DePaul University’s Promotion and Tenure Board’s 8 June 2007 decision to deny tenure to professors Norman G. Finkelstein and Mehrene Laurdee has placed DePaul University on the brink of a legitimacy crisis that threatens to irrevocably harm the very fabric of a university that has placed social justice and activism at the heart of its Vincentian mission since 1898. What does it mean that this Vincentian University has denied tenure to two passionate advocates of social justice who not only met the tenure requirements of their departments and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences but clearly surpassed them? What would St. Vincent de Paul have made of this year’s tenure and promotion decisions? Would he have agreed with them? From what I know of St. Vincent de Paul’s life and work, I’m almost certain he would be distressed by what has transpired under the name of “Vincentian tenure standards,” which are transparent code words for “proving one’s ideological serviceability to the interests of the powerful,” in this case DePaul’s would-be patrons. Finkelstein and Larudee apparently failed that test.
Norman Finkelstein has written passionately about the plight of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, indicting powerful elites who capitalize upon the moral capital of the Holocaust for financial gain while demonstrating indifference toward the suffering of those on the receiving end of US high-tech weaponry in the Palestinian occupied territories and south Lebanon. Larudee, the sister of International Solidarity Movement leader Paul Larudee who was jailed in Israel for a brief time, is a specialist on international organizations and developing countries. During their time at DePaul, Finkelstein and Larudee have inspired numerous students to create a better world, sparked vigorous debate on the issues of our age, and dared to speak truth to power, which is an era of clichés and political correctness is the minimum intellectual responsibility requires.
As an untenured assistant professor on this campus, who thought serious scholarship would find a site of articulation within the university named after St. Vincent de Paul, I have questioned not only my DePaul colleagues’ commitment to academic freedom, but the motivations and rationalizations of many of my colleagues who remain silent in the wake of the grave injustice that took place on 8 June 2007, when Finkelstein and Larudee received their denial letters from President Dennis Holtschneider.
Outside the student center at the Lincoln Park, Chicago campus stands a giant statue of the famous 20th century priest, Monsieur John Egan, who asks, “What are you doing for justice?” At DePaul these days, it seems the students are doing more by way of affirmatively answering Egan’s question than the faculty. Students have staged protests of some sort every day since the tenure denials were made official. At this moment, a handful of these students are staging a hunger protest outside the Lincoln Park student center. DePaul’s students are standing on principle, and as one protester’s rally sign declared, “You can silence our professors, but you can’t silence their ideas.”
Professional decorum dictates that administrative decisions, whatever they may be and regardless of whether or not they make sense, should be accepted with grace and without undue skepticism, and certainly without resistance, by the faculty. This situation, however, demands fierce resistance. I am calling on all of my DePaul colleagues to launch an intellectual revolt against the suppression of academic freedom on our campus. Although President Holtschneider maintains that academic freedom is alive and well at DePaul, and Provost Epps insists that the denial of tenure to Larudee and Finelstein were “faculty decisions,” it is high time to call out these PR strategies for what they are: convenient smokescreens designed to appease, obfuscate and confuse.
Over the last three months, I have provoked, teased, begged, and cajoled tenured faculty at DePaul to be vigilant about the Finkelstein case, stating quite clearly that it was a test case that would have wide ranging implications for the future of academic freedom and academic freedom protections in the United States. Regrettably, only about four faculty members at DePaul took this warning seriously, with most believing the tenure processes at DePaul have essentially been fair and would, over time, weed out any early expressions of bias and unfairness. Indeed, some faculty members stated unequivocally that they would lead the charge if the University Board denied Finkelstein tenure. As one senior faculty member proudly proclaimed, “The faculty will revolt if Finkelstein is denied.”
Now that the results are final and Finkelstein and Larudee have been the victims of egregious violations of academic freedom and due process per the faculty handbook, faculty members at DePaul must stand up, speak out, and not settle for a summer of fun, relaxation, and a convenient amnesia. It is high time for the faculty to identify and mobilize against the forces within DePaul university that conspired to deny Finkelstein and Larudee what they rightfully earned; organize in support of academic freedom by creating a solid lobbying effort against illegitimate external influences in DePaul’s tenure and promotion processes; and perhaps most importantly, insist upon a thorough investigation of what happened at the University Promotion and Tenure Board (UPTB) hearings in May that led to majority votes against Finkelstein and Larudee’s tenure and promotion to associate professor.
If a task force were formed to interrogate the faculty members who served on this year’s committee, there is the possibility that someone would emerge to tell the truth about what influence, if any, was placed on the faculty members who served to vote in a particular way. This needs to happen not just to answer the questions that have emerged over the last two weeks about how the UPTB arrived at its decisions, but to prove that DePaul’s administration has absolutely nothing to hide. If there is nothing to hide, there is no reason why those who served on the UPTB would object to being interviewed by the task force. The administration’s insistence that there is no appeals process only contributes to an already tense situation filled with suspicion about the UPTB’s deliberations from last April and May.
That Finkelstein and Larudee received overwhelming support from their respective departments and unanimous support from the Liberal Arts & Sciences College personnel committee that heard their cases, only to have the UPTB reach entirely different conclusions about their scholarship than the lower levels in what essentially amounts to a retrying each case, suggests that the seven voting members of the UPTB either learned a great deal about the U.S.-Israel-Palestine conflict and international studies in a month’s time, were denied crucial pieces of information, or were coerced to vote a certain way to produce a desired outcome. In any event, all three scenarios are extremely troubling.
One thing is clear: US supporters of Israel, who have not hesitated in the past to use psych-op smear tactics against individuals committed to upholding international law and the international consensus on the Israel-Palestine conflict, may very well have successfully corrupted DePaul University’s tenure and promotion processes through DePaul’s Board of Trustees in a blatant attempt to remove political opponents from the largest Catholic university in the United States.
Matthew Abraham is an assistant professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. He is guest editor of a forthcoming issue of Cultural Critique on the life and legacy of Edward Said. He was the 2005 winner of the Rachel Corrie Courage in the Teaching of Writing Award.