Scrutinize the ivory tower

With radicalization of US universities, moderate voices have jumped into academic personnel issues.

tower 88 (photo credit: )
tower 88
(photo credit: )
Should outsiders try to influence the hiring or tenuring of university faculty? The question arises because, with the radicalization of the American universities, moderate voices have jumped into academic personnel issues. For example, note some controversies just in Middle East studies in 2006:
  • Joseph Massad at Columbia: His promotion to associate professor met with public opposition; the forthcoming decision over his tenure will likely spark even more contention.
  • Juan Cole at Yale: The University of Michigan historian was on track to New Haven until columnists John Fun, Joel Mowbray and others brought attention to Cole's writings, prompting key Yale professors to reject his appointment.
  • Kevin Barrett at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: When it became known that he believes the Bush administration perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, his teaching of "Islam: Religion and Culture" spurred a state-wide controversy.
  • Nadia Abu El-Haj at Barnard: As the anthropologist faces a tenure decision, her 2001 book, Facts on the Ground has been criticized by alumnae and archeologists (William Dever of the University of Arizona calls her scholarship "faulty, misleading and dangerous"; James Davila of St. Andrew's University deems it "daft").
  • Wadie Said at Wayne State: Led by, critics argue that his appointment to the law school "would dilute academic standards, be detrimental in the classroom and exacerbate problems on campus." Other non-academics, like the Wayne State Middle East Law Students Association, support Said's appointment. The departure of Joel Beinin from his tenured position in history at Stanford for the American University in Cairo (an unusual career move) may be related to the wide criticism of his work. These developments raise two questions. Firstly, do outsiders have a legitimate role influencing academic personnel decisions? Absolutely not, says American Association of University Professors general secretary, Roger Bowen: "Non-academics and external advocacy groups should not be permitted to intrude in hiring and tenure cases in the academy." I BEG TO differ. Educational institutions may appoint whomever they wish, but they cannot expect immunity from public criticism. Precisely because academe offers unique job security, public evaluation of untenured academics has a potentially vital role. The more pre-tenure scrutiny, the better. Organizations like Campus Watch focus precisely on those areas that tenure committees typically miss. As for tenured faculty, robust public criticism can keep them in line by embarrassing them and hurting their credibility. Juan Cole characterizes senior professors as "sort of like baseball players" whom other teams look at "from time to time, as recruitment prospects." In response, Martin Kramer of the Shalem Center notes that "We don't put baseball players on pedestals, and a whole section of the newspaper relentlessly criticizes their performance. Academics want to have it both ways: lifetime job security, sports-like celebrity, lots of vacation time, and no accountability." In their insistence on squelching dissent, ironically, Middle East studies academics replicate Middle East dictators, who demand that their regimes be exempt from judgment. But while dictators can lose their jobs, tenured academics effectively cannot, making their errors uniquely consequence-free. SECOND, how effective are outside efforts to influence the process? Frank H. Wu, law school dean at Wayne State, predicts that lobbying professors against Wadie Said's appointment could well backfire. Some faculty members, he says, "might be so turned off by the e-mail coming in that they may be persuaded to take a position that they might not have otherwise." Other than exposing the immaturity of professors who would take such a step, this statement completely misses the point. The ivory tower exists at the sufferance of those who subsidize it. Just as Supreme Court justices read the election returns, so professors ultimately cannot ignore the parents, alumni, legislators and government bureaucrats who pay their salaries. And as those stakeholders increasingly become aware of the professors' failings, they can begin to demand improvements. (The distinction between private and public universities hardly matters here, as the two overlap considerably. If the University of Michigan derives a mere 8 percent of its annual budget from state sources, private universities rely heavily on government funding for students, projects, research, overhead, and even fraternities.) The way ahead is clear: Concerned outsiders should track university developments, including personnel decisions, so as to begin the process of redeeming the university, that grand and noble institution temporarily gone astray. The writer, based in Philadelphia, is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures.