Middle East studies in the News
Closely Watched Tenure Case at Columbia U. Is Still Unsettled [on Joseph Massad; incl. Nadia Abu El-Haj, Zachary Lockman, et al.]
by Robin Wilson and Richard Byrne
The news appeared in the blogosphere last fall: Columbia University had reportedly denied the tenure bid of Joseph A. Massad, a Palestinian-American scholar.
"Raise your cup," Paula Stern, a Jewish-American who blogs from Israel, wrote last November. "Joseph Massad will not remain at Columbia University."
But seven months later, Mr. Massad — an associate professor of Arab politics in Columbia's embattled department of Middle East and Asian languages and culture — is still a professor at the university. His third book, Desiring Arabs (University of Chicago Press, 2007), just won the prestigious Lionel Trilling Book Award, given by a committee of undergraduates at the university. And Columbia has made no announcement about his tenure status.
So what happened?
Administrators at Columbia won't say, citing the privacy and confidentiality of tenure cases. Prominent professors in the department of Middle East and Asian languages and culture — or Mealac, as it is known — and other departments would not speak publicly about the process. Mr. Massad, too, declined to comment.
But other faculty members, both inside Columbia and out, who have knowledge of the tenure case say that Alan Brinkley, the university's provost, did indeed turn down the professor's tenure bid last fall.
The provost's decision followed what professors describe as a narrow vote in favor of Mr. Massad by an ad hoc committee of five scholars who judged his tenure file. When the provost subsequently rejected the bid, professors say, the decision prompted an angry letter from senior faculty members at Columbia who support Mr. Massad. They have apparently persuaded the provost to reconsider the case and give the professor the unusual opportunity of a second chance at tenure at Columbia.
Mr. Massad's case follows closely on two other high-profile tenure bids affected by the controversy engulfing Middle East-studies departments and scholarship involving the politics of war and peace in the region.
A year ago, Norman G. Finkelstein, who attracted both criticism and praise for his writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what he termed the "Holocaust industry," lost his tenure bid in political science at DePaul University. Last November, Columbia's sister institution, Barnard College, granted tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj after a concerted campaign by Ms. Stern and others to deny her that promotion.
Like those cases, Mr. Massad's tenure bid has stirred debate over what constitutes academic freedom. It has also prompted questions over whether outside groups should have influence on academic decisions.
"Scholars of the Middle East have been under attack in recent years, especially since 9/11, and this case has been one of the key episodes," said Zachary Lockman, chairman of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University and a past president of the Middle East Studies Association. "Everyone is watching to see what will happen."
Desiring Arabs, a densely argued book on colliding notions of sexuality in the Western and Arab worlds, has garnered plaudits and criticisms, as well as the prize from the panel of undergraduates at the university.
Mr. Massad has also published two other scholarly books. The first, Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan (Columbia University Press, 2001), was based on a thesis that won him the Middle East Studies Association's Malcolm H. Kerr dissertation prize in 1998. The second, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question, was published in 2006 by Routledge.
The battle over tenure for Mr. Massad, however, has played out away from his scholarship, in the larger pools of discontent over Middle East studies at Columbia in recent years. In particular, the controversy over a documentary film, Columbia Unbecoming, in 2005, produced by an off-campus group called the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, not only made Mr. Massad a target of pro-Israel groups but also seems likely to have damaged his quest for tenure.
The film, which never saw general release, chronicled what the group saw as a pattern of anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jewish students at Columbia. Mr. Massad, who had yet to file for tenure at the time, was one of three professors cited specifically in the film. It quoted an anonymous student as saying the professor had yelled at a female student during class and told her to leave after she contradicted him and expressed pro-Israel views.
Columbia appointed a faculty committee to investigate the accusations made in the film. That group found no evidence of a pattern of anti-Semitism or discrimination at the university, but its report noted the incident in which Mr. Massad allegedly yelled at a student and another altercation that purportedly occurred off campus and involved a student who was not in his courses.
The committee found that, in general, Mr. Massad was a popular professor, but it also said he had "responded heatedly" to the woman in his class and had "exceeded commonly accepted bounds" between a professor and a student.
Academics inside and outside the university who support Mr. Massad denounced Columbia and the panel for carrying out what they characterized as a witch hunt. Mr. Massad has repeatedly denied that either incident took place, and has made his arguments clear in a series of responses to the committee's report on his Columbia Web site.
While the controversy over Columbia Unbecoming made Mr. Massad a lightning rod, his writings outside academe and his public statements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have added to his high profile. He is a staunch critic of Zionism whose nonscholarly articles for newspapers, like the English-language version of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, ring with vitriol.
Mr. Massad's critics, many of them supporters of Israel, consider his positions not only anti-Zionist but anti-Jewish as well. Their criticism of his work has placed Columbia on watch lists compiled by pro-Israel groups and politicians, and has led to calls for Columbia to fire him.
Breakdown and Negotiation
Mr. Massad has taught at Columbia since 1999. Like most professors, he went up for tenure after seven years. In the normal course of events, his case would have been decided by last spring. Instead Columbia first gave Mr. Massad a year's extension on his tenure bid. Nicholas B. Dirks, vice president for arts and sciences, told The Chronicle last fall that 15 percent to 20 percent of tenure cases were being held over for a year because the university could not finish up its work.
Now, with the decision to create a new committee, Mr. Massad's tenure case falls among an even smaller proportion of cases. Columbia officials won't say how many cases are held over for two years and receive a second review. But faculty members say that while such treatment is not unheard of, it is rare.
"It's unusual but far from unprecedented," said David Damrosch, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia.
The first ad hoc committee that considered Mr. Massad's case voted 3 to 2 in favor of his tenure bid last year, according to faculty members who spoke to The Chronicle but did not want to be named because tenure cases are supposed to be secret. Ad hoc tenure committees at Columbia are typically made up of its own professors, with one or two others from outside the university.
It is not clear on what basis the two members of the committee and then the provost decided that Mr. Massad did not deserve tenure. The provost's decision is usually made as a recommendation to the president, who considers the recommendation and then sends his own decision on to the Board of Trustees.
The panel's split decision and the provost's subsequent negative one, professors said, touched off months of negotiations between Mr. Massad's supporters and university administrators. Columbia officials, the sources said, finally agreed to establish a second ad hoc committee, although the university did not acknowledge any problems or irregularities in how the first committee had conducted its job. Mr. Massad will be on paid leave next year while the second committee considers his case.
Mr. Massad has been largely silent over the past year, refusing interview requests about his tenure case. But the recent Columbia award given to Desiring Arabs has raised his profile on the campus — and raised questions about the fairness of the process and the fate of his tenure bid.
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, said that while it is "highly unusual" for a university to establish a second ad hoc review committee, "it seems to me a good thing in this case, if questions have been raised about the decision making." Columbia, he said, is doing the right thing, a sentiment echoed by others outside the university who are watching the case.
But Martin Kramer, a senior fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, said that in establishing a second committee, Columbia may simply be buying time in what for the university is a no-win situation. "If they tenure him, they will be roundly condemned," said Mr. Kramer, who is also a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If they deny him, many faculty will say the university has knuckled under to outside pressure. It is really a power struggle."
Still others say it is the university that holds all the power, and that Mr. Massad has little choice but to watch and wait.
"The institution can do whatever it wants because it has the rules to do it, to someone who doesn't have any other options," said Gil Anidjar, an associate professor of comparative literature in Mr. Massad's department. "It has been two years since Joseph Massad submitted his file for tenure, and he still doesn't have an answer."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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