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Juan Cole and Yale: The Inside Story

By David White

Early last month, when it emerged that Yale University had decided to reject the appointment of University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, he blamed a "concerted press campaign by neoconservatives...[which] was inappropriate and a threat to academic integrity." In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, the newsweekly revisits the story, inviting seven prominent bloggers--and Juan Cole himself--to discuss the controversy.

Accepting Cole's version of events at face value, the Chronicle's contributors all discussed the impact of his blog, and whether or not it was an appropriate factor in Yale's decision. But according to sources close to Yale's internal deliberations, the school's conclusion wasn't based on Cole's online journal or a press campaign. Rather, although the blog drew attention to Cole's personality, Yale's final verdict was based on an assessment of Cole's scholarly work.

The story of Yale's consideration of Cole began in January, when the Yale Center for International and Area Studies invited him to discuss Islamic political movements in post-Baath Iraq. At the lecture, Cole enjoyed the vigorous support of Yale Iranian history professor Abbas Amanat, but the two had known one another long before that January day.

As members of the Baha'i faith--a 160-year old religious organization that proclaims the unity of all the world's religions--both Cole and Amanat took strong issue with the leadership of the religion as it entered a tumultuous phase in the 1980s and 1990s.

As this criticism entered the public sphere, Cole emerged as one of the most eloquent defenders of liberal Baha'ism. And when Amanat was excommunicated from the Baha'i faith by the international governing council of the Baha'is, Cole supported Amanat publicly and vigorously. As Cole wrote to an online forum of Baha'i academics at the time, "In the good old days...the only way to be removed from the rolls of Baha'i membership once you were entered on them was to write a letter explicitly renouncing belief in Baha'u'llah. Professor Amanat has never done so."

In addition, Cole and Amanat's politics are so close that after Cole's January 2006 Yale lecture, the Yale Daily News's Charles Gariepy characterized their arguments as indistinguishable: "Cole said the decisions of the U.S. government upon entering the [Iraq] war were misguided," Gariepy wrote. "Abbas Amanat, a professor of history who concluded the event, reinforced the themes in Cole's speech."

Considering their long-standing, extra-academic relationship and their shared politics, it was hardly surprising when Cole emerged as the search committee's top choice a few months after Cole's January lecture.

As a Yale history professor explained, "Generally speaking, a good deal of the fight over who ends up getting a university position is who ends up on the search committee's list of contenders; because that's who the candidate is compared to. In this situation, Cole was the only recognizable, prominent figure on the search committee's list... So what happened here? It was rigged."

As the search committee's top choice, the sociology and history departments were tasked with reviewing Cole's scholarship and voting on his appointment. In May, Cole was approved, but he still needed the blessings of the Senior Appointments Committee, a small group of Yale professors who serve as one of the final steps in the appointment process.

According to several insiders, Cole's scholarship, which several professors deemed insufficient, was the decisive factor in the final decision against his appointment. Cole faced strong opposition from some of the most senior, influential, and highly-regarded members of Yale's history department, including prominent Yale historians Donald Kagan and John Lewis Gaddis. And that was kiss of death, because the Senior Appointment Committee wants a faculty vote that's nearly unanimous.

This fits well with what Paula Hyman, a tenured professor of modern Jewish history, told the Yale Daily News shortly after the story broke: "Generally," she said, "when you're hiring a tenured professor you want real enthusiasm on the part of everybody."

Regarding the role played by Cole's often polemical blog, sources close to Yale's decision argued that although it opened the eyes of many professors, it hardly killed Cole's chances. As Yale political science professor Steven Smith explained, "It would be very comforting for Cole's supporters to think that this got steamrolled because of his controversial blog opinions. The blog opened people's eyes as to what was going on. He was a kind of stealth candidate. I didn't know anybody that knew about this coming in; he was just kind of smuggled. And I think the blog opened people's eyes as to who this guy was, and what his views were.... It allowed us to see something about the quality of his mind."

This was a mind that, in July 2005, claimed that the September 11 Commission report cited the "Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp" as a motivation for the terrorist attack, even though the Jenin attack didn't happen until seven months after 9/11. And in May of this year, Cole justified his notion that Iran is harmless by declaring, "We don't give a rat's ass what Ahmadinejad thinks about European history or what pissant speech the little sh*t gives."

Smith's point was also emphasized by former Yale history professor Mary Habeck, who now teaches strategic studies at John Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies and remains in touch with many former colleagues. "What first blindsided them," Habeck explained, "was his political involvement in so many controversial topics. I can say unequivocally that at the beginning, they weren't aware of Juan Cole's blogging life."

"When coupled with the serious split within the department," Habeck continued, "I can state from personal experience that this would inevitably lead to a vote of no confidence by the Senior Appointments Committee."

A current Yale political science professor argued, "when it came to crunch time, of course the blog was a factor, but it's not what people looked at most seriously. At the end of the day, it wasn't his blog; it was his scholarly work. And that's why he was denied the position."

So while Michigan will continue to reap its just desserts, Yale's search for a new professor of Middle East studies continues. This time at least, the system worked. Politics were subordinated to scholarship, and Yale avoided falling prey to cronyism and the lowered standards it nearly always produces.

David White, a graduate of Yale University, is a writer in Washington. This article was written for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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