Phi Beta Cons

DePaul and Faculty Civility

Throughout Professor Thomas Klocek’s ordeal at DePaul (for those unfamiliar with Klocek’s case, he was summarily fired — without due process — after a single out-of-class confrontation with pro-Palestinian students who were comparing Israeli Jews to Nazis), the great and shining example of university hypocrisy was Norman Finkelstein, one of the more vicious leftist academics around.  While the university saw no problem with ending a conservative professor’s career over a single “uncivil” incident, it provides employment and a home for a man whose ideas have been described in the New York Times as  “a novel variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’”

Well, from the looks of this story in IHE, “civility” may now matter for the left as well.  It turns out that Finkelstein’s tenure bid may be in jeopardy because, well, he’s very rude:

“Finkelstein is up for tenure. So far, his department has voted, 9-3, in favor of tenure and a collegewide faculty panel voted 5-0 to back the bid. But Finkelstein’s dean has just weighed in against Finkelstein. “In a memo leaked to some supporters of Finkelstein and obtained by Inside Higher Ed, Chuck Suchar writes that he finds “the personal attacks in many of Dr. Finkelstein’s published books to border on character assassination” and that Finkelstein’s tone and approach threaten “some basic tenets of discourse within an academic community.” Suchar says that Finkelstein’s record is “inconsistent with DePaul’s Vincentian values, most particularly our institutional commitment to respect the dignity of the individual and to respect the rights of others to hold and express different intellectual positions.”

I must confess to some mixed feelings here.  On the one hand, it will be quite amusing to watch the same campus left that was only too happy to see Thomas Klocek’s career destroyed over one out-of-class encounter immediately leap into action to defend a man who is undeniably systematically contemptuous of his ideological opponents.  On the other hand, however, it is dangerous to fundamental principles of academic freedom and free speech to make a professor’s entire academic career hinge upon something so ephemeral as “civility.”  By any fair definition of the term, Finkelstein is uncivil — even vicious — towards his critics.  Yet just as bad facts make bad law, so does bad behavior set bad precedents. In the modern academy “civility” is all too often defined simply as hewing to the standard left-liberal line on any given issue.
I can’t express an educated opinion about Finkelstein’s tenure bid.  I haven’t read any of his “serious” scholarship, nor do I have any knowledge about his qualities as a teacher (though I must confess that I find it more chilling than encouraging to hear that some of his students apparently describe his class as “transformative”), and I certainly don’t have any idea how he interacts with colleagues and students at the university.  But one thing is clear:  If DePaul denies tenure over “civility,” then academic freedom loses, and no one will feel that loss more than those most outside the campus ideological mainstream — conservatives (especially religious conservatives).


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