Clark University Cancels Norman Finklestein Updated (4-23-09)

Apparently Clark University can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. Norman Finklestein had, in February, accepted an invitation from the Clark University Students for Palestinian Rights to speak on April 21st, which apparently coincides with a Holocaust conference at the Clark Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Clark University’s President John Bassett called the two events “conflicting” after Hillel objected to Finkelstein’s scheduled appearance.  Bassett canceled the Finklestein talk because of the possible threat of violence.   There was no available information on exactly where this violence might come, and who might instigate it…… Hillel, the students for Palestinian rights?

Further, its not clear how these events are actually conflicting, are they occurring in the same auditorium, are they located in nearby rooms and more importantly, what might the conflict be about?  Norman Finklestein is an expert commentator on issues related to the Holocaust and the Palestine/Israel conflict (his invited talk was to be on Gaza), whether his specific viewpoint is similar or different than those at the conference is within the realm of academic debate/discussion, and is essentially academically/intellectually, irrelevant.

Such intellectual “conflict” is supposedly a core value of academic discourse.    For the sake of argument, there might be people at the conference who espouse similar views to Finklestein but who are not in fact Norman Finklestein.  (these people simply don’t like the man) Or one can imagine that the conference has several rooms at its disposal and perhaps concurrent sessions, some discussing the positive attributes of Finklestein’s holocaust views while others discuss the negative aspects (whatever), or perhaps there is simply a plenary session with all pertinant views, just not Professor Finklestein in the flesh.  (of course this is just brain storming, there will most probably be very little in the way of such academic “to-ing and fro-ing.”)

The idea that one campus group can essentially veto the activities of a group that is unrelated is more than passing strange.  For the sake of argument (again), lets say there was a conference on the Palestinian Nakba and another group (perhaps Hillel) invited Alan Dershowitz to speak during this same time, would President Bassett use the same line of reasoning.  Is this a conflict? What kind of problem is this exactly? My sense is that its more one of funding than anything else, which would help explain the Clark administration’s response.

The Holocaust conference is University sponsored (with all that this implies regarding donor and community support) while the student group is, well, student sponsored. The important take home point is that there is no real conflict here except that one group of people (with power) do not like Norman Finklestein’s point of view and are censoring his voice from the Clark University campus.

The Clark Students for Palestinian Rights have circulated two petitions. One questions whether the president should be able to cancel events without first consulting event organizers, and the other asks whether Clark students can have productive conversations about issues with which they may not agree.

We consider this an abuse of academic freedom,” said senior Thomas MacMillan, president of the organization, which had raised half of the $1,800 costs associated with Mr. Finkelstein’s talk before Mr. Bassett canceled it. “Free speech is probably one of the greatest things we have in this country, as long as it’s not encouraging hate or violence toward someone else.”

The ACLU  also wrote a letter to President Bassett in which they noted that this cancellation: “violates the basic principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom, which are so fundamental to an institution of higher learning.”

Norman Finklestein commented thusly:

Part of the Clark University-Boston Globe disinformation campaign is the pretense that I was scheduled to speak on the Nazi holocaust. In fact I was scheduled to speak on the Gaza massacre. Isn’t it too perfect that Clark was using The Holocaust as a pretext to silence criticism of Israel?

For more information, contact the Clark University Students for Palestinian Rights at palestine@clarku.edu.

You can also reach  John Bassett, President of Clark at
Department of English
Clark University
Worcester, MA 01610-1477

email:jbassett@clarku.edu

update:  4-23-2009  Clark President’s letter regarding re-inviting Finklestein back to Clark April 27th.

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I want you to know that the students have arranged for Professor Norman Finkelstein to speak at Clark University on April 27, only four days later than the date originally discussed. Clark is dedicated to full and free inquiry on all controversial issues, especially including the relations between Israel and Palestine. My decisions along the way in this case were made in an attempt to balance two goods—free inquiry and common courtesy to visiting speakers. And, the decisions were always made with my primary concern being what is best for Clark University. I freely admit that the process could have been better. I should have begun by consulting with the leaders of the sponsoring student organization, not by announcing a decision. I also should not have assumed that, because April 20-24 is the last full week of classes, nothing else could happen until fall. That assumption left too many people thinking that free speech was in abeyance for five months. The students involved have conducted themselves in the best “Clark way” and I hope the result shows that one can achieve both goods.

Thank you for being interested enough to send me your concerns.

Sincerely,

John Bassett

President

Clark University