Last fall, the college tenure process at Barnard College turned participatory—for the worse, argue Dan Rabinowitz and Ronen Shamir for Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. When up for tenure, Arab American anthropologist Nadia El-Haj faced both the scrutiny of the college and of the public. Online petitions were posted for and against her in an attempt to democratize the process.
The final decision remained Barnard’s, and the school ultimately granted El-Haj tenure. But the petitions intruded inappropriately into an academic decision, write Rabinowitz and Shamir. “Science is not a form of participatory democracy to be determined by majority opinion,” the Israeli scholars write. Tenure should be determined by the quality of scholarship, not by politics.
The transgression that sparked protest against El-Haj, as the Academe authors put it, was “writing on Israel while Arab.” (El-Haj's first book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, examines the relationship between archaeology and Zionist nation building.) El-Haj’s work seemed to upset American Jewry most. The uproar was symptomatic of “an intellectual climate that, at least from afar, looks increasingly oppressive." Academic institutions, Rabinowitz and Shamir insist, must not fall prey to hegemonic ideologies that manipulate or repress knowledge to suit their political agendas.