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.


5 Responses to “Bard College Fires Professor for Having an Opinion”

  1. ron ron said

    I’m not sure why you’re inclined to credit to Kovel’s story just because he’s a nice guy. It’s really kind of silly, especially the part where he acts aghast that the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra played the Israeli national anthem at a concert in New York, that most of the audience rose, and that no notice was taken of the event. Shocking! Jews in New York, and no one says a word. Kovel also writes that he “was disturbed . . . by the fact that, with the exception of two non-tenure track faculty, there was no support from Bard” when Jewish watch groups tried to get his anti-Zionist book removed from circulation. The fact that no faculty came to his side doesn’t speak highly for the esteem in which he is held. Kovel maybe has a point that the pro-Israel professor on his evaluation committee should have recused himself, but he has no explanation, as Radosh points out, for why the other two committee members, not to mention Dean Dominy and Executive Vice-President Papadimitriou, went along with the supposed witch hunt.

    Radosh’s explanation of what happened isn’t that great either. His description of Kovel’s scholarship certainly succeeds in making it appear quite absurd, but that might be an intentionally misleading reading. Here is Radosh’s strongest point, I think, which for some reason he buries at the end: “As for Bard, its president, Leon Botstein, notes that the current economy has forced the college to terminate part-time faculty, and that Kovel has sought to turn his dismissal – more accurately the decision to not renew his contract-‘into a trumped-up case of prejudice and political victimization,’ which he adds insults both Kovel’s own intelligence that that of his readers. Moreover, he digs in the scalpel by noting that Bard had instituted its own program to help improve Palestinian education in conjunction with Al Quds University, a program that Kovel himself never bothered to inquire about.”

    I also have to say that, on the face of it, Kovel’s virulent anti-Israel position strikes me as ridiculous. It’s not that Israel’s successive governments don’t merit a great deal of criticism–they most certainly do. But to single Israel out for special condemnation makes no sense to me and I’ve never understood it, and neither does portraying Palestinians as only victims. In this region’s terrible history of war and occupation there’s an awful lot of blame to go around, and for someone who has no personal stake in the matter it strikes me as bizarre to fail to see this.

  2. ron ron said

    That said, it might not have been the right move to fire him, although I wouldn’t characterize it as a “very bad move” until I knew more about his scholarship and his teaching. If those were bad, than I can’t see what’s wrong with the decision.

  3. ron ron said

    And one more thing. Kovel’s last paragraph is ridiculous:

    “Bard has effectively crafted for itself an image as a bastion of progressive thought. . . A fundamental principle of mine is that the educator must criticize the injustices of the world, whether or not this involves him or her in conflict with the powers that be. The systematic failure of the academy to do so plays no small role in the perpetuation of injustice and state violence. In no sphere of political action does this principle apply
    more vigorously than with the question of Zionism; and in no country is this issue more strategically important than in the United States, given the fact that United States support is necessary for Israel’s behavior. The worse this behavior, the more strenuous must be the suppression of criticism. I take the view, then, that Israeli human rights abuses are deeply engrained {sic} in a culture of impunity granted chiefly, though not
    exclusively, in the United States—which culture arises from suppression of debate and open inquiry within those institutions, such as colleges,
    whose social role it is to enlighten the public.”

    No real Marxist could possibly assert that the failure of professors to speak “plays no small role in the perpetuation of injustice and state violence.” Marx would have ridiculed this notion mercilessly in the same way he ridiculed the German idealists for thinking that ideas, not material conditions, drove history.

  4. fatherbrown said

    Well, I don’t want to hold Kovel to a Marxist materialist position (I was the one who said he was a Marxist, and perhaps he might not accept that designation). Nor do I even want to argue that his book on Zionism is good–I haven’t read it (it’s not clear to me, by the way, that he holds Palestinians blameless, nor is that the issue). I’ll even concede that his point about the Israeli orchestra seems like a stretch. But it does strike me that academics tend to have itchy trigger fingers on both sides when it comes to the Middle East and that we should be extremely cautious about terminating teaching contracts because of political disagreements. It is indeed possible that Kovel was let go solely for economic and professional reasons and that I’m just not hearing that side of the story. But it seems highly likely to me that he’s being pushed out because of his politics, and that continues to strike me as a “very bad move.” He’s been working at Bard since 1988, he holds a fairly impressive title if not a standard tenured position, and he’s a major figure in his field; one “unenthusiastic” evaluation, after other satisfactory evaluations, is not usually criterion for firing such a person. Radosh insists that Kovel was dismissed for economic reasons or for his teaching, but the whole gist of his post is to say that Kovel deserved to be dismissed for his politics and scholarship.

  5. ron ron said

    You’re right to a great extent, but I’ll say that if no significant portion of the Bard and Columbia faculty has come to his support it says a lot. It still seems far from clear that he was really pushed out for his politics. It’s definitely worth someone investigating because if that’s what it was really about we need more than just his word on the matter, which is why his colleagues should be vocally supporting him if there’s any merit to his position.

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