Bard College Fires Professor for Having an Opinion
February 19, 2009
Bard College has just dismissed Joel Kovel, who holds a post as Distinguished Professor of Social Science. Kovel had an appointment outside of the tenure system, but he has been at Bard since 1988 and is a well established and well respected scholar. His book White Racism (1972) was nominated for a National Book Award.
Kovel’s explanation, which I am inclined to credit, is that he was fired for writing a controversial book, Overcoming Zionism, with the University of Michigan Press. According to Kovel’s statement, which is available here, both the president of Bard and one of the faculty members on the committee whose evaluation of Kovel led to his dismissal are strong Zionists. Kovel also reports having had an endowed chair taken away from him by the president of Bard three or four weeks after Kovel started publishing articles criticizing Zionism.
Historian Ron Radosh trumpets Kovel’s firing as “a victory for sanity in academia” and accuses Kovel of shoddy scholarship. But Radosh and Kovel are on opposite sides of many ideological fences, Radosh being a neocon and Kovel being a Marxist. For my part, I have met Kovel a few times through his daughter and have always found him to be a pleasant guy. This strikes me as a very bad move on Bard’s part.
Addendum: After posting the above I received a polite note from Leon Botstein, President of Bard, in response to an e-mail I sent. Botstein reminded me that Kovel was not fired, at least not technically. He had been on a five-year contract. “In consultation with faculty, Bard elected not to renew Kovel’s contract because, like all colleges, it faces severe fiscal restraints and is doing everything it can to preserve the employment of its full-time faculty.” Bard is “sorry and astonished” at Kovel’s allegations, “which have no basis in fact.” Botstein also sent a letter to Kovel, since made public, in which he wrote to Kovel, “I am delighted that you hold views that many consider wrong or dangerous. You are not as controversial as you would like to believe.”
Someone is clearly lying here. Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, has expressed “concern about the recent nonappointment of Professor Joel Kovel” and suggests that Bard should follow due process in hearing Kovel’s grievance. He also suggests that an AAUP investigation may be necessary. One hopes that, either through an impartial hearing at Bard or through an AAUP investigation, we can get to the bottom of this.