Prof Finkelstein Getting Nutty
- DePaul memos tell of run-ins with professor
By Ron Grossman - rgrossman @ tribune.com
September 3, 2007
If embattled DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein carries
out his pledge to engage in civil disobedience at the start of the
fall term Wednesday, it won't be his first confrontation with school
administrators and campus police, according to internal university
memos obtained by the Tribune.
Finkelstein, both lauded and decried for his strong criticisms of
Israel, was denied tenure in June. His classes, however, remained in
the university's course schedule, and students were enrolled. The
classes were abruptly canceled Aug. 24, at which point Finkelstein
himself was notified he was being put on "administrative leave," he said.
Oral and physical confrontations between Finkelstein and university
officials began shortly after his tenure denial, according to a memo
written by university Provost Helmut Epp.
The provost's memo, dated June 26, alleges that Finkelstein "angrily
confronted" other faculty and staff and engaged them with "threatening
and discourteous behavior" after being denied tenure.
On three such occasions, campus security officers were called to
intervene, according to the provost's memo. When a dean attempted to
escape a confrontation by ducking into an elevator, Finkelstein
physically tried to keep the door from closing, according to the
On Wednesday morning, Finkelstein, whose case has attracted wide
attention both within and beyond the academic world, intends to teach
a symbolic reincarnation of one of the scratched classes, "Equality in
Social Justice," at a public library near DePaul's Lincoln Park campus.
Afterward, he has announced, he will attempt to enter his office, from
which he has been barred. He promised to go on a hunger strike if
jailed for his effort, a vow Finkelstein renewed in an interview Sunday.
"I am morally, mentally and emotionally depleted right now," said
Finkelstein, 53. "But I will find the resources to fight this next
The provost's memo and other memos relating to the case have been
circulating widely among faculty members, said Jonathan Cohen, a
professor of mathematics at DePaul.
Other faculty members have said they regretted the administration's
silence on the subject, fearing students might follow Finkelstein's
example of civil disobedience, putting their academic careers in
jeopardy. At a convocation Friday marking the start of the academic
year, several dozen protesters wore T-shirts proclaiming: "We are all
Professor Finkelstein." Reportedly, some faculty wore the shirts under
their academic gowns.
Finkelstein's support among colleagues, once considerable, had been
On July 10, according to one newly obtained memo, the political
science department informed the provost that Finkelstein's actions
"constitute unacceptable and unprofessional behavior." It recommended
that Finkelstein be granted "non-residential leave" for the 2007-08
academic year by DePaul, a Catholic university founded by the
Vincentian order. Traditionally in academia, a faculty member denied
tenure is owed a final year in the classroom.
Earlier, the political science department had strongly supported
Finkelstein's cause, voting in favor of his application for tenure.
Even so, his departmental colleagues had noted Finkelstein's
no-holds-barred writing style, saying that in his books, "careful and
important scholarly arguments are often sprinkled with ad hominem
attacks, invective and unsparing criticism."
Finkelstein, himself Jewish, has been accused of fomenting
anti-Semitism through his unrelenting criticism of Israel and Jewish
leaders, a charge he denied to an Israeli newspaper:
"I am just the messenger who reports on the actions of the Jewish
establishments, actions that are encouraging anti-Semitism," he said.
As Finkelstein's tenure review went up the administrative ladder, its
fortunes turned. Chuck Suchar, the dean Finkelstein allegedly
confronted in an elevator, found Finkelstein's approach to scholarship
inconsistent with DePaul's "Vincentian values," including respect for
the opinions of others.
In Sunday's interview, Finkelstein turned that charge back upon the
"It is rather regrettable that DePaul is carrying on the spirit of
Chicago's Al Capone rather than St. Vincent de Paul," Finkelstein said.
During the long struggle over Finkelstein's tenure, DePaul was
besieged with letters and e-mails by his supporters and detractors.
Finkelstein has engaged in a long-running battle with Harvard
University law professor Alan Dershowitz, a strong supporter of
Israel. Finkelstein's supporters have included intellectual
heavyweights such as social critic and linguist Noam Chomsky and the
late Raul Hilberg, the dean of Holocaust historians.
Two years ago, Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, DePaul's president, seemed
to be in Finkelstein's camp. When supporters of another fired faculty
member alleged he was being muzzled and asked why Finkelstein wasn't,
Holtschneider replied that Finkelstein's presence on campus marked
DePaul's commitment to freedom of inquiry.
In June, however, Holtschneider endorsed the finding of the school's
tenure board that Finkelstein be denied tenure.
Denise Mattson, associate vice president for public relations, said
Sunday that the university couldn't comment on the memos obtained by
the Tribune. She said the university considers the memos personal
documents. She added: "The reason for [Finkelstein's] administrative
leave was not related to the tenure decision but rather to
unacceptable behavior exhibited on campus in June."
Finkelstein denied picking or perpetuating a fight with the
university, saying he continues to hope for negotiations to resolve
the issue under conditions acceptable to both sides. But, he added, he
intends to leave with his head held high, his reputation intact.
He cited the example of a folk-singer, actor and civil rights crusader
long celebrated on the political left.
"One of my heroes is Paul Robeson, who said, 'I will not retreat
one-thousandth part of one inch,'" Finkelstein said. "And I won't either."
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