Before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia dominated news on and off campus, another matter of Middle East politics and academic freedom was causing controversy: the tenure status of Nadia Abu El-Haj. A member of the anthropology department at Barnard College, El-Haj was recently granted tenure by a committee of Columbia professors and administrators.
The committee’s decision was based largely on her book, Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, which bills itself as “the first critical account of Israeli archaeological practice while tracing the dynamic relationships among science, colonization, nation-state building, and territorial expansion.” Though the book received some praising reviews and an award from the Middle East Studies Association, it has also drawn sharp criticism regarding its accuracy, methodology, and scholarship.
The criticism led some University alumni and professors to mount a public campaign against granting tenure to El-Haj. Of course, the tenure decision was made internally—as it should have been. But the alumni campaign raised interesting questions about the extent to which the academic process should be transparent and public. El-Haj’s case also raises questions about the boundaries between academic work and political activism; the scholarly discourse regarding Israel and the Middle East; and the role of postmodernism and post-colonialism in academic and political thinking.
To give our readers some context on these matters, The Current has invited three outside scholars to contribute essays which we hope will educate, stimulate, and provoke. The Current is not an appropriate arbiter of Professor El-Haj’s tenure merits, but it is important to examine her case and its relation to broader academic trends.