July 6, 2011
YIISA’s Fate and the Corruption of the Peer-Review Process
Posted by KC Johnson
Jamie Kirchick pens what’s likely to be the definitive account of Yale’s controversial decision to terminate the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA). Kirchick convincingly demonstrates how a toxic combination of anti-Israel sentiments from some key faculty members combined with Yale’s desire to cultivate Middle Eastern donors (as part of the university’s self-conception as a “global” institution) to doom YIISA. The lengthy article is well worth reading in full; it’s both illuminating and thoroughly depressing.
Kirchick’s tale is also important for reasons beyond the YIISA affair. When confronted by outside criticism, defenders of the academic status quo invariably cite the peer-review process to justify conditions on campus. Specialists know best, they note, and outsiders need to defer to the superior judgment of trained experts. Yale’s termination of YIISA, for instance, came after two levels of peer review. The first was a report from outside academic evaluators. The second was feedback from an oversight committee of Yale faculty. How could anyone object to a decision with so many safeguards?
As to first level of peer review, the university has consistently refused to release the report on which it allegedly based its decision. And comments from members of the Yale faculty committee—especially Sociology professor Jeffrey Alexander—suggest that ideological bias, rather than disinterested scholarly analysis, motivated their reaction to YIISA.
Even though the peer-review ideal presumes decisions made according to scholarly expertise, Alexander was named to the evaluation committee without any apparent research background in anti-semitism. (As with the refusal to release the evaluators’ report, the university has refused to disclose the criteria through which it chose members of the YIISA oversight committee.) After a series of inflammatory comments in previous interviews, Alexander went on the record with Kirchick.