It would be nice to think there is a more charitable explanation than political persecution for the decision to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein, the fierce critic of Israel who teaches political science at DePaul University in Chicago, but on the record that is public, I can't see one, and especially not after this contemporaneous tenure decision has come to light. (Professor Finkelstein's website has additional information about his tenure case.)
As this observer remarks:
Because few assistant professors with books published by at least three major publishers (in this case the University of California, W.W. Norton, and Verso) are denied tenure, and because even fewer with such books, a vote of support from their department, and glowing student evaluations, are denied tenure, it is difficult to imagine that anything other than outside interference, almost all of it from [Alan] Dershowitz, led to the denial of Finkelstein’s tenure at DePaul.
But since Professor Dershowitz's criticisms have been shown to be wholly lacking in merit, any adverse decision against Professor Finkelstein growing out of these criticisms would be inconsistent with a fair tenure process. (Interestingly, a committee in the Political Science Department at DePaul also evaluated Dershowitz's charges of academic misconduct, and found them wholly without merit.)
There is a website in support of Professor Finkelstein with an excellent and well-crafted open letter to the DePaul President and Provost raising questions about the grounds for the tenure denial, which I would urge readers concerned with academic freedom to sign. The letter reads in relevant part:
We have seen a memo, dated March 22, 2007, from Charles Suchar, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to the University Board on Tenure and Promotion, recommending against tenure for Dr. Finkelstein, despite favorable votes at two levels of faculty review. Dean Suchar justifies his recommendation on the ground that Dr. Finkelstein’s scholarly work, though sound in its content, is often uncivil, disrespectful, mean-spirited, inflammatory, and so on, in its tone. We object to this weighting of criteria, especially when a scholar’s polemical style is cited as evidence that he lacks “values of collegiality.” The American Association of University Professors has explicitly challenged the use of criteria such as “collegiality” in tenure and promotion evaluations, precisely because these terms are subject to a wide range of interpretations. The AAUP rightly notes that criteria of this sort are often used to mask retribution as well as disciplinary or other biases. We note that they often stand in for political disagreement. The likelihood increases, in our view, when the criteria are couched as vague institutional principles, such as “personalism” and “Vincentian values.”
The "comments" section on the website contains the names of signatories to the letter, many of whom have added interesting comments. The European historian Tony Judt (NYU) writes:
Norman Finkelstein and I have not always seen eye to eye and he has been very critical of me in print. And yes, he isn’t always polite or ‘respectful’. But that is a scholar’s privilege and has been for a thousand years. Precisely because of the controversial and highly politicised field in which he works, it is vital that Finkelstein’s tenure process be fair, free of all outside pressure and concerned exclusively with his qualities as scholar and teacher. Anything else will bring your university in serious public disrepute.
The political theorist Bertell Ollman (NYU) comments:
How should one deal with people who deserve strong criticism in a scholarly work? By being clear and above board and supplying a lot of good evidence for the charges made. I would have thought that this answer was self-evident and that Norman Finkelstein has provided us all with a model of how that should be done. To claim, as his Dean has, that Finkelstein’s well documented criticisms of a few people who have shown they deserve such treatment, crosses some imaginary line of academic civility is both unbelievable and unheard of.
I was also pleased to see that some philosophers had contributed comments. Philosopher Joseph Levine (U Mass/Amherst) writes:
I have read several of Prof. Finkelstein’s books, and listened to his commentary on current events in the Mideast on several occasions, and I have never seen or heard an “uncivil” comment. On the contrary, what I’ve seen and heard are sober, intelligent, and extremely well-informed analysis of both historical and current events. The idea that such an important scholar should be denied tenure is unthinkable. The fact that this is even a question sadly indicates the power of those forces in both academia and the media who just cannot tolerate any criticism of Israeli policy or an honest look at the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Philosopher Tomis Kapitan (Northern Illinois) concurs:
I have been studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over 30 years, and have frequently lectured and written about this important topic. During the past 15 years, I have found Mr. Finkelstein’s research to be immensely useful in shedding valuable light on relationships between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and on the American role in shaping and perpetuating this conflict. Given the consistently high calibre of his research, it is beyond belief that the scholarly credentials of Mr. Finkelstein should be in doubt. Those who oppose Mr. Finkelstein’s ideas are anxious to silence him. it would be shameful if DePaul University acquiesces in this assault upon freedom of speech.
I hope other philosophers will join me, and Professors Levine and Kapitan, in signing this letter.
UPDATE: John Gardner, the Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University, has added an apt comment in signing the letter: "To my mind this business reveals only one person who should clearly not be enjoying the privileges and immunities of tenure, and that one person is not Norman Finkelstein."