Forget Larry Summers. Forget Ward Churchill. A better candidate for the most contentious and far-reaching debate in academia today is the battle over Middle East studies. By now you’ve probably caught wind of the controversy at Columbia: There, a group of students, with the support of an outside organization, produced a film documenting testimonies of bias and outright intimidation in Middle East-studies classes. Jewish students featured on the film–some of whom insisted on being filmed anonymously, for fear of retribution from their grade-dispensing superiors–claimed they had been confronted and silenced by zealous professors who refused to have their extremist anti-Israel views challenged. Thanks to the students’ tireless campaigning, there’s been an impressive amount of attention given to the issue since the film was released last October. So far, it’s had a demonstrable, if still inconclusive, effect.
The Columbia controversy has brought sustained attention to what Middle East scholar Martin Kramer argued several years ago in his important study Ivory Towers on Sand. Middle East studies has become blatantly politicized, with many professors abrogating their responsibility to even try for balance in the classroom. Schools that allow for genuine diversity in this area are, according to analysts, few and far between. And at one such school, Princeton–some would say the only such school–proponents of ideological conformity are itching to prevent a rising-star scholar with dissenting views from receiving a tenured post in his department.
Princeton’s Middle East battle is quieter than Columbia’s, but in a way it’s no less important. At its center is Michael Doran, an assistant professor and protégé of Bernard Lewis who teaches the modern politics of the region in the university’s Near Eastern Studies department. Last spring, Doran was up for tenure, but the university chose to defer his consideration because he was invited to serve as the chairman of a new program at Brandeis. (He declined the offer.)
Doran is well-credentialed. His students rave about his classes, and Middle East experts outside of the American academy–such as Kramer and the Shalem Center’s Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War–speak highly of him. (Kramer and Oren, like Doran, studied at Princeton. Oren calls Doran “a gift to the field.”) He’s written widely noted articles in Foreign Affairs and other popular publications, and has served as a consultant to the U.S. government on matters Middle Eastern. He also happens to be politically to the right–and unapologetic about it. In a field dominated by anti-Western dogmatism, Doran stands out for his political inclinations, his unusual analyses (particularly for a Middle East scholar these days), and his popularity. It’s hardly shocking that some professors, likely guided by both politics and jealousy, would hope to prevent his further rise.
The campaign against Doran has been conducted largely behind the scenes, in the form of letters and other quiet appeals to Princeton’s administration. When Doran was hired in 1999, a number of graduate students circulated a petition protesting his appointment. (The students had been asked to review candidates and had recommended that the department hire Ussama Makdisi, a nephew and intellectual heir of the late Columbia professor Edward Said, over Doran. Whether they were merely upset that they hadn’t been heeded or were offended by the choice of a non-Saidian is hard to tell, but chances are both factors were at work.) More recently, several anonymous history professors told a student reporter that Doran’s getting tenure would create a rift between the NES department and theirs.
“We don’t want him,” said one professor, quoted in Princeton’s daily student newspaper, The Princetonian, in December. In the future, the professor asked, are the two departments “going to be mutually supportive or are they going to be antagonistic?”
The Princetonian article claimed that the NES department is regarded both within and without the university as “isolated, increasingly out-of-touch and politicized.” It said that Doran–whom it called, along with Lewis, one of the department’s “two most vocal professors”–is seen as being in large part to blame. Reporter Chanakya Sethi quotes former Princeton graduate student and NYU professor Khalid Fahmy saying, “I went to Princeton thinking that this is a good place for me to develop intellectually and to share my knowledge” but “after five years…I discovered that this is not what the department stands for.” (Fahmy declined to comment for this article.)
Sethi continues, “Several history professors said they consider a decision to tenure or not to tenure [Doran] a litmus test for future cooperation between Princeton NES and the history department. If Doran is tenured, two history professors said relations between the departments could be severely damaged.”
A number of students and professors at Princeton have since weighed in on the article and the claims made in it. The department’s chairman and its program director co-wrote a sharp letter to the newspaper’s editor defending the department’s scholarship and criticizing as simplistic the view of Middle East studies as divided between “Lewisians” and “Saidians” after the two influential scholars. Lewis, they wrote, practiced “such diverse approaches to history that it might be essentialist to classify even [him] as a ‘Lewisian.’” (It is difficult to say the same about Said, which may be why these professors didn’t try.) Several NES graduate students also wrote a letter to the editor, conceding that the department is perhaps “traditional” but far from monolithic. And NES professor Michael Cook upbraided the anonymous history professors who criticized Doran for their lack of professionalism and civility. (Kramer and blogger Abu Aardvark did the same.)
Doran also has plenty of support from students. Two recent graduates (one, Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky, a former intern at National Review) wrote letters to the editor defending Doran. They and several others praised him highly to NRO, calling him an excellent teacher and adviser, and adding that they found it difficult to discern his political leanings from his classes. “He’s very good at presenting both sides,” says recent graduate Shoshana Haberman. “And I don’t always agree with him, but I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for the way he presents the history. He does a very good job of trying to get behind the point of view of whoever we’re studying or writing about.”
Why, then, would the anonymous professors quoted in the article, and perhaps others not quoted, feel so strongly about Doran? For starters, they may dislike the fact that someone whose views they disagree with has gained such notoriety. Molly Greene, director of graduate studies in the history department, says, “I’d say he’s more high-profile than most professors. When he had an outside offer last year from Brandeis that was on the front page of the Princetonian. I don’t know why that was–people get outside offers all the time. His name seems to be in the news a lot, and I’m not quite sure why. And for an academic, he has an unusual amount of face time with people high up in the government.” Green declined to comment on the substance of Doran’s work, suggesting it would be unprofessional, but said she did not have a problem with the professors who spoke anonymously about him to the Princetonian.
Sam Spector, who wrote his senior thesis under Doran and also worked as a research assistant to him while an undergraduate at Princeton, explains that “the controversy really blew up because Doran’s publications were seen as to some degree supportive of the Bush administration’s policies, which are needless to say not popular with the majority of academics, particularly academics who specialize in the Middle East and who believe that the U.S is the single greatest force for bad and instability in the region.”
Yet, while Doran’s publications do challenge academic orthodoxies, they hardly reflect the work of a far-right ideologue, and he is generally well regarded among centrists. If anything, the overriding themes of his articles are a qualified defense of American power and a view that Arab politics, and Arab problems, are more about Arabs themselves than about Israel: As he argued in one essay, “Palestine” has become a generic symbol of resistance to the West. These may sound like fairly uncontroversial propositions to you, but in academic Middle East studies they’re far from it. If, as Michael Young has suggested, the major dividing line in the field is where one stands on the “substance of Western power and its historical impact,” Doran clearly takes a minority–and often-derided–position.
But there’s another, and maybe deeper, reason for the hostility toward him, and that is that his presence serves as a symbol of Princeton’s resistance to the post-modernization–and with it, the politicization–of its Middle East studies. The fact that he is not only a serious and right-leaning scholar but also a popular and influential one means that, if he sticks around, Princeton will be even less likely to succumb to trendy approaches in lieu of rigorous scholarship. As Martin Kramer puts it, “The attack on [Doran] comes from the very far-left ‘popular front’ that has squelched diversity in Middle Eastern studies for the last 20 years. They’d like every place to be a Columbia or NYU or Berkeley–they regard the existence of even one pocket of diversity as a mortal threat.” (Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi’s recent decision to apply for a position at Princeton’s Transregional Institute suggests the battle may have just been ratcheted up a notch.)
Princeton won’t be the only pocket of diversity for long: Brandeis plans to open a Middle East-studies center that will emphasize top-quality scholarship, not politics, and other schools may not be far behind in reform–once they face the reality of losing serious students to more serious programs. But for that to happen, those rare places like Princeton need to continue providing an alternative. Keeping Michael Doran around certainly won’t hurt.
–Rachel Zabarkes Friedman is an associate editor of National Review.