DePaul pulls plug on controversial professor
Course cancelled a week before class
By Ron Grossman | Tribune staff reporter
August 28, 2007
The required reading was at the bookstore, the students had the course syllabus, and space in Political Science 235, "Equality in Social Justice," was standing-room only when DePaul University pulled the plug Friday on what was to have been Norman Finkelstein's final year at the school.
A controversial scholar -- accused by critics of fomenting anti-Semitism and lauded by supporters as a forthright critic of Israel -- Finkelstein attracted wide attention across the academic world when he was denied tenure in the spring.
By Monday, the books for his course had been pulled from the DePaul bookstore's shelves, while his case was restarting a firestorm of protest. The American Association of University Professors was preparing a letter to the university, protesting Finkelstein's treatment as a serious violation of academic ethics.
Finkelstein vowed not to take the rebuff lying down -- or, perhaps more correctly, to do something just like that. In addition to canceling his course, the university informed him that his office was no longer his.
"I intend to go to my office on the first day of classes and, if my way is barred, to engage in civil disobedience," Finkelstein, 53, said in a telephone interview. "If arrested, I'll go on a hunger strike. If released, I'll do it all over again. I'll fast in jail for as long as it takes."
Fall classes start Sept. 5 at DePaul, where Finkelstein has been a faculty member for six years. During that time, his star has risen and fallen at the Catholic school, founded by the Vincentian order.
His books brought him far-reaching renown. They also were condemned for their provocative language, as in the "The Holocaust Industry," where he called efforts to get compensation from Germany for World War II slave laborers a "shakedown." Finkelstein, himself Jewish, has described leaders of American-Jewish organizations as "Holocaust-mongers."
He has engaged in a long-running feud with Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, a strong supporter of Israel. He has charged Dershowitz with appropriating other scholars' findings; Dershowitz was similarly skeptical of the legitimacy of Finkelstein's work when asked by DePaul to comment on his application for tenure, the academic equivalent of a lifetime job guarantee.
Nonetheless, Finkelstein's work has been praised by ivory-tower luminaries such as the distinguished linguist Noam Chomsky and the late Raul Hilberg, dean of Holocaust historians. Finkelstein's supporters are planning a lecture-rally for him in October in Chicago.
Two years ago, Finkelstein was held up as an example of DePaul's commitment to freedom of inquiry by its president, Dennis Holtschneider.
Students have held Finkelstein in high regard, reporting that his tone in the classroom is measured, quite unlike the red-hot rhetoric of his books.
This year, though, Dean Chuck Suchar found Finkelstein's scholarship inconsistent with "DePaul's Vincentian values," among them respect for others' views. Holtschneider seconded that motion in refusing Finkelstein's tenure.
Student support continues
DePaul officials declined to comment on the case. Denise Mattson, associate vice president for public affairs, said: "Finkelstein has been assigned to an administrative leave with full pay and benefits for the 2007-08 academic year. Administrative leave relieves professors from their teaching responsibilities. He was informed of the reasons that precipitated this leave last spring."
He was denied tenure in June, but officials could offer no explanation for why his courses were left in the schedule.
On Friday, Andrew Riplinger, a DePaul student registered for Finkelstein's course, received an e-mail from him.
"Professor Finkelstein wrote that if the course was canceled by the university, it would be taught at another location," said Riplinger. "Then the university sent an e-mail announcing the course had been canceled."
Riplinger and other student supporters, fearing such an action, have been meeting regularly over the summer and communicating their uneasiness to the administration. Their committee was scheduled to meet Monday evening in the DePaul student center, Riplinger said.
Final year at school threatened
According to the norms of academia, a professor denied tenure has the right to a final year of teaching at the university that turns him down. The watchdog of those rights is the American Association of University Professors, the umbrella organization of college teachers, which can censure a school found in violation of its ground rules. Such a finding also can be the preliminary to a lawsuit against the university by the faculty member.
According to Jonathan Knight, director of the AAUP's program in academic freedom and tenure, a university owes a faculty member denied tenure more than just a year's salary. He or she has the right to a classroom (and presumably an office). A university can't simply buy him or her out by invoking administrative leave, Knight said.
He added that a faculty member can't be put on administrative leave without a hearing except in an extreme emergency.
"We're not aware of an emergency requiring DePaul to take such action at the 11th hour and 59th minute," Knight said.
Finkelstein said that, rather than filing a lawsuit, he intends to fight the university's action with a hunger strike, and the attendant publicity.
"In the court of public opinion, I can win," Finkelstein said. "I say: 'Let the people judge.'"