Steven H. Resnicoff
DePaul University. Photo: southie3, via Wiki Commons.
I am a professor at the DePaul University College of Law, and recently attended a public meeting of the university’s Faculty Council. I feel compelled to comment on the procedurally improper and profoundly unfair way in which it publicly pilloried professor Jason Hill, a senior faculty member. Why? Because he had the temerity to publish unpopular opinions — pro-Israel opinions, at that — in an op-ed piece in The Federalist.
The proposed resolution contained ugly, explosive charges. In part, it stated:
Whereas the recent article by Professor Jason Hill, entitled “The Moral Case for Israel Annexing the West Bank — and Beyond” 1) misrepresents the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 2) distorts the facts about the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, 3) promotes racism toward Arabs generally and Palestinians in particular, and 4) advocates for war crimes and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian populations of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Such extreme accusations could not only significantly imperil academic freedom and irreparably tarnish Hill’s reputation, but it could also lead to Hill feeling threatened. He has already reportedly received anonymous death threats.
Among other things, the proposed resolution condemned “in the strongest possible terms both the tone and content” of Hill’s article, affirmed that the article “represents an abuse” of Hill’s academic freedom, and urged him “to seriously reconsider his positions on these issues, to take cognizance of the perspectives of other scholars on these issues … and to refrain from abusing his freedom as a scholar in writing on controversial issues in the future.”
Let me just make three points. First, the Faculty Council violated its own bylaws by failing to provide proper notice regarding the resolution. Section 1.2 of the Faculty Council bylaws require that the Faculty Council’s secretary send all public documents and resolutions to the full faculty “at least five calendar days before each meeting.”
Instead, the Council sent an email to faculty on April 30, the day before its May 1 meeting, announcing three additions to that meeting’s agenda. One of the additions was a resolution against Hill and his scholarship. The Council could have complied with the bylaws by putting the resolution on the agenda for its June 2019 meeting.
To make things worse, the April 30 email simply described the resolution as “A Faculty Council Resolution on Academic Freedom and Responsibility.” The notice mentioned neither Hill, nor the demeaning language included in the resolution. To view what the resolution was all about, one had to use their DePaul University credentials to access the online site at which the resolution was posted.
To make things still worse, Hill told me that he was not personally informed — even on April 30 — that a resolution referring to him or his scholarship was to be on the May 1 agenda. He explained that he only learned about the resolution on the morning of May 1 itself, when he read an article referring to the resolution on the Internet.
Second, the Faculty Council also violated its bylaws by allowing Professor Scott Paeth to preside over debate on the resolution. Section 1.4.1 of the bylaws states: “Robert’s Rules of Order shall guide the conduct of Faculty Council meetings unless otherwise specified in these Bylaws, which in such case shall take precedence.”
Section 43 of Robert’s Rules of Order (11th ed.) explains that an organization’s presiding officer should not ordinarily speak to the merits of a matter under consideration. If in a particular case it is necessary for the person to do so, he or she must relinquish the chair and “should not return to it until the pending main question has been disposed of, since he has shown himself to be a partisan as far as that matter is concerned.”
At the May 1 meeting, Paeth announced that, with the help of a few others, he had written the resolution about Hill. Paeth acted as the movant of the resolution, unilaterally deciding whether or not to accept proposed amendments as “friendly amendments.” Nevertheless, Paeth did not relinquish the chair. Instead, he presided, calling on people (and not calling on others — such as me and another faculty member well-known for his conservative views), interspersing his own comments when he saw fit without having to wait in a queue to do so, and ultimately declaring that there was no more time for further discussion before a vote was taken. Whatever Paeth’s intentions may have been, he was responsible for following Robert’s Rules of Order, and his failure to do so rendered the Faculty Council’s action fundamentally unfair.
Third, although the resolution was amended before being approved, it still stated, among other things, that Hill’s article “misrepresents the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 2) distorts the facts about the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, 3) promotes racism toward Arabs generally and Palestinians in particular.” Nevertheless, the resolution failed to identify which statements in the article purportedly did these things. In fact, the Council’s debate regarding the resolution essentially ignored such specifics. Why? Paeth, who presided, repeatedly stated that there was not enough time for much debate, and not enough time to consider the evidence for the nasty, defamatory accusations contained in the resolution.
Yet it was Paeth and other proponents of the resolution who chose to add the resolution to the agenda at the last minute, and to allot its consideration a ridiculously short period of time. Paeth’s protestations about the lack of time for a deliberate evaluation of the resolution reminds one of the way in which the Yiddish word “chutzpah” (similar to “hubris”) is anecdotally explained: “Chutzpah” is manifested in the action of the boy who, after murdering his father and mother, pleads for mercy from the court because he is an orphan.
One might seriously question the authority of the Faculty Council to sua sponte evaluate the quality of a particular faculty member’s scholarship. Moreover, one might — as I do — question the competency of the Faculty Council to evaluate such scholarship, especially without the benefit of expert testimony by persons who are properly credentialed in the relevant discipline(s). After all, the Faculty Council is composed in such a way that, in effect, dramatically limits the number of members with expertise in any particular area.
One thing cannot be reasonably questioned. If the Faculty Council was to address the proposed resolution – a resolution that risked severe injury to the principle of academic freedom and that impugned the integrity of a faculty colleague — it should have engaged in a careful, scrupulous and reasoned examination of the issues in accordance with all the procedural rules designed to ensure fairness. The DePaul Faculty Council failed to do so in this case.
Steven H. Resnicoff is a professor at the DePaul University College of Law, and Director of the College of Law’s Center for Jewish Law & Judaic Studies (JLJS).