DePaul memos tell of run-ins with professor

By Ron Grossman

Tribune staff reporter

September 3, 2007

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 provost’s account.

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 battle.”

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 waning.

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 university.

“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.”