Saturday, April 07, 2007

University Politics

I teach at a university, but I've never been comfortable in academia. It pays the bills and I enjoy the teaching part of it. I don't feel at all politically compatable with "colleagues" even when I find them nice people personally, and, yes, even when they call themselves liberals, leftists, or radicals. And situations like the one I am about to describe remind me why I feel this way, but also why I feel like I need to stay around...

Harvard Law School's "gadfly" (and recently converted torture advocate) Alan M. Dershowitz has made it his personal cause to convince DePaul Law School to deny tenure to Norman G. Finkelstein. In addition to writing a book taking Dershowitz and others to task for exploiting the Holocaust, Finkelstein also accuses Dershowitz of plagiarism, saying some of the things Dershowitz wrote in his 2003 book The Case for Israel were not quite original.

How does a professor at one university communicate his desire that a professor at another university shouldn't receive tenure? As documented by the April 5 Chronicle of Higher Education, well, ruthlessly:

Last fall, with Mr. Finkelstein up for tenure, Mr. Dershowitz sent the DePaul law school faculty and members of the political-science department what he described, in a letter dated October 3, as a "dossier of Norman Finkelstein's most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions." "I hope that this will serve as an introduction and primer to the so- called scholarship that Finkelstein will present this term as he is considered for tenure," Mr. Dershowitz wrote. Mr. Finkelstein said in an interview on Monday that Mr. Dershowitz had embarked on "this frenetic and relentless campaign to deny me tenure." "He sent to every member of the law school ... a dossier which came, I think, to about 50 pages, leveling or, I should say, recycling all of the allegations he's been putting forth for the past couple of years. And he sent a copy of that dossier to every member of my department."The packet included what Mr. Dershowitz's letter called "some of the lies I am absolutely confident that Finkelstein told" on such points as
Israeli torture and whether or not Mr. Dershowitz writes his own books. In a telephone interview on Wednesday with The Chronicle, Mr. Dershowitz confirmed
that he had sent the information to "everybody who would read it." He said he had compiled the material at the request of some two dozen DePaul students, alumni, and faculty members who were alarmed at the prospect of Mr. Finkelstein's receiving tenure.
Now a lot of people say that academic politics are "small." Small-minded, perhaps, but in some cases, hardly small in magnitude...and, to be fair, most bourgeois politics fit that description: petty in conception but not in impact. And as much as I thought Dershowitz's book on the O.J. Simpson trial, Reasonable Doubts, was enjoyable, well-argued, and enlightening, I must say I have found most of Dershowitz's attitudes and positions to be not only reactionary, but the kind of reactionary one would expect from someone of great material and institutional privilege.

But more importantly: If Dershowitz did indeed plagiarize sections of his 2003 book, there is no doubt in my mind he won't lose his job, and it's doubtful that Dershowitz's immature nastiness will ruin the academic career of Finkelstein--all of which is more than one can say about Ward Churchill, whose head will end up on a platter for alleged sins just-short-of-routinely committed by other scholars. Not only were the findings in the Churchill case dubious, but the process itself violated the very rules of procedure and due process laid out in the Colorado University rules.

(In a phenomenon that is equally demonstrative of academic politics as microcosm, Churchill's situation has been exacerbated by his own long-term tendency to threaten, verbally brutalize, and dismiss others on the left who might otherwise have come to his defense more frequently and enthusiastically.)

The Churchill case, the battle between Dershowitz and Finkelstein, and countless other academic battles demonstrate that academic politics are not merely localized and irrelevant, but alternate as either microcosms or instantiations of larger political battles. This is a lesson which (although I won't get into the details just yet) I am learning myself as I attempt to make my own little section of the Communication Studies discipline more critical and educational. People get pissed off at you, and not merely for reasons of petty academic territoriality. Ideologies and empires are at stake--and given the fact that millions of working class youth (as well as nontraditional students) go through state universities, and that the line between private school privilege and public university access is at times thinner than we might think, the stakes may be very high indeed.


Anonymous said...

You don't understand the CHurchill situation at all. Tom Mayer's defense of Churchill is entirely dishonest. Read the CU Investigative Committee Report. Read Thomas Brown's vivisection of Churchill's reseaarch fraud in Plagiary. Educate yourself lest you make a fool of yourself.

matt said...

I don't normally respond to anonymous postings, particularly those that warn me to "educate" myself. My point is that even if Churchill committed plagiarism, he was only targeted because of his politics (the committee admitted as much), they violated their own procedural rules, and Churchill shot himself in the foot because of his behavior towards others on the left. So your response is really rather non-sequitor.

matt said...

Oh--and I have read the Investigative Committee report. Every single word, every single page.

Anonymous said...

I'll graciously ignore the ad hominem component of your response. I agree with you about the political context. My big problem with your post is that you accuse the broader population of academics of being almost as corrupt as Churchill. That is the real whopper here. Do you routinely almost plagiarize entire articles? Have you invented a genocide from whole cloth and then published your accusations? If your work really is almost as bad as Churchill's, then you should not have a place in the academy either.

Anonymous said...

PS: Suggest looking up "non sequitur" in the dictionary, now that I've given you the correct spelling.

matt said...

My point was, and still is, that other scholars (not all of them, maybe not even most of them) do commit improprieties and as long as their discourse remains politically safe, they never get called on it--or when they do, they are typically not recommended for termination. You also have nothing to say about the procedural improprieties--well documented--concerning the review process for Churchill. Churchill, by the way, did not "invent genocide out of whole cloth." Take away his work and you still have plenty of well-documented evidence concerning termination and liquidation policies against indigenous peoples. In a sense, this is really kind of a ridiculous argument to be having at all. My position on Churchill is much more nuanced and balanced than you seem willing to acknowledge, and it wasn't even the main point of my post. Finally, your provocations and implied accusations about me are bad enough without you hiding behind anonymity to commit ad hominems that are much worse than anything I've said to you...whoever you are. I won't respond to any more of your comments unless you clean up your tone and acknowledge the balance and nuance of what I am trying to say (however imperfectly).

Te faccio culo cosi' said...

Fair enough. We are both guilty of ad hominem. I started it, and I apologize. Let's put that behind us.

I agree that Churchill would not be in hot water if his political speech was not so deliberately obnoxious and offensive. By insulting the 9/11 victims, Churchil asked for trouble, and he got just what he asked for. However, being an asshole is no defense against research misconduct.

The fact remains that Churchill is eminently deserving of sacking for his extensive research misconduct. He did invent a _specific_ genocide when he falsely accused the US Army of giving smallpox blankets to the Mandans, falsifying all of the evidence he had at hand in the process. He did engage in serial plagiarism. In the most egregious case, he used a pseudonym to plagiarize Fay Cohen, who had already explicitly denied him permission to reprint her essay. There is no question of his guilt.

The fact that other scholars have also committed sins and gotten away with it is hardly a defense either. On the question of procedural improprieties: you can beton the fact that the CU administration is very aware that they will have to defend Churchill's sacking in court, and that they've bent over backwards to not violate their own processes. The fact that Churchill is complaining of such violations is hardly proof that they occurred. He will have his day in court on that question, but either way it is a mere technicality. It has no bearing on his guilt or innocence

What I really objected to in your original post, and what still bothers me, is that you assume first that such offenses are routinely committed by other scholars, and second that the evidence against Churchill is "dubious." On the first, you are simply wrong. On the second, you have the right to your opinion, but it strikes me as uninformed. The evidence against Churchill is overwhelming, on numerous counts of misconduct.

matt said...

I appreciate your apology, and I am sorry if my tone is unduly harsh at times. But I fundamentally feel we're talking past each other, and I am going to assume we both have better things to do than to attempt a meeting of the minds where none is likely.

I believe you too easily brush off the fact that Churchill would never have gotten in trouble had he not made politically unpopular comments. As my friend Jason Steck, an occasional contributor to the FIRE site, writes: "Ward Churchill was put under a microscope only because of his inflammatory statements about 9/11 and other topics. I am concerned about how this might legitimize other efforts to use political criteria to select targets for microscopic "investigation". There is no reason to believe that adherents to ANY personal political philsophy are safe from having someone identify them as an "enemy" and then become subject to a IRS-style inquisition into every detail of every piece of work they have produced. Like when a cop is following you down the road, it's unlikely that, once targeted, you will be able to last long under detailed scrutiny no matter how careful you are. My concern is that the example of Ward Churchill might serve as precedent for a RANGE of politically-motivated pogroms in academia. Professors might be targeted for "investigation" of their work because they are perceived by right-wing groups as "socialists" or "anti-American" and, using the exact same precedent, other professors might be targeted by left-wing groups for "investigation" of their work because they are suspected of being "conservatives" or "racists" or "homophobes"."

Your brushing off of this concern seems to come down to "well, that's what happens when you say stupid/offensive/insensitive stuff." No--that's what happens when you say stuff that the majority disagrees with. "Asking for trouble" could mean ANYTHING, in different contexts, and could --and will-- be used against scholars of every conceivable political orientation, except those who are completely mundane (who, in your moral universe, will be able to fudge their research with a greater degree of impunity than controversial scholars).

The Investigative Committee admits as much when they write:

"the Committee expresses its concern regarding the timing and perhaps the motives for the University's decision to forward charges made in that
context. We point out finally that when Professor Churchill was hired as an Associate Professor with tenure in 1991 and promoted to (full) Professor in 1997, the University knew that he did not have a Ph.D. or law degree, as commonly expected for faculty at this institution, and was aware that he was a controversial public intellectual."

Your argument that Churchill "invented" the small pox genocide out of whole cloth. This is not what the Investigative Committee concluded. Instead, they concluded that he had "embellished" the incident, but that it has strong evidence in both oral and documentary history. (

Regardless of whether you love or hate Ward Churchill, there are several questions of propriety, timing, and magnitude concerning CU's action against him, and as Steck points out above, this fundamentally means that no controversial scholar, left or right, is safe:

1. The investigation itself and the decision of the standing committee were politically motivated.

2. The facts in the case are problematic and in dispute:

a. the strongest charge seems to be the plagiarism, but even Lawrence Tribe committed more egregious plagiarism and wasn't fired. Churchill has written elaborate responses to each plagiarism charge. At worst, there might be a slight preponderance of evidence in favor of plagiarism or a risk of plagiarism; it is far from clear that they were able to prove _intent_ to plagiarize, which is probably why the committee recommended _suspension_ rather than termination.

b. Churchill may have been factually incorrect about some of his conclusions and claims, but there was no INTENT to deceive proven by the review. At worst it seems that the committee concluded he had provided insufficient evidence to back up his historical claims. Since when does this constitute research MISCONDUCT as opposed to simply "bad research?"

c. CU has not, to my knowledge, responded to Churchill's allegation that the review process violated university rules concerning confidentiality. He wrote: "Under University rules, this report was part of a confidential personnel process. The fact that the committee convened a press conference to announce its findings and University officials immediately distributed the full report is but one indication of their willingness to violate my rights, as well as their own rules, in order to chill my speech and discredit my scholarship." Churchill cited many other procedural improprieties in his defense as well.

d. There were no professors of Ethnic Studies on the review committee. My only argument here is that the conclusions of the review would have seemed much more fair, impartial, and informed if the committee would have selected any one of the HUNDREDS of qualified ES professors in North America to be on the commitee, or at least, for god's sake, to offer expert testimony in the review process.

I am pretty much done. I've said everything I can say. I appreciate the dialogue, but as you said yourself, Churchill will have his day in court. We'll see what happens. If I haven't made it clear up to this point, I don't particularly like the man. But I would hope that if I ever get burned at the proverbial stake, people who dislike me will come to my defense.