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Why Norman Finkelstein Would Have Tenure -- in Israel

Neve Gordon
Sat, 01/01/2011
Take a minute before you conclude that the pro-Israel lobby is the sole culprit behind the witch hunt directed against scholars who criticize Israeli military rule over Palestinians. Consider Norman Finkelstein. If he had been on the faculty of an Israeli university, rather than DePaul University, he probably would be an associate professor by now.I say that because several years ago I came up for tenure at Ben Gurion University of the Negev under similarly contested circumstances. As in Finkelstein's case, when I was recommended for tenure the president was promptly inundated with letters from outsiders seeking to influence the process. Like Finkelstein's, my sin was criticizing Israel's policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. All the calls for my dismissal emanated from America -- not from Israel. In one typical letter, the president of the Zionist Organization of America used ominous threats to urge the university to fire me. Yet, unlike in the Finkelstein case, ultimately intimidation failed. Why, then, have such tactics succeeded in the United States? Why do Israeli scholars have more academic freedom than their American counterparts?The answer is rooted in the fact that many American universities are being reconstructed as corporations whose major objective is to sell products, most obviously degrees to students. The corporatization of academic life means that faculty members are perceived as both producers and products. They are expected to come up with inventions and patents that can be sold to corporations, as well as with research funds and citations that have a pseudomarket value, since they help elevate the university's ranking. As saleable products, faculty members are valued according to a corporate calculus rather than an academic one. To put it bluntly: Finkelstein was considered a liability to the corporation; therefore he was sacked.The remaking of universities as corporations has also altered accountability. Those at the helm have become more accountable to boards of trustees, shareholders (i.e., major donors), and customers (i.e., students, parents, and viewers of athletics events) than to the university's original mission (i.e., seeking truth and educating the next generation) and the faculty members who carry it out. Consequently administrators behave like corporate executives and are hardly invested in intellectual achievements or democratic processes.In Israel, by contrast, all faculty members are unionized, and their salaries are determined according to rank and a series of relatively objective academic criteria. Law and business professors earn the same as their colleagues in literature and philosophy. That has a major impact on how we think about faculty members. They are not seen as no more than products, as Finkelstein seems to have been.In addition, the corporate ethos that dominates American campuses has helped destroy mechanisms of faculty governance and has led to the ascendancy of administrative rule. I do not want to unduly romanticize Israeli universities, but it is worth pointing out that faculty members at my institution elect department chairs, deans, and our provost. The fact that deans and provosts at American universities are beholden to administrators and donors renders them susceptible to external pressure. I doubt that Charles S. Suchar, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at DePaul University, would have refused to support the decision of the promotion committee on Finkelstein's tenure if he were primarily accountable to the faculty and the mission of academic excellence.The pressures brought to bear on tenure cases in America by the pro-Israel lobby are only one part of a much more complex story. There will, after all, always be attempts from outside to suppress unpopular voices in academe, and there will always be people within higher education who act as accomplices in efforts to stifle academic freedom. Neither group, however, would be as likely to succeed if the faculty governed its own university. And that is precisely where American academics have failed. It is not enough to expose the pro-Israel lobby. The menacing tide of corporatization must also be opposed. Academic freedom can be guaranteed only once the idea of the university is restored and the structure of universities transformed.