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Do those who live by the blog die by the blog?
In April, Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, was turned down for an appointment at Yale in contemporary Middle Eastern politics. This kind of event doesn’t ordinarily stir up excitement in the wider world. But it became a hot topic in the blogosphere, because Cole himself is an eminent blogger. “Everyone who is anyone reads his blog,” writes NYU professor Siva Vaidhyanathan in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Apparently, everyone who reads Cole’s blog thought Yale rejected him because of it.
Cole has an impressive c.v. He has written, edited, or translated 14 scholarly books, many of them for prestigious academic presses. But on his blog, Informed Comment, he is an unrelenting critic of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration, and several conservative bloggers were outraged that Yale would consider him for tenure. The blog Little Green Footballs called Yale’s interest “almost unbelievable.” John Fund of WallStreetJournal.com called Cole “hotheaded” and “intolerant.”
The faculty of two departments voted to hire Cole. But at Yale, senior tenure decisions must pass three levels of committees. Cole failed the second level: the Tenure Appointments Committee in the Humanities, composed of two deans and nine tenured faculty, voted him down. Now it was the liberal bloggers' turn for outrage. “Neoconservative zealots … screwed professor Juan Cole out of a job” (Majikthise). “This reaction reeks of fear” (Whiskey Bar).
There’s no way of knowing if those who reviewed Cole were influenced by their political views. Politics are strictly disallowed as criteria for hiring at Yale. But academics are human. It would be surprising if nobody on those committees was influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by feelings about Cole’s outspoken stands. It would be surprising if nobody at all wondered about the consequences of hiring a controversial public figure.
But bloggers on both left and right misread critical elements. First, Juan Cole is an outstanding scholar. It’s hardly “unbelievable” for Yale to consider him; arguably, Yale would have been remiss if it hadn’t. Second, contrary to the assertions of some liberal bloggers, Yale’s tenure appointments committees aren’t rubber stamps. The humanities committee rejects departmental recommendations rarely—sometimes just once a year—but regularly. Committee deliberations are confidential, but two factors likely weighed against Cole. One was the fact that Yale was seeking a scholar in contemporary politics, but the bulk of Cole’s academic work to date has been on the nineteenth century. The other factor was the history faculty vote, which was close and controversial; a tenure appointments committee will always probe a close departmental vote. Charles Long, deputy provost for the university, says neither of these factors is dispositive for a leading scholar. But they probably came into play.
The Cole affair may help push academia to define how it feels about blogs. Cole’s blog is opinionated but erudite; he translates Arabic and Persian sources and comments on theology. But academics haven’t reached consensus on how to weigh blog posts in evaluating scholarship. (It’s not clear how, or whether, Yale’s committees assessed Cole’s blog.) As more and more academics engage in blogging, universities will have to decide whether blogging matters.
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