Thanks to a mention at dailykos, I have come across the story of how Yale University has denied a faculty appointment to prominent historian-blogger Juan Cole, currently at the University of Michigan. The denial occurred at the upper levels after he had been approved by the history and sociology departments, after a concerted alumni pressure campaign spearheaded by neoconservative organizations. Cole's blog, "Informed Comment" has proved to be one of the most reliable sources for smart, fact-based analysis of current events in the Middle East, an essential supplement to the woefully inadequate and strongly biased coverage that this region receives in the mainstream American media. Cole focuses mostly on reporting what is happening on the ground, but he makes no effort to hide his point of view. The neocons, acting through alumni donors, shamefully played up the ridiculous assertion that poisons so much of U.S. discussion of the region: i.e. criticism of right-wing Israeli policies (for example in the West Bank) = criticism of Israel = criticism of Jews = anti-Semitism.
I find this action by Yale University both outrageous and sadly indicative of the downward slide of that institution. When neocon-funded alumni campaigns can trump the decisions of faculty committees, then academic freedom is under attack. I have actually disagreed with Juan Cole on a few occasions (generally from the Left, regarding rules of engagement in combat, the legitimacy of ever using white phosphorus in war, etc.) But I do not for a minute doubt that he is an inspiring voice of public engagement among senior academics, and that his perspective as a specialist in the Middle East has immeasurably enriched public debate. For Cole, at least he gets to keep his tenured position at Michigan. But what is perhaps worst about this case is that it will likely discourage knowledgeable academics from engaging with a wider public audience. If we want academics to move beyond the cloistered ivory tower, then why do we shoot them down when they try?