Academia At Its Worst

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the September 2007 edition of The Valley Scene

The myth of the “liberal” university is as widespread and false as the myth of the “liberal” media. A liberal university (like a liberal media) would be a safe space for dissent and would welcome thinking that challenges established power. Today, universities act like corporate media in treating dissent as “bad for business.” The University of Colorado’s recent termination of Ward Churchill, along with DePaul University’s decision to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein and Mehrene Larudee, make “liberal university” sound like the punch line to a bad joke.

Shortly after September 11, 2001 professor Churchill wrote an essay called “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” In it, he referred to World Trade Center corporate employees as “little Eichmanns,” suggesting that the people who died in the attacks were the moral equivalents of Nazi officials “just following orders” when sending Jews to the death camps. Nearly 6 years later, in July of this year, the Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 to approve UC Boulder president Hank Brown’s recommendation that Churchill be fired.

Hank Brown and the Colorado Board of Regents insist Churchill’s firing had nothing to do with his controversial statements, but with research misconduct uncovered by a university committee. They claim instances of plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication can be found in Churchill’s scholarly writings. Though admitting that the extensive review of Churchill’s writings (his work has been examined more thoroughly than probably any scholar in the history of academia) would not have taken place were it not for the media backlash against his 9/11 statements, Brown still claims with a straight face that he received fair treatment.

For his part, Churchill told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the Board had engaged in a “carefully managed illusion of due process.” His view is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, each of which laments the chilling effect the Churchill decision will have on the off-campus speech of professors. The Chronicle also cited Churchill supporter Eric Cheyfitz, a professor of American Studies at Cornell who argues that the Committee making accusations against Churchill itself engaged in research misconduct in a variety of ways including the reliance on scholars who have had longstanding disagreements with him.

The situation was exploited by the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni, along with Bill O’Reilly, David Horowitz, and other right wing media complaining that “Ward Churchill is everywhere” in academia. The University of Colorado administration did not enjoy the negative public relations and, rather than take a stand for the principles of academic freedom and protection of free expression, made what was essentially a business decision to terminate an individual whose words offended those forces in the legislature and media that could do the campus harm.

Professor Norman Finkelstein’s tenure denial at DePaul University presents an even more shocking case of the abandonment of liberal values in the academy. Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust victims, has produced a huge body of scholarly and popular writings that show, among other things, how the Holocaust has been exploited for political gain and how the United States and Israel act in ways that contradict their stated calls for peace in the middle east. The late Raul Hilberg, much admired founder of the field of Holocaust Studies, praised Finkelstein’s scholarship as vital and rigorous.

Finkelstein’s work naturally attracts vehement condemnation, the most vocal and strident from Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. Finkelstein’s 2005 book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, provides evidence that parts of Dershowitz’s 2003 The Case for Israel were plagiarized. Dershowitz proceeded to distribute a dossier of materials to individuals involved in the DePaul tenure decision, identifying “Norman Finkelstein's most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions."

The department and college personnel committee, both of which found Dershowitz’s criticisms of Finkelstein’s scholarship to be baseless, granted positive recommendations for tenure. But the Dean of the College along with university president Dennis Holtschneider parroted Dershowitz’s accusations of Finkelstein’s “unprofessional personal attacks” and voted to deny. Holtschneider’s tenure denial letter, available on the web, provides little evidence that he had independently read any of Finkelstein’s work.

Finkelstein told the Chronicle: "DePaul is in a growth mode, and they see me as an albatross because they're getting all this negative publicity because of me. And they want to get rid of me. And now the question is, what's going to prevail? The principles of fairness, the principles of academic freedom, or power and money in the form of a mailed fist?" The DePaul Administration abandoned fairness and academic freedom principles not only for Finkelstein, but also for professor Mehrene Larudee. She was called an outstanding teacher and scholar at every level of review but denied tenure by Holtschneider. Her sin? Publicly supporting Finkelstein.

Universities at their best represent open and safe spaces for free thinking that challenges widely accepted opinions. At their worst, they act like corporate media and stifle dissent in the interest of the bottom line. As regards the treatment of Churchill and Finkelstein, we’ve seen academia at its worst.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.