The Massad tenure case: time for the campus thought police to close up shop

Jacob Gershman, who used to write for the thankfully-defunct rag the New York Sun, reappears in The New York Post today to rail against Columbia University for tenuring Joseph Massad. I would say that there is almost nothing I can think of on which Massad and I agree, and I have made my sharp disagreements with some of his more irresponsible comments quite clear. However, there is no question that he qualified for tenure under Columbia University’s standards.

The Columbia faculty Ad Hoc Grievance Committee that looked into the trumped-up allegations promoted by the David Project and other members of the self-appointed campus thought police of the pro-Israel ultra-right, contrary to what Gershman seems to think, in fact cleared all the faculty in question of the allegations against them, citing concern only about one incident in which they found that, "Massad became angered at a question that he understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved, and that he responded heatedly. While we have no reason to believe that Professor Massad intended to expel Ms. Shanker from the classroom (she did not, in fact, leave the class), his rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism." These are hardly grounds for any form of censure, let alone the denial of tenure. One should note that Massad strongly denies the incident ever even took place. Indeed, the Report found, far more significantly that, "Testimony that we received indicated that in February 2002 Professor Massad had good reason to believe that a member of the Columbia faculty was monitoring his teaching and approaching his students, requesting them to provide information on his statements in class as part of a campaign against him."

I don’t care for Massad’s overheated rhetoric. His outrageous attacks on Palestinians like Mahmoud Darwish and PLO leaders are indefensible. His suggestion that Israel and Zionism are anti-Semitic is silly and pointlessly provocative. His claim that homophobia in the Arab world is the product of neo-colonial agitation by a “Gay international” is not homophobic (as is sometimes claimed) – Massad is no Alan Bloom – but it is preposterous. However there is really no serious question that by Columbia’s standards his written scholarship and reportedly outstanding teaching and service records fully qualify him for tenure and it is fitting that he received it.

The significance of the Massad tenure case really is that it was the ultimate test for the new ultra-right wing, pro-Israel campus thought police established in the past few years to enforce a new orthodoxy in American academia on Middle East affairs. Organizations like Daniel Pipes’ notorious "campus watch," which had in its initial mission statement an overtly racist complaint about the number of Arab and Middle Eastern professors in Middle East studies departments, the "David Project," David Horowitz’s various organizations and others have gone after numerous professors, but none provided a more obvious test case of their potential ability to intervene in tenure battles than that of Joseph Massad. The Ward Churchill incident is an entirely separate matter. Without going into any details, I think it’s fair to say that Norman Finkelstein essentially self-destructed at Depaul University. The two major test cases both centered around Columbia, at which these forces have considerable influence. The effort to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El Haj (full disclosure — I briefly went to high school with her in Beirut) at Columbia and Barnard was always a longer shot. Predictably, it failed. But with Massad, given the extraordinary campaign against him and the considerable case to be made that his views might be considered anathema in a great many circles, this was always likely to prove whether or not an external and politically-motivated campaign to deny a qualified academic tenure based on his opinions was really possible in American academia at the present time. The answer, thankfully, is: no

Obviously, Columbia was tempted to do so. The decision to grant him tenure comes at some significant political cost to the University, as the New York Post article suggests. However, capitulation to external political pressure would have set an unworkable new standard of political correctness in the tenure process both at Columbia and in American higher education generally. Moreover, Massad would have had a very plausible lawsuit at his disposal, which, among other horrors, would probably have involved significant discovery into the circumstances regarding the receivership of the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) at Columbia, which the University was surely desperate to avoid. Additional discovery might have led to further embarrassing discoveries about the nature of the campaign against him and others, and the activities of right-wing pro-Israel organizations in this and other regards. In the event, Columbia obviously decided that the costs, both principled and practical, outweighed the benefits, and made the correct decision to recognize that Massad had met all the University’s standards for tenure.

The campus thought police may have succeeded to some degree in creating a chilling atmosphere in American academia on Middle East matters, but it has failed in its principal task of thwarting controversial but plausible tenure cases. If it cannot succeed in organizing the denial of tenure to Joseph Massad at Columbia University in New York City, it won’t be able to succeed in many other cases elsewhere. The project overall is clearly a failure. Campus Watch, the David Project and the others have wasted the money of their contributors and failed to produce the goods. It’s time for them to face the facts and close up shop once and for all. Columbia’s decision demonstrates that even the most vulnerable, provocative and controversial faculty, who are otherwise qualified, cannot be denied tenure in major American universities even under the most favorable political conditions for the campus thought police. This is an extremely important victory for academic freedom, and free speech generally, in the United States. The principle that American professors are to be judged on the quality of their work and not on the nature of their opinions is an essential element to freedom in our country. I don’t agree with almost anything that Joseph Massad has been saying in recent years, but I’m glad and relieved that Columbia has granted him tenure. As for the campus thought police, they should admit failure and be gone forever.