Juan Cole: Did blogging cost him a Yale appointment? What 7 bloggers think

Historians in the News

With the debut of his Web log, Informed Comment, four years ago, Juan R.I. Cole became arguably the most visible commentator writing on the Middle East today. A professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and president of the Middle East Studies Association, Cole has voiced strong opposition to the war in Iraq and to the treatment of the Palestinians, garnering him plaudits from the left and condemnation from supporters of Israel and President Bush's foreign policy. In the words of a colleague, Cole has done something no other scholar of the region has done since Bernard Lewis: "become a household word."

In the spring, Informed Comment took center stage in another arena — Cole's own career. After two departments recommended him for a tenured position at Yale University, a senior committee decided last month not to offer him the job after all. Although Yale has declined to explain its decision, numerous accounts in the news media have speculated that Cole's appointment was shot down because of views he expressed on his blog. We asked seven academic bloggers to weigh in on Cole's case and on the hazards of academic blogging.

The Lessons of Juan Cole, by Siva Vaidhyanathan
The Politics of Academic Appointments, by Glenn Reynolds
The Trouble With Blogs, by Daniel W. Drezner
Exposed in the Blogosphere, by Ann Althouse
The Invisible College, by J. Bradford DeLong
The Attention Blogs Bring, by Michael Bérubé
The Controversy That Wasn't, by Erin O'Connor
Juan R.I. Cole Responds


[Glenn Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee. His blog can be found at http://instapundit.com]

Bloggers Daniel W. Drezner and Jacob T. Levy were recently denied tenure at the University of Chicago, and it was widely thought to be because of their blogging. Now Juan Cole has lost out on an appointment at Yale, and it's widely thought to be because of his blogging. I'm not a regular reader of Cole's blog, and while I think his hostility to the Bush administration is excessive, that hardly seems grounds for not hiring someone, or the universities would be largely empty of faculty members.

Does Internet fame necessarily spell academic doom? Given that hiring and tenure decisions in higher education are usually made by committees, and that strong public opinions voiced on any subject will probably offend at least one member of a committee, the results are likely to be a negative. Though the academy gives lip service to academic freedom, it's quite clear that a candidate's expressed views, and politics generally, are often important factors in hiring or tenure decisions.

Is that a bad thing? It depends. Jacques Pluss was fired from Fairleigh Dickinson University after it became known that he was a member of the National Socialist Movement. (He claimed his neo-Nazi affiliation was for research.) Not many people seem to have been upset by his case. One doubts that an admitted member of the Ku Klux Klan would do well, either. On the other hand, far less controversial beliefs, including opposition to affirmative action or the belief that senior faculty members should teach heavier loads than colleagues who produce more scholarship, might well stand in the way of hiring or tenure at many institutions. Expressing such ideas on a blog merely ensures that they are Google-searchable if anyone bothers to check.

My own feeling is that blogging is like most hobbies — something that should be peripheral to hiring and tenure decisions. (Has anyone been denied tenure because of a preference for wet over dry flies? Probably somewhere, sometime, but it's not common.) When blogs focus on topics at the core of scholars' expertise, of course, they're likely to play a bigger role in evaluating academic fitness, fairly or unfairly. Obviously, fraud or plagiarism on a blog is still fraud or plagiarism. But smaller matters probably shouldn't play much of a role. When blogged comments produce prejudice or bias on the part of hirers, well, I don't like that,but so long as hiring decisions are subjective, that sort of thing is unavoidable. We can hope, however, that faculty members will be aware of their own prejudices and open-minded enough to rise above them. Sometimes those hopes will be fulfilled.

[Erin O'Connor is an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Her blog can be found at http://erinoconnor.org.]

The Juan Cole controversy struck me as essentially uncontroversial: Cole is free to write what he wants on his Web log, Informed Comment; Cole's readers are free to criticize his writing and to criticize Yale for considering hiring him; Yale is free not to hire Cole. In the absence of evidence that Yale capitulated to a political campaign to sink Cole's appointment, there seemed nothing else to say. But plenty has been said nonetheless, much of it along the lines of the comment by Zachary Lockman, president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association, that the opposition to Cole's appointment was "an assault on academic freedom and the academic enterprise."

Assuming that pro-Israel ideologues badgered Yale into rejecting Cole, Cole's defenders have proceeded according to two flawed assumptions: that blogs written by academic job candidates should be off limits to hiring committees, and that public debate about academic personnel processes threatens academic freedom. Both assumptions betray confusion about what academic freedom is — and what it is not.

Had the University of Michigan — where Cole is a full professor — sought to suppress his blog, it would have violated his academic freedom. But academic freedom is not freedom from criticism, nor is it freedom from judgment. And deciding whether to hire an academic is very different from continuing to employ one. Hiring is evaluative; it requires judicious criticism and definitive judgment.

Yale's search committee, according to one member quoted in the Yale Daily News, only considered Cole's scholarly writing. But what if Informed Comment did inform Yale's decision? There still would be no assault on academic freedom. Cole's Internet status as Middle East expert emanates from his academic position as Middle East expert; as a public intellectual, he is better known for his blog than his scholarship. In deciding whether to invest in the entire intellectual package Cole represents, Yale could legitimately have considered Informed Comment.

The real issue here is how little faith Cole's defenders have in academic procedure. They ascribe enormous power to outside critics, who, they believe, can sink appointments with columns and letters. They also ascribe enormous spinelessness to administrators, who, they imply, cannot maintain integrity when debate surrounds controversial candidates. The undocumented claim that a "neocon campaign" scuppered Cole's appointment masks an unacknowledged condemnation of academic ethics. It makes no sense to blame Cole's critics for Yale's — entirely hypothetical — failure....


The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic's career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying about "careers," the tenured among us least of all. Despite the First Amendment, which only really protects one from the government, most Americans who speak out can face sanctions from other institutions in society. Journalists are fired all the time for taking the wrong political stance. That is why most bloggers employed in the private sector are anonymous or started out trying to be so.

Academics cannot easily be handed a pink slip, but they can be punished in other ways. The issues facing academics who dissent in public and in clear prose are the same today as they have always been. Maintaining a Web log now is no different in principle from writing a newsletter or publishing sharp opinion in popular magazines in the 1950s.

The difference today is that, because of Internet neutrality (which may not be long with us), an academic's voice is potentially as loud as or louder than those of corporate-backed pundits. Occasionally, my Web log has generated as many as 250,000 unique hits and over a million page views per month. Entries have also been sent in e-mail messages in numbers that cannot be traced. My Web log is, for the moment, certainly a mass medium.

The ability to speak directly and immediately to the public on matters of one's expertise, and to bring to bear all one's skills to affect the public debate, is new and breathtaking. I have had some success in explaining the threat of Al Qaeda and suggesting how it should be combated, and have addressed U.S. counter-terrorism officials on numerous occasions on those matters. And then there is Iraq, about which I was one of the few U.S. historians to have written professionally before the 2003 war. In the summer of 2003, when the general mood of the administration, the news media, and the public was unrelievedly celebratory, I warned that a guerrilla war was building and that powerful sectarian forces such as the movement of Moktada al-Sadr were a gathering threat. I gained a hearing not only with broad segments of the public but also at the highest levels of the U.S. government....

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Joseph W Urban - 7/26/2006

Being old enough to be Cole's father and having traveled and lived in many countries, I'd have been surprised, if he had gotten the Yale appointment. I am sure he wouldn't have gotten tenure at U of M either, if he'd been writing a blog such as Informed Comment then, when he was beng considered... .

That's the Life, eh? Eveywhere I've ever been, at any rate. It's saddening, but so.


Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
Arthur Miller