca­tion today. In one exam­ple, the school denied tenure to Melis­sa Brad­shaw, who spear­head­ed the foun­da­tion of the school’s LGBTQ stud­ies pro­gram, the first of its kind at any Catholic uni­ver­si­ty.The school also has an estab­lished pat­tern of deny­ing tenure to fac­ul­ty of col­or. Accord­ing to attor­ney Lynne Bern­abei, Over a 20 year peri­od pri­or to 2009 – 2010, minor­i­ty appli­cants for tenure at DePaul were twice as like­ly as white appli­cants to be denied.”Nami­ta Goswa­mi, a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor hired to teach post-colo­nial the­o­ry, was  denied tenure for not teach­ing enough “con­ti­nen­tal” (read: Euro­pean) phi­los­o­phy.Despite hav­ing his teach­ing career ruined, Finkel­stein is push­ing ahead with plans to pub­lish three books this year, includ­ing one about Ghan­di and his lessons for the strug­gles to end the Israeli occu­pa­tion. He has even been invit­ed to speak to the old­est Jew­ish soci­ety at Yale, whose last speak­er was for­mer Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ehud Barak.Upon his return to cam­pus, DePaul alum­ni Stephanie Willd­ing told Finkel­stein, On behalf of some of your for­mer stu­dents, every­thing you said is hor­rif­ic, they have robbed you of some­thing. But what they can’t rob you of is the impact that you had on all of us, who had the hon­or and priv­i­lege of being your stu­dents. There are very few big moments of my life where I don’t think of some­thing you said in class, or remem­ber the things you taught me. The few class­es that I took with you have had a big­ger impact on me that prob­a­bly most things in my life, and that’s some­thing that DePaul’s admin­is­tra­tion can nev­er take from any of us, or you.
Matt Muchows­ki works for Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union and enjoys defeat­ing anti-union leg­is­la­tion. He lives in Chica­go and for a brief but mem­o­rable time was asso­ciate pub­lish­er of In These Times.
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