Too late to stop Massad?

Isn’t it too late to stop tenure for Joseph Massad? This question has been posed to me by a reader, in light of the claim by Massad (via the Angry Arab) that he’s already been tenured.

There’s no way for someone outside the system to know for certain where the process stands. But we do know this: when the Columbia Spectator sought to confirm the rumor launched by Massad via his friend, it found it to be false. The Spectator called it “chatter,” and added this: “The outcome of the controversial Palestinian scholar’s tenure process remains to be seen and the review has not concluded.” (My emphasis.) The article goes on to explain the review process, which is also laid out in the Faculty Handbook. Once the ad hoc tenure committee has made a recommendation to the Provost, the department chair must inform the candidate of that recommendation. But a favorable recommendation still must be approved by the Provost and the President, before presentation to the Board of Trustees. The ad hoc committee only serves in an advisory capacity to the Provost.

Let’s assume for argument’s sake that Massad has been notified that the ad hoc committee has recommended in his favor, and that’s why he’s informing his friends that he’s been tenured. Is a favorable recommendation effectively the end of the process? The same Spectator article quotes Alan Brinkley, outgoing Provost: “The most important part of the tenure process is the ad-hoc committee. Usually there is a strong connection between what the ad-hoc committee decides and what subsequent steps in the process do. They usually are all the same.”

The key word here is “usually.” Indeed, the Faculty Handbook describes as “unusual cases” those instances in which the Provost, President, or Trustees overrule a favorable recommendation by an ad hoc committee. But just how unusual are they?

For the period between 1989 and 1997, we know the answer to that question, because Columbia’s then-Provost Jonathan R. Cole went before the Faculty Senate to review the statistics of all the tenure decisions made between those dates. He revealed that there had been 304 ad hoc reviews during the eight-year period, 38 of which ended in tenure denial. The Provost was responsible for 14 of the 38 denials, having overruled favorable committee recommendations. Put another way, ad hoc committees made 280 positive recommendations, and the Provost (Cole during the entire period) rejected 14 of them—a rejection rate of exactly five percent.

So rejections of favorable committee recommendations, while “unusual,” weren’t unprecedented or even rare in Cole’s time. Indeed, overruling by the Provost appears to be a routine method of tenure denial: in the period reported by Cole, 37 percent of all tenure denials after full review constituted cases of the Provost overruling an ad hoc committee.

Massad’s case is unusual by any reckoning, and would be treated with additional scrutiny by the Provost. But even if the Provost were to recommend tenure, this wouldn’t absolve President Bollinger of his personal responsibility. The Faculty Handbook stipulates: “Upon completion of his or her review, the Provost will submit a recommendation to the President on whether the candidate should be awarded tenure. A nomination is forwarded to the Trustees for their approval only if the Provost and President are satisfied that the candidate deserves tenure.” Massad cannot be tenured unless President Bollinger is satisfied that he deserves it—and, presumably, tells the Trustees why.

It isn’t surprising that it’s come to this: that the faculty would recommend tenure, and that the administration alone would have to assume responsibility for any decision to reject Massad. And as the tenure review seems to have reached just that critical point, the evidence on Massad needs full public airing now more than ever. This is the moment of truth—for Columbia, for President Bollinger, and for the survival on Morningside Heights of what President Bollinger has called the “scholarly temperament.” I heard him, in person, describe his ideal in his Cardozo Lecture at the New York City Bar Association on March 23, 2005, and I’ve quoted his words often:

To set aside one’s pre-existing beliefs, to hold simultaneously in one’s mind multiple angles of seeing things, to actually allow yourself seemingly to believe another view as you consider it—these are the kind of intellectual qualities that characterize the very best faculty and students I have known and that suffuse the academic atmosphere at its best.

Joseph Massad hasn’t a single one of these qualities. If President Bollinger notifies the trustees that he’s satisfied that Massad deserves tenure—something he must know to be untrue—it will be a devastating admission of failure—his and the university’s. Now we shall learn how much courage resides in Low Memorial Library.

Footnote: Read this damning new compendium of the wisdom of Massad. President Bollinger’s contact information is here.

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