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.

Massad’s alcohol analysis

If you were a secular, liberal Palestinian intellectual (and perhaps a Christian to boot) living in the West Bank, would you have forebodings about Hamas coming to power? You might, and with good reason. Edward Said agonized over the Hamas problem, before reaching this conclusion: “For any secular intellectual to make a devil’s pact with a religious movement is, I think, to substitute convenience for principle.”

Ah, but there’s another explanation for this secular, liberal reticence, offered by the deep, brilliant and possibly tenured Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, Joseph Massad. From the heights of Morningside, he assures us that these Palestinians oppose Hamas because… it might take away their booze. Here he goes:

West Bank-based Palestinian intellectuals, like their liberal counterparts across the Arab world, have been active in the last several years in demonizing Hamas as the force of darkness in the region. These intellectuals (among whom liberal secular Christians, sometimes referred to derisively in Ramallah circles as “the Christian Democratic Party,” are disproportionately represented) are mostly horrified that if Hamas came to power, it would ban alcohol. Assuming Hamas would enact such a regulation on the entire population were it to rule a liberated Palestine in some undetermined future, these intellectuals are the kind of intellectuals who prefer an assured collaborating dictatorship with a glass of scotch to a potentially resisting democracy without….

The journey of West Bank liberal intellectuals, it seems has finally come to this: after being instrumental in selling out the rights of Palestinians in Israel to full equal citizenship by acquiescing to Israel’s demand to be recognized as a racist Jewish state, and the rights of the diaspora and refugees to return, they have now sold out the rights of Palestinians in Gaza to food and electricity, and all of this so that the West Bank can be ruled by a collaborationist authority that allows them open access to Johnny Walker Black Label (their drink of choice, although some have switched to Chivas more recently). In this context, how could Israel be anything but a friend and ally who is making sure Hamas will never get to ban whiskey?

This isn’t tongue-in-cheek. That’s it—the sum of Massad’s political analysis of why, in Ramallah, there’s no desire to fall into the grip of Hamas and its “resisting democracy.” Massad’s approach is always the same: caricature and dehumanize anyone who won’t kill and be killed to destroy Israel—even (and especially) if they’re Palestinians and their sympathizers. Massad once even claimed that the regret over Gaza’s secession expressed by the late Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish “can be explained by the monthly checks [Darwish] receives from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.” If it’s not booze, it’s cash. A bit reductive, even for Columbia.

And what of Professor Massad? When the New York Times visited him at home in Manhattan to profile the armchair resister, it reported that the reading material on his coffee table was The World Atlas of Wine. “His elaborate freestanding Egyptian water pipe is stoked with apple-flavored tobacco as a weekend indulgence, accompanied by Cognac, after dinner parties.” How ennobling it is to champion Hamas—from a safe distance.

The hypocrisy of Massad

Yesterday, I invited Columbia’s president and trustees to look more closely at Joseph Massad’s book Desiring Arabs, which Harvard University Press provisionally accepted as a proposal and later rejected as a completed manuscript.

This is not Massad’s only recent publishing accident. The president and trustees might also take a closer look at why the College Art Association paid an Israeli art historian $75,000 in 2007, to avert a libel suit threatened against it for publishing a book review by Massad. The association also wrote to subscribers of its Art Journal, acknowledging that Massad’s review made “factual errors and certain unfounded assertions,” and asking them to excise the potentially libelous passages from their copies of the journal. It’s unlikely any careful publisher will carry Massad again, before running his text past a lawyer.

Now I happen to concur with one of Massad’s responses to the affair: “If every academic was going to think that any critique of academic scholarship was going to have to be defended in a court of law, the state of academic argumentation would be very different.” Indeed. Unfortunately, Massad seems to think that only his criticism of others is protected speech. When his own work came under criticism in 2004, he seriously considered taking a newspaper to court. Massad himself told the story in his statement to the university committee that investigated him on charges of intimidating students:

I set up an appointment with Provost [Alan] Brinkley and met with him. I sought his help and the help of the university’s legal services to fight this defamation of character. The latest article in the New York Sun [by Jonathan Calt Harris] included such blatant and insidious misrepresentations that I seriously considered suing them for defamation. I provided copies of my written work to the Provost and told him of the campaigns to which I had been subjected in the previous years. While the provost seemed mildly supportive, he did not think that suing would be practical. I asked him if he could arrange for me to meet with legal services to which he reluctantly agreed. I had to remind him by E-mail to set up a meeting for me. After he put me in touch with legal services, my E-mails to them went unanswered. I asked the provost to intervene which he did. His intervention produced a response from their office asking me about my available times to set up an appointment. I sent it to them and never heard back. I dropped the matter after I left in mid summer for vacation abroad.

Two things are telling here. First, and most obviously, there is the hypocrisy. If Massad should be free to skewer an Israeli art historian’s book without ending up in court, why shouldn’t someone else be free to skewer Massad’s writings without landing in court? Second, there is Massad’s insistence that Columbia take up his case, when he could have opened the Yellow Pages and gone to any private attorney specializing in libel and defamation. Massad must have known that this would be a frivolous pursuit, but its purpose would be to align him and Columbia against the New York Sun. The state of academic argumentation would be very different if university lawyers had the duty to defend university faculty against intellectual criticism. Columbia rightly drew that line.

As for the Art Journal review, legalities aside, it raises questions of credibility and authorial style. Has Massad’s tenure committee answered these questions to the satisfaction of Columbia’s provost, president and trustees? Has it even asked them?

Pointer: There is an editorial on Massad’s tenure in today’s New York Daily News.