Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nice summary of Columbia tenure controversy

From the Columbia Spectator:
The Trouble With Tenure
By Chris Kulawik

As a generation of controversial Columbia academics trudge toward tenure, get ready for a fight. Normally a mechanism to protect and embolden the research of legitimate scholars, it can and will be abused by “scholars” who, without such protection, already masquerade punditry and politics as scholarship. Concerned students and alumni cannot allow these polemicists a free pass.

For those who missed Spectator’s sparse coverage of the brewing controversy, Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropology professor of Palestinian descent, published a controversial book called Facts on the Ground. Critics reject Abu El-Haj’s contentious hypothesis that ancient Israelites did not live in what is today Israel. They argue that her work is misleading, if not unscholarly and slanderous. They posit three criticisms of Abu El-Haj, all worthy of consideration.

First, concerned alumni argue, Abu El-Haj is not an archeologist. Rather, Abu El-Haj studied in the Bryn Mawr anthropology department with Barnard President Judith Shapiro. For a scholar with a limited professional background in the subject, she is not in a position to make many of the claims she does. Second, many respected scholars passionately disagree with her findings. Weighing in on the subject, the New York Times cites fellow faculty member, Alan F. Segal, a professor of religion and Jewish studies at Barnard, who opines, “There is every reason in the world to want her to have tenure, and only one reason against it—her work.”

To be fair, Abu El-Haj has her share of supporters, including many in her notoriously like-minded discipline. No doubt talented individuals in their own right, they are anything but objective and impartial. Finally, critics take issue with Abu El-Haj’s postmodernist and unabashedly relativist approach. Dr. Candace de Russy, a member of the SUNY Board of Trustees, writes online,
“In her introduction, El-Haj explains that she works by ‘rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method,’ writing, instead, within a scholarly tradition of ‘post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism, and critical theory and [...] in response to specific postcolonial political movements.’”

Such abstraction in a discipline as evidentially and methodologically oriented as archeology is inherently counterintuitive. I too am not an archeologist, but with just a rudimentary knowledge of the field, it appears that one of two things must be true: either Abu El-Haj stumbled upon one of the greatest findings of the young millennium, or she practices faulty scholarship. Consensus and common sense seems to lean toward the latter. Still, a greater, far more contentious fight looms. Assistant professor Joseph Massad, noted anti-Israel polemicist, lumbers toward tenure and a place in Columbia’s 20-year plan.

Massad, some will argue to great effect, has yet to produce a piece of scholarship not loaded with anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric. Much of his scholarly work, equally at home on an op-ed page as his classroom, must be read to be believed. Once charged with classroom intimidation and violations of academic freedom, Massad has emerged as the poster boy for an increasingly political and activist Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures. To many, myself included, the thought of Joseph Massad as a facet of Columbia life for the next several decades is a frightening and wholly untenable proposition. There is no place within the academic establishment for thinly-veiled demagoguery. Individual departments or tenure committees must recognize this and act accordingly. To abandon their responsibilities is to commit a great disservice to the University.

To circumvent the inevitable criticism, let’s clarify: this is not a call to discriminate against unpopular ideas, but poor scholarship. Consider for the sake of this rejoinder the life and work of Edward Said. For all the rock-throwing and pro-Palestine sentiment, the late Columbian was a brilliant scholar who made significant contributions to not only his discipline, but academia and society at large. Agree with him or not, he was, unequivocally, one of the great minds of the 20th century. There’s no denying that a scholar of Said’s stature deserved tenure. Unfortunately, Massad is no Said. If it were simply a matter of denying tenure to professors with different political beliefs than my own, the ivory tower would be a pretty lonely place.

For all the gray area, convoluted processes, and controversy, there’s no way for Columbia to avoid the looming tenure battles—try as it might. Instead, the Columbia community must assert its right to secure objective, transparent, and academic proceedings. We must remember that tenure is both a reward and honor not to be taken—or given—lightly and without merit.

Chris Kulawik is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science.