Thursday, June 08, 2006

More on the Spreading Chestnut Tree

Another true hero of the blogs gets shafted by neoconservatives:

'Juan Cole, one of the country’s top Middle East scholars, was poised for the biggest step of his career.

A tenured professor at the University of Michigan, Cole was tapped earlier this year by a Yale University search committee to teach about the modern Middle East. In two separate votes in May, Cole was approved by both the sociology and history departments, the latter the university’s largest.

The only remaining hurdle was the senior appointments committee, also known as the tenure committee, a group consisting of about a half-dozen professors from various disciplines across the university.

Last week, however, in what is shaping up as the latest in a series of heated battles over the political affiliations of Middle Eastern studies professors, the tenure committee voted down Cole’s nomination. Several Yale faculty members described the decision to overrule the votes of the individual departments as “highly unusual.”'


A smear campaign was run in the mainstream media in an effort to quash Professor Cole's nomination to Yale University. Funnily enough, none of his detractors were experts in middle eastern affairs.

(Via Talking Points Memo)

7 comments:

some girl said...

I think that his detractors not being experts in the Modern Middle East has little to do with anything. The point of creating a search committee from professors within the organization for a specialist is primarily because a person with that specific niche of information is missing from the school's teaching staff. Those who voted against Cole's tenure were all from other areas of specialty, mostly in the history and sociology department.

And not having extensive knowledge about the history of the Middle East does not preclude one from feeling that Cole would not be a suitable match to the campus and the social fabric of the school.

The ivied walls of the Ivy League have very specific standards, and Cole (especially because of his public statements on his blog) did not stand up to the scrutiny.

Think what you will, but the external campaign, while it gained some attention, probably had little to do with the refusal to offer tenure. My guess is that there was a far more effective internal campaign by the current Yale professor to keep Cole off the campus.

Don Quixote said...

I think you are misunderstanding who I'm referring to as his detractors. I wasn't referring to the committee members responsible for making the decision, but rather I was referring to the right wing media pundits that have attacked him in the public forum over the last couple of years. Those guys are partisan pundits at best, so their attacks on him are not based on anything but ideology.

I'm not sure what you mean by Cole not being suitable for the campus and social fabric of the school, but I'll certainly defer to your judgment as to the ultimate reason why the board came to their decision. The thing to think about though is this - the publicity, for good or ill, must have at least been in their minds as they considered his suitability. In this day and age all you have to do is state controversial things about someone in order for that someone to be known as "the controversial blogger, professor, whatever." The sad thing is that the stuff that he says on his blog is hardly controversial.

Anyway, I'm not American and I'm not familiar with the way universities work over there so I'm sure you're correct about the ultimate reason for his rejection.

But we do live in a sad world when someone's personal politics becomes an issue on a job application. Cole is renowned for checking his liberalism at the door when he lectures and his approach was definitely apolitical.

Anonymous said...

Well, but let's acknowledge that we call this sort of thing "a McCarthyite partisan smear campaign" when they do it to us, and "grassroots activism" when we do it to them, but in the end the street runs in both directions. I think it's naive to suggest that personal politics, beliefs, and so on will ever get a pass in today's culture wars. I actually don't think that this is inappropriate -- after all, Prof. Cole was not just applying for any old job, but looked to fill the role of "public intellectual." In his field, you can't "check your liberalism at the door" (indeed, I suspect Prof. Cole would be offended at the suggestion). Contemporary history (to say nothing of modern sociology) is a political business, period; "objectivity" in the factual sense is for scholars of dead civilizations (if even for them).

Regarding the brouhaha at Yale, I suspect that the alumni (rather than just random meddling interlopers in the media) had something to do with it. As the University constantly reminds its past graduates in its innumerable donor solicitation letters, the alumni are a foundational constituency in the Yale community and their views, participation, and financial wherewithal continue to be an important component of campus intellectual life. Some alumni do not think that Prof. Cole is the right person to fill such a key slot in the faculty, based on a conviction that his personal views color his scholarship in unfavorable ways. Some alumni (including folks who have some expertise in the area) view the statements on his blog as being extremely controversial. And some alumni are already disenchanted with the University over the "Yale Taliban" issue. Those alumni have a vote, one way or another -- and regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with those alumni on the merits of Prof. Cole, I don't think it's inappropriate for them to speak out. Your "smear campaign," their "grassroots activism." (And, their "donation checks," which probably made some impression on the University administration.)

(FWIW, I am an alum but expressed no opinion on, and took no part in, any aspect of the Cole controversy prior to this post.)

Don Quixote said...

Hello anonymous,

The way I see it there is a significant difference between a smear campaign and grassroots activism. I guess if a whole bunch of students had picketed Yale's gates, and a range of teachers had joined them in their protest, then I'd probably ascribe the title 'grassroots' to the project. I'd also probably be a lot more comfortable with the result. But when a group of influential partisan media hacks go on the attack; especially against someone who writes in a field that doesn't match their skill set - then I call it a smear campaign. But, you're right - the street does run both directions, and if you can show examples of where conservative scholars have been denied positions on the strength of liberal media punditry (if there even exists such a thing as liberal media in this age) then I'll agree that "it's naive to suggest that personal politics, beliefs, and so on will ever get a pass in today's culture wars."

As for your comments on history I have to say that I disagree entirely. I'm currently studying history and the first - and in my opinion, most important - rule of looking at history is that removing one's political biases is the only way in which even a glimmer of truth can be arrived at. The only time that history becomes a political issue is if the factual presentation of events conflicts with the way that a given person wishes things had transpired. For example, a person with communist tendencies may find someone's presentation of Stalinist Russia to be overtly political simply because the idea that communists exterminated sixteen million people conflicts with their desired view of communism; this doesn't, however, mean that the person presenting the facts about Stalinist Russia is overtly political. I'm not so naive as to suggest that all history students, or lecturers for that matter, are apolitical, but from the sounds of it Cole's lectures largely are.

As for your comment:

"Regarding the brouhaha at Yale, I suspect that the alumni (rather than just random meddling interlopers in the media) had something to do with it."

I'd say that given your alumni status at Yale you'd know the internal hiring processes and academic culture better than I. In fact, Somegirl, the previous commenter, pretty much had me convinced that his rejection was a result of internal deliberation rather than external influence, and if this is the case then there is absolutely no problem with what happened. But, if there was more to it than that then we go back to the initial disagreement.

So in summation - I'll definitely concede that, in light of my inadequate knowledge of Yale's hiring procedures, Cole may simply have not made the grade with his peers. In fact, from what you and Somegirl have said it sounds like a distinct possibility. But I'll never agree that someone's personal politics should somehow damage their employment opportunities, unless it's seen that they're engaging in factual inaccuracies or acts of incompetence. I guess I'm sensitive to this issue because there have been some nasty campaigns to "out" political bloggers of late; the purpose being to damage the blogger's employability via the nasty method of exposing their political orientation in the eyes of potential employers (think the legal profession).

One last thing I'll clear up is that Prof. Cole didn't apply for the Yale position; in his words: "I am not actively seeking other employment, and did not apply to Yale; they came to me and asked if they could look at me for an appointment." I'm not sure if that changes the debate one way or the other, but he felt it important to place upon his site.

Anyway, I hope I've made some sense. And the final word I'll give to Cole himself:

"I was extremely fortunate to have been hired at the University of Michigan right out of graduate school. I moved from UCLA to the pinnacle of my profession at a young age. I am doing what I enjoy doing, which is studying and teaching the Middle East and South Asia, and communicating about it to various publics. I have not, and short of foul play cannot be stopped from doing what I am doing, and what I enjoy. I welcome critiques of my work. There are obviously some critics, however, who go rather beyond simple critique to wishing to silence or smear me. In the former, at least, they cannot succeed by mere yellow journalism. So I have what I want, but they cannot have what they want. I win, every day."

Anonymous said...

The way I see it, if you have some form of organized voluntary advocacy by people outside the established decisionmaking hierarchy, using public methods of protest, it's "grassroots activism." It's disingenuous to state that if it's one group of people doing this, it's positive political expression, but if it's another group of people, it's an ideological "smear campaign." You're okay with ordinary students and teachers doing this -- what about ROTC cadets? Christian conservatives? Journalists (or, if you don't like their writing, "media hacks")? The tactics are identical; the issue is that one message is "progressive" and "good" while the other message is "evil." That's fine as far as it goes, but understand the limitations of applying this sort of worldview.

As for conservative scholars -- perhaps it is different in Australia, but the political orthodoxy in the American academy is well understood. Some like to explain the near-absence of young conservative scholars on university faculties by stating that conservatives are anti-intellectual, too greedy to pursue a life of the mind, and/or are just dumber and therefore can't make the grade. Having known some very smart conservatives who have tried to claw their way up the academic ladder, I tend to suspect that there's something structural at work here.

But at any rate -- I don't want to ignite a boring left/right debate here. About history, a far more interesting subject: I admire your idealism, and I hope that you remain faithful to your principles of objectivity. However, I believe that some cognitive biases cannot be removed, and a good number of these biases have some connection to matters that many of us would call "political." We live in the same world that we study; it is extraordinarily difficult to take ourselves out of this context. As time and distance increases, the distorting effects of our cognitive lens may lessen somewhat -- hence a scholar of the Hundred Years' War may be less susceptible to political currents than someone today writing the history of Bill Clinton's presidency -- but they never really go away. Personally I think it takes a generation before a sufficient level of disinterest develops to produce worthwhile history, but that's me. I do not believe that a truly "apolitical history" of any significant event in the past fifty years exists -- certainly not in the "prestige" circles of the elite academy, where too many professors fancy themselves makers of history rather than mere chroniclers.

As for Prof. Cole, setting aside whatever political/ideological differences he may have with his critics, I do believe that part of his downfall was an unattractive -- and in some cases extraordinarily tactless -- public personality. He is undoubtedly quite intelligent and possesses some impressive area studies expertise. His trouble is that he still comes across as a know-it-all graduate student trying to show up everybody in the room with his credentials, with a nasty streak that emerges when people disagree with him. I have known professors every bit as liberal as Prof. Cole, who have founded their own fields of study, spent years in public service changing the face of law and politics, and whose lives were supremely intertwined with the political. Nevertheless, I have never heard any of them feel the need to insult the widow of a murdered journalist two weeks after the fact, falsely accuse foreign grassroots journalists of being CIA agents (in a manner that genuinely places their personal safety at risk), or quarrel with native speakers over the nuances of a foreign phrase. Even the statement you quoted is ungracious in its personal account ("I didn't want Yale, you know: Yale wanted me") and unscholarly in its peevishness: "So I have what I want, but they cannot have what they want. I win, every day." In conclusion, nyeah-nyeah nyeah-nyeah-nyeah.

Yes debate, yes politics, but good Lord, try to maintain some measure of dignity. You are a tenured professor, not a five-year-old who got the last lollipop.

I have no inside knowledge, but truthfully it wouldn't surprise me if the deciding vote on the tenure committee was based not on his politics (which most people on American university faculties share), but on his utter lack of good judgment.

Don Quixote said...

Hello again anonymous,

I'll just quote then respond because that's an easier way to go about this.

"The way I see it, if you have some form of organized voluntary advocacy by people outside the established decisionmaking hierarchy, using public methods of protest, it's "grassroots activism." It's disingenuous to state that if it's one group of people doing this, it's positive political expression, but if it's another group of people, it's an ideological "smear campaign." You're okay with ordinary students and teachers doing this -- what about ROTC cadets? Christian conservatives? Journalists (or, if you don't like their writing, "media hacks")? The tactics are identical; the issue is that one message is "progressive" and "good" while the other message is "evil." That's fine as far as it goes, but understand the limitations of applying this sort of worldview."

You make a good point, or perhaps my point was unclear. My distinction does not relate to those doing the campaigning so much as it relates to the methodology employed (although, the methodology employed may more often be confined to a particular group). If, for example, a group of Christian conservatives get together to campaign against abortion, then I call that grassroots activism; I won't like it, I won't agree with it, but it has the ring of authenticity to me. Conversely, if a liberal media pundit comes out and states that John McCain wants to drink the blood of Syrian children, because John McCain used the words "blood" and "Syrian" on the same day, then I call that a smear campaign.

"As for conservative scholars -- perhaps it is different in Australia, but the political orthodoxy in the American academy is well understood. Some like to explain the near-absence of young conservative scholars on university faculties by stating that conservatives are anti-intellectual, too greedy to pursue a life of the mind, and/or are just dumber and therefore can't make the grade. Having known some very smart conservatives who have tried to claw their way up the academic ladder, I tend to suspect that there's something structural at work here."

I don't buy into the "conservatives are absent from education because they're dumb" meme either. But I've never heard of a conservative rejection from a university board due to external pressure either. Once again, that's not to say that Cole's rejection occurred for that reason, I'm just not ruling it out.

"But at any rate -- I don't want to ignite a boring left/right debate here. About history, a far more interesting subject: I admire your idealism, and I hope that you remain faithful to your principles of objectivity. However, I believe that some cognitive biases cannot be removed, and a good number of these biases have some connection to matters that many of us would call "political." We live in the same world that we study; it is extraordinarily difficult to take ourselves out of this context. As time and distance increases, the distorting effects of our cognitive lens may lessen somewhat -- hence a scholar of the Hundred Years' War may be less susceptible to political currents than someone today writing the history of Bill Clinton's presidency -- but they never really go away. Personally I think it takes a generation before a sufficient level of disinterest develops to produce worthwhile history, but that's me. I do not believe that a truly "apolitical history" of any significant event in the past fifty years exists -- certainly not in the "prestige" circles of the elite academy, where too many professors fancy themselves makers of history rather than mere chroniclers."

I agree with what you're saying entirely, and I particularly like the line, "As time and distance increases, the distorting effects of our cognitive lens may lessen somewhat." Perhaps I was somewhat too adamant about the prosecution of history (as I'm inclined to be in Blogsylvania from time to time); of course a human is unable to completely negate the blurring effects of their biases when looking at the world, but it's the attempt to do so that makes a historian a historian. Maintaining an unrealistic standard is the only way to get near to the truth. I've not heard any accusation that Cole is unwilling to make this effort in his current role of lecturer at Michigan.

If the rest of what you wrote is the basis upon which the university made their decision then I have no quarrel with that decision. Upon reflection, his comments do show an unscholarly peevishness, which I guess I missed in my admiration for his work. The more serious charges that you've leveled I'll have to look into, but I do thank you for correcting some of my misconceptions on the issue.

Cheers,

DQ

some girl said...

I go away for an evening and this is what I find upon my return.

You have both been very busy.

I am so very proud of you both for not ending the conversation with accusations regarding manhood, linage and the violation of sheep, as these things often do seem to go that way.

DQ- In response to your email response to my email response sent because blogger comments were "being poopie" (it's time for another list!)

A.) The name thing: yeah. I know what you mean. Name and identity so often fold in on each other. Bruce and I got into a discussion about Kleenex. Bruce says I should say Kleenex brand tissue. I said shut the hell up and give me a Kleenex. Um...anyhoo, I understand what you're saying.

B.) You were very right about the identity of the anonymous commenter
1.) As we all know, anonymous commenters are poopie heads.
2.) Can you see how annoying it is to try to have arguments with him and his stoopit logic. I'm all: I want it. He's all: why? I'm all: because. From there the conversation goes downhill at a rather rapid rate of speed and in the end he might be logically correct but I still want it. (PS. Did I just out him? Ha!)

C.) There has been a bit of back and forth amongst us all about the ability to separate the politics from the man/subject matter. As idealistic as you are, and I agree with anonymous when I say it's refreshing and I hope you can maintain that, I have to politely state that I completely and totally disagree with the idea that we can successfully remove our politics from our professional and academic activities.

Look to your own writing and start deconstructing even the most apolitical of statements: I am a student of history. What does that say about you, who you are and where you live? Being a student of history in China is very different than being a student of history in Australia. Even the most innocuous statements begin to carry weight and importance that have political implications.

Sure some are understood and we take certain political constructs for granted (like freedom of speech and press) but that is because we have only ever known this political climate.

D.) As for the evidence for anti-conservative hiring practices this site has some explanation and statistics that might show that it happens to both sides of the fence.

E.) Just to let you know, that while Anonymous and I are speaking so highly of the Institution of Yale for all of its Liberalism and academic prowess there are examples of the Yale faculty getting it all wrong:

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible."
A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

"Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."
Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.

F.) In conclusion: um…I need to get more sleep.