Juan Cole, a controversial University of Michigan history professor, was denied a senior faculty position at Yale last week in one of the final phases of the appointment process.
The Senior Appointments Committee ultimately rejected Cole’s candidacy on June 2 by a majority vote, even though the history and sociology departments had jointly approved him for a professorship in modern Middle East studies. Administration officials refused to comment on the reasons behind the decision, but professors said the faculty appeared sharply divided over whether Cole — who has spoken out against the Israeli government and the war in Iraq on his blog, “Informed Comment” — deserved a permanent position at Yale.
Though Cole’s rejection came at a late stage in the process, officials said, such decisions are not unusual.
“Tenure appointments at Yale are very complicated and they go through several stages, and [the candidates] can fail to pass at any of the stages,” Deputy Provost Charles Long said. “Every year, at least one and often more fail at one of these levels, and that happened in this case.”
The creation of a new modern Middle East studies slot, which will be sponsored by the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, is part of a University effort to strengthen its instruction in the field. But while professors familiar with Cole’s work said he had excellent recommendations and scholarship credentials, his blog was a point of contention.
Jewish-history professor Paula Hyman said she was pleased with the senior appointment committee’s decision because Cole’s candidacy had relatively low support among the faculty. A majority of the history department approved him, she said, but the vote was deeply split. The detractors said the history department had not been involved enough in the search process, and also raised issue with his controversial views, she said.
“There was also concern, aside from the process, about the nature of his blog and what it would be like to have a very divisive colleague,” Hyman said. “Generally, when you’re hiring a tenured professor you want real enthusiasm on the part of everybody.”
But sociology professor Philip Gorski said he would have liked to work with Cole. Though some faculty flatly disagreed with Cole’s views and thought his scholarship was biased, such feelings are to be expected in a field as passionately debated as Middle East studies, Gorski said.
“He’s a very smart man, very well-informed, very broadly read, and has a very high scholarly reputation,” Gorski said. “Anyone who works on the Middle East is almost by definition going to be controversial right now.”
Middle East history professor Adel Allouche said he considers it “immoral” to hold a professor’s opinions against him in tenure considerations, as doing so disrespects freedom of speech. While he could not speak to the senior appointment committee’s reasoning, he said, he was troubled that it overturned votes by the history and sociology departments.
“If two departments agreed to hire him ï¿½ it’s hard to swallow that some outside committee would decide against it,” Allouche said.
The Senior Appointments Committee that rejected Cole focuses specifically on humanities professors — similar bodies exist for the social, biological and physical sciences. Graduate School Dean Jon Butler chairs the committee, which consists of 11 faculty members.
During the past few months, Yale has been criticized in the press for vetting a professor with views that some consider radically anti-Israeli. In April, Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund wrote that Yale might “jump out of the Taliban frying pan and into the Cole fire,” referring to a former Taliban official’s enrollment as a non-degree student. Still, while Long declined to comment on the senior appointment committee’s decision, he said that as a matter of policy the University does not consider outside criticism in its tenure appointments.
“We consistently work hard to be sure that the only criteria brought to bear on a tenure appointment or any other appointments are the scholarly qualification and the person’s appropriateness for the position advertised,” Long said.
Cole’s academic publications include books on Iran, Shia Islam and the Baha’i faith. He is currently the associate chair of the history department at the University of Michigan, where he teaches courses on modern Middle East history and Islam in global politics.