Chicago’s DePaul University and professor Norman Finkelstein have come to some settlement following a controversy surrounding his bid to get academic tenure.
The political science professor was up for tenure, a permanent post that is one of the highest levels of professional accomplishment for an academic.
Few doubted he would get the position. After six years with the institution, he was loved by his students, supported by the department, and recommended for tenure by fellow faculty.
But last June, he was denied tenure.
From the outside, it appeared that the aggressive pressure campaign waged against him by pro-Israeli activists had managed to convince university leadership that they should reject Finkelstein.
He was deeply unpopular with the organized pro-Israel community. As a Jew who believes deeply in Palestinian rights, and who took to task Jewish organizations he claims exploit the Holocaust, he made many enemies.
His book, “Holocaust Industry,” angered many despite his personal angle — his parents survived the Nazi Holocaust yet received little compensation, which went to the organizations he attacks.
It all began during his Ph.D. in political studies at Princeton University. Finkelstein wrote a critical doctoral thesis on Zionism.
His Ph.D. work undermined pro-Israeli tracts. As a young student, he exposed Joan Peters’ research claiming the Palestinians did not really exist as a people as deeply flawed. She tried to show that the Palestinians were actually mostly migrants who came to Palestine after the Zionists started going there.
The controversy he kicked up caused a delay in his graduate studies, according to Wikipedia. Noam Chomsky wrote in “Understanding Power” that Finkelstein “literally could not get the faculty to read [his thesis].” Chomsky claimed Princeton eventually granted Finkelstein’s degree “out of embarrassment [for Princeton].”
With little support, he took adjunct positions teaching in New York City. External pressure campaigns against him led to his termination from Hunter College and New York University.
More recently, he delivered a damaging critique of Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz’s book, “The Case for Israel.” Finkelstein showed that Dershowitz borrowed heavily — potentially to the point of plagiarism — from Peters’ book, “From Time Immemorial.”
His public battles with Dershowitz were cited as one reason for denying him tenure. The president of DePaul cited the style of his work and intellectual combat. Some claimed Finkelstein violated the Vincentian norms of the Roman Catholic university by writing hurtful, personal attacks.
Many in the DePaul community were outraged. Students organized to support him.
Organizations such as the American Association of University Professors defended him and criticized the decision, since it was based on “collegiality,” or getting along with colleagues.
As fall began, the university sought to quiet the scandal as quickly as possible. They canceled Finkelstein’s classes for this term, and put him on administrative leave. Traditionally, professors denied tenure are given one more year to teach. This outraged many.
Finkelstein threatened civil disobedience. He was going to return to his office and refuse to leave. If arrested, he pledged to go on a hunger strike. Last Wednesday was to be the day. He and one hundred twenty supporters gathered on campus. Instead Finkelstein and the university came to a settlement that secured his peaceful resignation.
The terms of the settlement are undisclosed. Finkelstein and the university released a joint statement. Finkelstein attributed this “to external pressures climaxing in a national hysteria that tainted the tenure process.”
He did “acknowledge DePaul’s honorable role of providing a scholarly haven for me the past six years” despite considerable pressures against his initial hire. He also thanked his colleagues and students for their support.
DePaul’s administrators denied that external pressure played a role. They said the “attention was unwelcome and inappropriate.”
The statement also said that “Professor Finkelstein is a prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher.”
Alan Dershowitz told the Chicago Tribune, “the statement that [Finkelstein] is a scholar is simply false. He’s a propagandist.”
The university also denied tenure to another professor, Mahrene LaRudee, who had publicly supported Finkelstein. She too had support from her department and the collegewide faculty panel, according to “Inside Higher Education.”
Will Youmans is a writer for The Arab-American News.