Norman Finkelstein, DePaul, and U.S. Academia:
Reductio Ad Absurdum of Centralized Universities
July 23, 2007
Norman Finkelstein, the son of Jewish holocaust survivors, is very critical of the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians, and in one of his books, The Holocaust Industry, he exposes and denounces people and organizations which purport to get money for holocaust survivors but in reality aid themselves and various Jewish organizations. Commenting on this book, Raul Hilberg, the author of the three-volume Destruction of European Jews said the following:
When I read Finkelstein’s book, The Holocaust Industry , at the time of its appearance, I was in the middle of my own investigations of these matters, and I came to the conclusion that he was on the right track. I refer now to the part of the book that deals with the claims against the Swiss banks, and the other claims pertaining to forced labor. I would now say in retrospect that he was actually conservative, moderate and that his conclusions are trustworthy. He is a well-trained political scientist, has the ability to do the research, did it carefully, and has come up with the right results. I am by no means the only one who, in the coming months or years, will totally agree with Finkelstein’s breakthrough.
Avi Shlaim, Oxford professor and notable scholar on the Israel-Palestine conflict, stated:
Israel has no immunity to criticism, moral immunity to criticism, because of the Holocaust. Israel is a sovereign nation-state, and it should be judged by the same standards as any other state. And Norman Finkelstein is a very serious . . . a . . . well-informed . . . and hard-hitting critic of Israeli practices in the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians.
Noam Chomsky said on Democracy Now, April 11, 2007:
Norman Finkelstein wrote a book [Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, 2005], which is in fact the best compendium that now exists of human rights violations in Israel and the blocking of diplomacy by Israel and the United States, which I mentioned -- very careful scholarly book, as all of his work is, impeccable -- also about the uses of anti-Semitism to try to silence a critical discussion.
I discovered Prof. Norman Finkelstein last year on the Internet's archive of Democracy Now! As I was searching for Alan Dershowitz (a Harvard lawyer who defended O.J. Simpson), whom I witnessed in his debate with Noam Chomsky, and wanted to see him in action with others, I came across a debate between him and Norman Finkelstein which took place in 2003 on Democracy Now! The topic was to be an examination of Dershowitz's recently published book The Case for Israel. Dershowitz opened with a long-winded introduction, and then as if God's swift sword descended, Finkestein pronounced that Dershowitz' book was a collosal fraud, with countless unacknowledged borrowings (plagiarisms) from another alleged fraud, Joan Peter's From Time Immemorial. After reading Beyond Chutzpah, I am convinced that Dershowitz is a sophist who argues by evidential omissions and distortions.
This debate caused me to have great admiration for Norman Finkelstein and a very low opinion of Dershowitz. My opinion of Dershowitz got worse when I learned that he tried to block the publication of Finkelstein's book Beyond Chutzpah. Dershowitz tried to "disuade" the University of California Press from publishing it, and he even tried to get governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to block its publication. Well, the book got published -- and it demolished Dershowitz' pretensions to scholarship.
Ever since, Dershowitz has been on a jihad to get back at Finkelstein for exposing him as a charlatan. He retaliated by lobbying successfully against Finkelstein's bid for tenure at DePaul University in Chicago.
Steps of the Tenure Procedure
The steps to receive tenure at DePaul require acceptance by the Department, by the College, and by the University. Formally, the preceding steps are advisory. The final determination is made by the President of the University.
Reasons for Denial of Tenure
Let's look at the case. Norman Finkelstein is, first of all, a world recognized scholar of distinction, whose books have been praised by world authorities on the Israeli-Palestine conflict -- as being notable contributions to the field. Just on this basis alone, he should be retained by any university as a research scholar. But, secondly, as a teacher, he has received outstanding evaluations, and the students have rallied in his support. In short, he is an outstanding scholar and teacher. And everyone in the tenure review process, including the president, acknowledged this. So, if an outstanding scholar and teacher is denied tenure for unsubstantial and irrelevant reasons, such a system is radically flawed.
The reasons given to him by the president of DePaul, Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, in the rejection letter, are that he concurs with the 4-3 vote of the University Board of Promotion and Tenure (UBPT) to deny promotion and tenure. The UBPT's reasons for denial are: (1) his scholarship is deliberately hurtful, (2) he has an inflammatory style, (3) he makes personal attacks, (4) he uses uncogent arguments, (5) his scholarship lacks careful critique, and (6) he has not made an effective contribution to public discourse on sensitive societal issues.
To this Holtschneider adds that (7) Finkelstein makes (ad hominem) "unprofessional personal attacks," and (8) shifts from scholarship to advocacy. All this apparently adds up to (9) lack of respect for the opinions of others, adding that if such things are published, it is "particularly egregious." He concludes by judging him to be (10) unprofessional by failing to "meet the most basic standards governing scholarly discourse within the academic community."
Let me point out that all these are unsupported charges.
Basic Standards Governing Scholarly Discourse
Lets begin with: What are the basic standards governing scholarly discourse? Holtschneider does not explain, but if we take into consideration his other charges and those of Dean Suchar, then, according to the President, the most basic standards governing scholarly discourse are collegiality, tone, and Vincentian personalism. However, in 2004-2005, the UBPT had made the following recommendations:
Recommendations of the University Board on Promotion and Tenure 2004-2005 Academic YearFurther, according to the Committee reviewing Promotion and Tenure procedures:
W. THE ROLE OF COLLEGIALITY
Dean Suchar and President Holtschneider may think that the basic standard governing scholarly discourse is collegiality, but the DePaul Faculty Handbook does not mention it, and the UBPT recommends against using it in evaluations, as does the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
By contrast, in my judgment as well as in that of the Political Science Personnel Committee report, the basic standards governing scholarly discourse are: (1) the use of arguments, and, moreover, (2) the use of plausibly sound arguments (if deductive) and plausibly cogent arguments (if inductive).
Now, according to the Political Science Personnel Committee report, which examined Alan Dershowitz' dossier charging Norman Finkelstein with academic misconduct, Finkelstein had plausibly sound and cogent arguments; thus, they unanimously (4-0) dismissed Dershowitz' allegations of academic misconduct as unfounded.
If Holtschneider were also aware of what are the "basic standards governing scholarly discourse," then he would dismiss the claims of the UBPT as being dogmatic claims presented without evidence, and he himself would provide plausibly sound and cogent arguments for his own claims. But both the UBPT report and Rev. Holtschneider's letter fail to meet "the most basic standards governing scholarly discourse within the academic community," which is to provide reasons and evidence for claims. It is ironic that academics who charge someone of not using plausibly sound and cogent arguments, themselves offer no arguments.
But whether, and to what extent, Finkelstein is a scholar in his field is a matter for his peers to determine, and I am sure that to the extent to which they found it relevant, they also took into consideration such things as "tone," "collegiality," and "Vincentian personalism." The result is that his departmental colleagues, approved his tenure 9 to 3. As far as the process goes, why does someone have to go through a College Personnel Committee, and then a University Board of Promotion and Tenure? What are they looking for that cannot be found and taken into consideration by the Department itself? Anne Clark Bartlett, a professor of English and president of the Faculty Council at DePaul, expressed the view that the UBTP is meant to be an affirmation of procedural justice at the lower level; it is not meant as a kind of retrial of the case. “The real responsibility for assessing someone’s scholarship and teaching and service rests with the department. Your closest colleagues are expected to understand what you do more precisely than an upper level body." She said that she viewed the university-wide panel’s job as one of reviewing “the way the process was carried out,” not “retrying the case.” "She said she wasn’t sure that this time there wasn’t a retrying of the case." [Citation from Inside Higher Education]
Both the UBPT and the president charge Finkelstein with "ad hominem" or "personal attacks." It is not clear what such charges amount to. There are at least five general ways to understand this. (1) In logic, there is distinguished a fallacious mode of arguments, called the "ad hominem fallacy." And normally two varieties are distinguished: the ad hominem abusive, and the ad hominem circumstancial. If a scholar made use of such arguments often, he could be accused of not using plausibly sound arguments, which would amount to saying that he is unscholarly. (2) In law, there is what is called "defamation of character." This requires the making of deliberately false charges about a person's character. It is "slander" if made verbally in the presence of third parties; "libel" if published. (3) There is also abusive "name calling." (4) There is the deleterious effect on a scholar as a result of a critique of his work. For example, if person X makes a negative evaluation of person Y's writing, then this has some repercussions on Y's scholarly standing; so, all critical examinations of writings are in this sense "ad hominem." But, in this sense, a lot of scholarship -- by its very nature -- is "ad hominem." For example, all criticism's of Plato's or Kant's philosophy are "ad hominem," in this sense. Finally, (5) there is the matter of evaluating people for trustworthiness, competency, and worthiness for recognition or reward, e.g., the bestowal of tenure.
Given these five senses of "ad hominem," disrespect for persons could be interpreted to mean any of these five ad hominems. I agree that scholars should avoid the first three ad hominems. However, the first type may not be deliberate -- and if detected may constitute an honest error. For the second, there is criminal prosecution. The third is the most difficult to assess and requires a context. A tit for tat exchange may be the best that can be expected under particular circumstances. Radio and television appearances allowing for only one line evaluations may -- if warranted -- require something like "he's a buffoon," "charlatan," "fraud," or some such. Whether and to what extent such language should be used is a matter of diplomacy.
As to the fourth sense of "ad hominem," its avoidance amounts to a prohibition of criticism, and makes nonsense of education. Education requires acquiring the willingness and disposition for discerning well-founded opinions from arbitrary ones. In other words, not all opinions are equal and worthy of respect. Some opinions are better than others, depending on the nature of the arguments offered in their support. The fact that Finkestein wrote a book Beyond Chutzpah which focuses on Alan Dershowitz's books Chutzpah and A Case for Israel and argues that these books are full of unsound and uncogent arguments is as "ad hominem" as writing about Plato's Dialogues and charging them with unsound and uncogent arguments. If this is "ad hominem," then liberal arts scholarship by its very nature is "ad hominem."
As to the fifth sense of "ad hominem" (evaluation of individuals), there is no objection to the president's right to evaluate Finkelstein to be "unprofessional," as there is no objection to Finkelstein's right to evaluate Dershowitz to be unscholarly.
It is unclear in what pejorative sense the president is charging Finkelstein with an "ad hominem." His claim is neither explained, not supported; whereas Finkelstein's charges are both explained and supported.
Respect for the Opinions of Others
When people talk about "respecting" the opinions of others, they may mean (A) allowing them to express their opinion , or (B) not evaluating the opinions. In relation to (A), there is difference between (1) letting someone express an opinion, (2) letting someone express their scholarly opinion, (3) acknowledging or taking note of the scholarly opinion. Everyone, of course, has an opinion. But scholarly journals do not -- as a practice -- allow unscholarly opinions to be expressed in their pages, or even pay attention to unscholarly opinions. Is this a matter of disrespect? Hardly. There is an initial judgment made of whether the opinion is scholarly or not. However, if a journal suppresses the publication of a scholarly article simply on the basis of its conclusion, then the journal is biased, and is then disrespectful of the opinions of others. When we normally talk about "respecting the opinions" of others, we normally mean allowing others to express their opinion and giving them some attention. The only attempts at suppressing someone's scholarly speech was on the part of Dershowitz in his lobbying efforts to (a) stop the publication of Finkelstein book by the U. of Cal. Press, (b) the appeal to Gov. Schwarznegger to stop the publication, and (c) the lobbying of DePaul to deny tenure to Finkelstein. The lobbying was intended to stop Finkelstein from expressing his scholarly opinions, and the denial of tenure is a further attempt to silence or suppress Finkelstein's ability to express his scholarly opinions. In this sense, Dershowitz and Holtschneider have shown a disrespect for Finkelstein's scholarly opinions. Finkelstein, on the other hand, has not -- to my knowledge -- lobbied in a similar manner against Dershowitz. He has not tried to stop the publication of Dershowitz's books, he has not appealed to governors for help, nor has he lobbied Harvard to fire Dershowitz. So, Finkelstein is not guilty of showing disrespect for the scholarly opinions of Dershowitz or anyone else.
In relation to (B), sometimes -- most often in the case of religious and political beliefs -- where there is disagreement, it is said that respecting the opinions of others means refraining from criticizing them. Sometimes this stance is justified by a claim that in these matters there are no ways to adjudicate the matters, so the respectful thing to do is to acknowledge the disagreement and desist from criticism. I happen to disagree with the assumption that there is no way to adjudicate these matters, and therefore think that it is a scholar's business to try to adjudicate on matters of religion and politics. There are no sacred cows; all opinions are fair game to critical examination.
It is arbitrary whose opinions are subjected to critical examination. These could be the opinions of Plato, Aquinas, Kant, Dershowitz, or Holtschneider. Finkelstein has chosen to examine the writings of Dershowitz, and he has made the charge that many of his opinions are unscholarly. An opinion is unscholarly if (1) it is not backed up with arguments, and (2) if the arguments are not plausibly sound or cogent. If it is proper -- as Holtschneider writes -- to express disagreement with opinions, then it is proper for Finkelstein to express his disagreements with Dershowitz's opinions, and it is proper to charge that some of his opinions are unscholarly. In what sense, for example, is Finkelstein's book, Beyond Chutzpah "disrespectful of opinions"? It is a critical examination of Dershowitz's opinions -- exactly what scholars do and should do.
Why the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider is an incompetent scholar and president, and should be dismissed
I have posed for myself the task of evaluating Holtschneider's performance in this matter as a scholar and as a president. The subject of my evaluation is his letter of rejection of tenure to Finkelstein. As a president, Holtschneider should understand that his pronouncements in this case have a very serious effect on the career and life of Prof. Finkelstein, his letter also serves as an example of tenure procedures not only in Catholic Universities, but of tenure procedures in most U.S. universities, and it has implications for scholarship generally. Consequently, the president's decision and his letter of rejection should serve as a paradigm of scholarship.
The letter of rejection simply expresses Holtschneider's opinions without any evidence. This is not scholarly. A president, in writing such a letter, must surely have tried to be scholarly -- this is a matter of collegiality and Vincentian personalism. And if this is the best he could do, then in my judgment (1) he is not a scholar, (2) he does not know what scholarship is, and (3) he is not competent to appreciate scholarship. Let me explain these points. About (1), the basic standard of scholarly discourse is the presentation of plausibly sound and cogent arguments for claims. But his letter doesn't contain arguments. He is, therefore, unscholarly. About (2), he thinks that the basic standard of scholarly discourse is "collegiality" -- it is not; it is the presentation of arguments. Therefore, he is ignorant about the nature of scholarship. About (3), he should appreciate the fact that Finkelstein's writings and the report of the Political Science Personnel Committee are examples of scholarly writings, while the report of the UBPT is unscholarly. Therefore, if the UBPT committee itself has "failed to meet the most basic standards governing scholarly discourse within the academic community," then the president has a "compelling reason" to overturn the UBPT recommendations. But if he does not overturn an unscholarly report, then he cannot distinguish scholarly from unscholarly reports or writings.
Let us assume that the President is capable of scholarly writing -- that is the presentation of arguments, and moreover of arguments which are plausibly sound and cogent, but has chosen because of constraints of another nature not to do so. In other words, where a man's career is at stake, the president does not want to give the time and effort to produce a scholarly evaluation. In this case, I do think that the criterion of collegiality and Vincentian personalism is relevant; and, in that case, the President should be removed from his office for lack of collegiality and Vincentian personalism.
All of Holtschneider's claims in his letter of rejection are, in my opinion, either false or irrelevant; but not one of his claims is supported by arguments -- which amounts to making dogmatic, unscholarly assertions. By his own criterion of "meeting the most basic standards governing scholarly discourse within the academic community," Holtschneider's letter fails miserably. Now, a president of an ideal college or university should be a paradigm example of a scholar. But by the evidence of his rejection letter, he is not a scholar. He is a mere unscholarly mortal. That would be fine, except that he is the president and in a position of power, and in his unscholarly capacity can destroy lives, which makes him dangerous. The man is incompetent as a scholar and as a president, and should be removed from his office.
Role of the Board of Trustees and the Hierarchy of Power
Now, the higher power in the University is the Board of Trustees, and if the President showed himself to be incompetent, then they should jump in and do two things. Overule him by granting tenure to Finkelstein, and dismiss the President for incompetency. And they, of course, can still do this. And if some of them have any sense of decency and justice, they should speak out. They should demand a gathering of the Board of Trustees and examine this whole affair -- which has a world audience, and repercussions beyond DePaul. They should see that it is crystal clear that the President and the UBPT "fail to meet the most basic standard governing scholarly discourse within the academic community" -- by failing to provide evidence for their claims.
But suppose the president has already met with the Board of Trustees and discussed the Finkelstein matter, and that they already saw his proposed letter of denial to Finkelstein, and approved it. If that happened, then -- what can I say -- all of them -- from an academic perspective -- are incompetent.
But from a political and economic perspective, this group may be very savvy and quite competent if we take into account the "real" reasons for Finkelstein's denial of tenure. The board may simply be considering the political and, hence, economic repercussions of giving Finkestein tenure. Unlike other Boards of Trustees, the DePaul Board of Trustees serve at the pleasure of the Members of the Corporation (2/3 of whom must be Vincentians). The Rev. James Swift, CM, who is a member of the Board of Trustees, is also the Midwest Provincial of the Vincentians. He, in turn, is answerable to Rev. G. Gregory Gay III, CM, Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, and possibly to Cardinal and Archbishop of Chicago, Francis Eugene George, O.M.I.. And all of them are ultimately obedient to Pope Benedict XVI.
Finkelstein may be the victim of a power play between the Catholic Church and the Israeli government, whose interests are expressed in part by the Israeli lobby.
Who and what is the Israeli lobby? Last year Prof. John Mearsheimer, from the University of Chicago, and Prof. Stephen Walt, from Harvard University, wrote an article "The Israel Lobby", London Review of Books, March 23, 2006. They wrote:
"Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and best known. . . . The Lobby also includes prominent Christian evangelicals like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson, as well as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, former majority leaders in the House of Representatives, all of whom believe Israel’s rebirth is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy and support its expansionist agenda; to do otherwise, they believe, would be contrary to God’s will. Neo-conservative gentiles such as John Bolton; Robert Bartley, the former Wall Street Journal editor; William Bennett, the former secretary of education; Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former UN ambassador; and the influential columnist George Will are also steadfast supporters."
Is the denial of tenure to Prof. Finkelstein the work of the Israeli lobby? In the July 2, 2007 issue of Counterpunch, Bill Williams in "Anatomy of a Smear: The Commissar Two-Step at DePaul" makes interesting speculations. The Board of Trustees are mostly business people who can be economically hurt or helped by their political leanings. So, in the face of the Israeli lobby, possibly present on the Board in the person of John B. Simon, the President of the Board of Trustees, each and every board member's view can be closely monitored. Although Williams' speculations have some plausibility, I don't see Mr. Simon as a deciding power. I am more inclined to focus on the wishes of the Rev. James Swift, who as the Provincial has more power, the desires of his superior, Rev. Gay, and the desires of Cardinal George and the Pope. Although I think the Israeli lobby is involved, because Finkelstein's tenure case has reached an international status, it is likely that the decision what to do with Finkelstein may be coming from the Vatican. See Lynda Brayer, "DePaul and the Vatican's Long Leash: Norman Finkelstein and the Catholic Church," Counterpunch, July 3, 2007.
President Holtschneider is a small cog in the monolithic hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and he is, no doubt, simply following orders.
Superficially, the president serves at the pleasure of the Board of Trustees. But the Board of Trustees themselves are selected by the Members of the Corporation, a body distinct from the Board of Trustees. Article 3 of DePaul's Articles of Incorporation reads:
The management of the corporation shall be vested in a Board of Trustees. The number of Trustees may be increased or decreased by the Membership at any of the meetings of the Membership. Trustees shall be elected by the Members in such a manner and for such terms of office as shall be provided in the By-Laws.
Given that the power structure has a hierarchy through the Vincentians to the Roman Catholic Church, the ultimate decision of whether to retain Norman Finkelstein lies in the hands of the Pope. So, this apparently local matter of a Vincentian President of DePaul refusing tenure has behind it the relations of the government of Israel to the Pope.
Am I exaggerating the importance of Norman Finkelstein by bringing into consideration the relation of the Catholic Church to Israel? What does the Catholic Church have to fear from Israel? Well, for one, how the Israeli government deals with the Holy Sites in Israel. To the Catholic Church, Norman Finkelstein is small beans; to the Israeli's he is a big thorn in their sides. Imagine an Israeli diplomat talking to a Vatican diplomat: "Let's make a deal. Get rid of Finkelstein, and we'll return to you the ancient Franciscan monastery including the Cenacle [the Last Supper room], which is located above a section occupied by a Jewish group which believes it to be King David's tomb." -- Who knows?
The president embodies centralized authority. Vice-presidents and deans are directly responsible to him. They serve at his pleasure; hence, indirectly, the interests of the Catholic Church. If Dean Charles Suchar played his career moves right, before he issued his letter of rejection of tenure, he would have consulted with the president to see if he was going to support him. They probably discussed the matter and the strategy to use. Getting an OK from the president, he went ahead with it; and the president's letter makes the preapproval evident. The president, in his own right, no doubt, had a consultation with Rev. Swift, who may have had a chat with his superior, Rev. Gay, and Cardinal George, who himself may have been in contact with the Vatican.
The Alternative: Decentralized Universities
In reading John R. Searle's book, The Campus War (1971), I was impressed with his recommendations for a decentralized, bottom-up structure for universities. In his envisioned structure, there would be no board of trustees: "I think lay boards should be abolished." Also,
"I think the administration as an independent agency should be abolished and responsibility for the performance of most of its present functions should be lodged with the faculty."
In such a bottom-up structure, we could have exactly the same offices and functions that exist at present at DePaul, except that the power structure would be altered, possibly in the following ways. The chairpersons would be elected by members of the department, the deans would be elected by the chairpersons, and the president would be elected by the deans.
Tenure cases could be decided by the same officers and committees as presently, except that the outcome would be determined democratically by a simple cumulative majority. Why should the UBPT vote of a 4-3 against tenure trump the departmental vote of 9-3 for tenure? And why should the president's vote be decisive? I find no objection to giving the president a vote, but his vote should have no more weight than any other vote. If the university were to be run more democratically, then tenure would be given on the basis of a simple majority of the cumulative votes. The tabulation would be as follows:
Using this method of tabulation and weighing of votes, Finkelstein would be given tenure by an overwhelming majority of votes of 17 to 9.
The present procedure is not democratic in spite of the charade of voting. The existing structure is meant to deflect attention from the fact that the president alone has absolute power, delegated to him by the Vatican.
See other articles on this matter at "DePaul University -- Against"