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A Defining Moment

Standing Firm with Norman Finkelstein and DePaul’s Heroic Students

by MATTHEW ABRAHAM

I am an untenured, assistant professor at DePaul University in Chicago, where Norman G. Finkelstein, the most heroic critic of U.S. and Israeli policy in Palestine ever to set foot in the U.S. academy, was denied tenure over nearly three months ago. I was, and am, deeply saddened that DePaul University, the institution where I have chosen to make a career, has so effectively undermined its social justice mission in a series of actions that have put us, as a faculty body, in grave peril.

By capitulating to the threats, antics, and pressures of Alan Dershowitz, the Israel Lobby, and its numerous affiliates, DePaul has compromised something so integral to an educational institution’s mission, that once so compromised, it is impossible to regain. That something is institutional autonomy. An institution’s ability to withstand outside pressure, and economic coercion-which can often be tantamount to blackmail-is a must in an age of corporate scandal, sleazy deal making, and political cover-ups. The general public used to look to the academy for leadership, vision, and most importantly, uncorrupted knowledge. Not anymore. DePaul is now even more vulnerable than it was before President Dennis Holtschneider signed Norman G. Finkelstein’s tenure denial letter on June 8 th. Despite the legalistic obfuscations about the how the Finkelstein denial is not about academic freedom, but about professional conduct, the denunciation of so-called "conspiracy theories" which have cropped up over the summer, and the holier-than-thou pronouncements about how this past year’s tenure and promotion decisions were the result of a "clean process," DePaul University is more vulnerable than ever to the next assault upon its integrity and autonomy-no matter how many millions of dollars have poured into its coffers because of the Finkelstein tenure denial, we are vulnerable.

Today, Wednesday (September 5th, 2007), is the biggest day in DePaul University ‘s history as Norman G. Finkelstein returns to campus to begin his terminal year after being denied tenure on June 8th. Finkelstein has been placed on "administrative leave" because of his supposed behavior on June 13 th and June 14th, when he confronted faculty in the Political Science Department, individuals who voted against his tenure, and Dean Charles Suchar, who recommended against tenure in a memo dated March 22 nd to the University Board on Tenure and Promotion. Because of these confrontations and because of recommendation made by a special committee within the Political Science Department, according to a memo written by Provost Helmut Epp, Finkelstein has been removed from the classroom and will not be allowed to teach the courses that were assigned to him as late as ten days ago.

Over the last few months I have been forced to ask some hard questions about DePaul’s institutional mission, its commitment to preserving tenure as a special accolade for the best and the brightest in the academy, and its defense of academic freedom in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which so often is subject to institutional surveillance, censorship, and silencing. Most importantly, I have come to question DePaul’s administration and faculty’s commitment to upholding academic freedom, as a serious institutional value, which enables critical thinking and meaningful dissent around important, albeit, taboo subjects such as Israel’s human rights record in the Occupied Territories and the special role that U.S. taxpayers fill in contributing to that record. Indeed, the silence of many tenured faculty here at DePaul, in the face of egregious violations of academic freedom and due process in the Finkelstein case, is in many ways the same silence that plagues the American public when it comes to speaking out about the forty-year Israeli occupation of Palestine. This faculty silence is perhaps the hardest thing for me, as a new faculty member, to understand and reconcile with DePaul’s Vincentian heritage and mission. If there was ever a time for Vincentian personalism to manifest itself, it is now, in this moment, when Norman Finkelstein steps onto campus this morning. If faculty find themselves unable to rally around him, too busy with the usual duties that attend preparing for the beginning of the academic year, perhaps DePaul faculty should ask themselves why they are in this business of opening young minds to new ideas, when they are incapable of seeing that our campus is on the brink of devolving into something reminiscent the Red Scare of the McCarthy Era. Will those faculty associated with, and standing in support of Finkelstein, be the next targets of DePaul’s administration? If so, I would certainly be a likely target. I am ready to accept that challenge.

Faculty and administrators that I respect, people to whom I have turned to for advice and guidance in the short time I have been at DePaul, have repeatedly cowered in the face of various pressures within and external to the university around the political persecution of Norman G. Finkelstein. Most DePaul faculty have preferred to simply stay out of the way, justifying their inaction with statements such as "Perhaps the administration has information that we don’t" or "We don’t know what happened in that room when Finkelstein met with the University Board." "Finkelstein is difficult" I’ve heard people say or "He’s not collegial and is a polemicist" someone else dismissively points out. "He’s saying things, which might be true, but people aren’t ready to hear such things as yet" another announces. These are excuses, I know, that well-meaning people generate to justify their decision to remain silent, realizing perhaps the fight for this dissident is not going to yield anything for them personally or professionally.

DePaul’s decision to deny Norman G. Finkelstein tenure in such a clumsy and blatantly foolish way, really beggars the imagination. The administration maintains that Finkelstein does not show adequate respect for the views of his political opponents in his scholarship, which is a transparent admission that, since it could not find serious flaws in his teaching or scholarship, the administration had to concoct a reason to deny Finkelstein tenure. That which Suchar called "Vincentian personalism"and what Holtschneider referenced as "a tendency to simplify and polarize debates which require subtle and layered consideration," are admissions that DePaul, under no circumstances, was to make a positive recommendation on the Finkelstein tenure case. Indeed, that is more likely than not what key members on DePaul’s Board of Trustees told the administration over a year ago-"Find a way to do this. We don’t care how." Perhaps realizing that most DePaul faculty would prefer to hold on to their academic privilege, instead of rocking the boat and making noise about the persecution of a dissenting colleague, the administration made a cynical calculation-"No one will care if Finkelstein is denied tenure. We can pull this off with minimum cost." Therein lay a miscalculation: There are a group of people who care about the political persecution of Norman G. Finkelstein–DePaul’s heroic students, who are at this moment standing by their favorite professor as he prepares for the fight of his life. Regardless of whether or not the faculty joins these students in this day’s heroic struggle is of little consequence. A might victory has been won for the idealism of the young. With them and Finkelstein I will stand firm.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM is an Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse at DePaul University. He was the 2005 Rachel Corrie Courage in the Teaching of Writing award winner. He can be reached at matthew.mabraha2@gmail.com.