Scholars Rally Around Embattled Professor

Action Against Academic Seen as Attack on Judaic Studies

By Anthony Weiss

Published March 11, 2009, issue of March 20, 2009.
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An employment dispute at a Midwestern state university has bubbled into a national cause célèbre in the world of Jewish studies, drawing in some of the field’s leading lights.

The University of Cincinnati’s decision to discipline and attempt to fire Mark Raider, a tenured professor of modern Jewish history and, until recently, chairman of the university’s Judaic studies department, over alleged misuse of university funds has drawn a blistering response from a contingent of Jewish studies professors and other scholars from across America and Israel. The 16 scholars took out an ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer daily newspaper, as well as the campus newspaper and the local Jewish weekly, accusing the university of “persecuting” Raider and “undermining” its own Judaic studies department.

The scholars argued that the severity of the university’s actions against Raider went so far beyond what was justified as to suggest a deeper animus not only toward Raider, but also toward the very field of Jewish studies.

“The University of Cincinnati’s continuing persecution of Professor Raider — including its threat to remove his tenure and dismiss him from the university — raises deeply troubling questions concerning its attitude toward Judaic Studies as a discipline,” the professors wrote in the February 2 advertisement.

The statement’s signatories included Robert Alter of the University of California at Berkeley, Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, Anita Shapira of Tel Aviv University, Steven Zipperstein of Stanford University and other academic heavyweights.

That so many highly respected figures would take such a forceful stance in what University of Cincinnati representatives have insisted is a straightforward disciplinary matter suggests both Raider’s stature among his colleagues and the degree to which scholars in the relatively young field of Jewish studies are sensitive to any perceived slight against its legitimacy.

“We believe that Jewish studies is as much a part of Western civilization as classical studies, Mediterranean studies, Near Eastern studies,” said Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history and one of the letter’s signers. “That’s a very old debate. I thought the debate had been won. But it’s perfectly clear that there remain people who are uncomfortable with the discipline.”

Sarna was one of Raider’s Ph.D thesis advisers at Brandeis.

Raider has argued that the university’s actions have made him a victim of persecution.

“Only this week have I truly understood the anguish Captain Alfred Dreyfus must have felt when in 1894 he was falsely accused of wrongdoing by the French Army, his employer,” Raider wrote in an open letter dated May 9, 2008.

University of Cincinnati officials, on the other hand, have argued in various official documents that this is a simple case of disciplinary action for misuse of a fund for research and travel. In an e-mail to the Forward, Valerie Hardcastle, dean of the university’s McMicken College, said that she found the argument that the university’s actions were motivated by animus toward Raider or Jewish studies to be “repugnant and shameful.”

An internal audit by the university found that Raider was reimbursed from the fund for $6,651 of expenses deemed to be personal, and submitted receipts for another $5,095. The audit called Raider’s use of the funds “abusive.” Raider has defended himself, saying that the situation was nothing more than a misunderstanding. Nonetheless, he has apologized and has since repaid the university and withdrawn the receipts deemed inappropriate.

Following the audit report, Hardcastle removed Raider as head of the Judaic studies department and from his endowed chair and moved to dismiss him based on the auditor’s findings. In a March 5 report, a university grievance committee panel voted against dismissing Raider, though it did agree that Raider’s use of the money had been inappropriate and that “he should have known better.”

Raider, in turn, has sued the university, naming both Hardcastle and the university’s president, Nancy Zimpher, who has since been named as the new chancellor of the State University of New York system.

In his lawsuit, Raider argues that Hardcastle dismissed him as part of a vendetta for opposing her on matters concerning the Judaic studies department, particularly a tenure battle involving a Judaic studies professor.

The signatories to the newspaper ad cited the tenure case in their statement. They wrote that they were “appalled” by the dismissive stance that the university had taken toward a recommendation for tenure submitted by a scholar from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Hardcastle had questioned the credentials of Michael Meyer, a widely respected professor of modern Jewish history at HUC, as an appropriate tenure referee. In an e-mail to Raider that he included in his legal brief, Hardcastle had written that HUC “doesn’t represent a top research university” and noted dismissively in her tenure recommendation that Meyer had spent his whole career at HUC.

Ironically, the University of Cincinnati and HUC have a relationship dating back more than a century to HUC’s founding, when rabbinical students at HUC carried out their secular studies across the street at the University of Cincinnati.

Raider’s departure also aroused concern at the Posen Foundation, which had awarded grants to the university for Jewish studies totaling nearly $300,000. Since Raider was stripped of his position as department chair, all but $50,000 of those grants have been canceled. Myrna Barron, executive director of the Center for Cultural Judaism, which administers the Posen Foundation’s North American grants, said she was surprised at the apparent lack of effort that the university made to contact her organization or continue receiving grants that would strengthen the Judaic studies department.

“This is pure speculation, but I’ve worked with other universities and at every other institution, they’ve asked, ‘What else do you need from us?’” Barron said. “At this one, they were pushing this grant out the door.”

But Steven Bowman, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Cincinnati, said that he hadn’t seen any signs of animus toward Judaic studies at the university. In fact, he said, a meeting of Jewish faculty members that he attended determined that the situation raised no particularly Jewish concerns.

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