Norman Finkelstein resigned today from DePaul University, a wrenching decision given what he has faced and endured. An earlier letter of protest follows:
September 4, 2007
The Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.
1 East Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois 60604-2287
Dear President Holtschneider,
We write to you today as colleagues from a neighbor institution, and we write in the spirit of dialogue and tolerance which is so central to the Vincentian tradition that you and DePaul University hold dear. We write in the hope that in the midst of what must seem to you at times like a firestorm, you can find a space of serenity and peace to reflect on the larger meanings and implications of events unfolding now at DePaul, locate those events in the context of increasing attacks on speech and open inquiry in the academy, and, finally, stand up unequivocally for intellectual freedom and for justice.
We refer, of course, to the controversy swirling around Professor Norman Finkelstein’s tenure and promotion case, and the University’s decision to deny tenure to him and another highly-regarded professor, Mehrene E. Larudee. Tenure and promotion is rarely an open affair, but these particular cases have entered the public square with force and velocity. In part this is because the University reversed the Political Science Department’s recommendation regarding Dr. Finkelstein, reached through a time-tested peer review process, and in part it’s the result of the noisy campaign by Alan Dershowitz, a prominent Harvard University law professor, to undermine and demonize Dr. Finkelstein and his work. Professor Dershowitz publicly promised that he would see to it that Norman Finkelstein would never be granted tenure, and, as events continue to unfold, as standards, rules, and rights seem to topple before him, it’s increasingly believable that Alan Dershowitz’ troubling and bullying threat has come true.
But perhaps the decisive element igniting this case is that Professor Finkelstein’s scholarship is at the vortex of one of the most complex and vexing areas in the world today: Israel/Palestine. His work is controversial without doubt, always provocative, sometimes gut-wrenching. It is also courageous, for he has little concern for who he offends or who he supports. He follows the evidence wherever it leads him, and he speaks in a singular voice without regard to any orthodoxy whatsoever. His record is stellar: five published books with a variety of academic and trade publishers, a range of scholarly articles, reviews, and papers. His work is widely read, cited, debated.
There are many areas of inquiry and debate that are fairly straight-forward; Israel/Palestine is not one of them. It is, rather, a dynamic and complex area full of emotion, conflicting claims, ideology, fear, anxiety. But our universities are uniquely organized so that these areas, too, can be at the center of its discourse, even when they cause misunderstanding and hurt, anger and hostility.
The primary job of intellectuals and scholars is to challenge orthodoxy, dogma, and mindless complacency, to be skeptical of all authoritative claims, to interrogate and trouble the given and the taken-for-granted. The growth of knowledge, insight, and understanding depends on their kind of effort, and the inevitable clash of ideas that follows must be nourished and not crushed.
Teachers have certain fundamental responsibilities, chiefly to organize classrooms as sites of open discussion, free of coercion or intimidation. By all accounts Professor Finkelstein meets this standard. His classes are fully enrolled, and students welcome the exchange of views that he encourages. Students should always recognize that a classroom can only be relatively safe, that arguing about ideas cannot be risk-free. Feeling uncomfortable about one’s beliefs—students and teachers alike—is a matter of course in good classrooms.
Reverend Holtschneider, your decision in this matter will have an impact far beyond Norman Finkelstein himself. The dismissals of Professors Finkelstein and Larudee threaten to undermine the role of the university as a foundation of democracy and as a forum for ideas and debate on the critical social issues of our time. They impact the life of the university as a whole by casting a chill on classroom teaching, the selection of research projects, and the tenure and promotion process. All of your students are watching to see how a leader responds to a crisis, and what role principle plays. Young scholars and teachers are watching, weighing what is worth knowing and experiencing, studying and pursuing. The larger society is watching, many of us hopeful that you will strike a blow for the right to think, which is today in doubt.