Islam at a Crossroads in the Academy: Professor Says He Was Denied Tenure For Being Wrong Kind of Muslim
Nearly a decade of hard work toward tenure was gone in an instant.
Tenure processes are always tricky as they happen behind closed doors, and many times the decisions are not understood. Regardless, Professor Joseph Lumbard felt that after many years of work at Brandeis University there may have been no reason he was denied tenure other than being Muslim, even though the university claimed it was for academic reasons.
Lumbard arrived with a sense of optimism in Massachusetts in 2006 to begin his position as a tenure-track professor at Brandeis University, settling down with his family close to the university. But by 2014, he faced an uncertain future and a difficult decision to suddenly move the family overseas.
Lumbard is a scholar focusing on Sufism and Islamic philosophy, author of multiple published books and co-author of The Study Quran, one of the most significant English-language Quranic studies books to date. He was also an assistant professor at Brandeis until he was denied tenure twice in 2014.
Lumbard says he was unjustly denied tenure because he is a “really intellectually committed Muslim” and Brandeis does not want “powerful Muslim voices.” But in an email responding to questions about Lumbard’s case, Susan J. Birren, the dean of Arts and Sciences, denied that Brandeis ever tolerated Islamophobia, noting that the school was established in response to exclusionary practices at elite universities throughout the United States. Brandeis Interim President Lisa Lynch declined to comment, noting that she read Birren’s emailed answers to and had nothing else to add.
Birren and several other Brandeis administration figures and professors declined to comment on Lumbard’s tenure process, citing the confidential nature of applications. However, university documents provided to Lumbard upon his rejection cite several issues with his scholarly work as the reason for his tenure denial; none of the documents cite his religious views as the motivation for his rejection.
Still, Lumbard believes that his tenure rejection was motivated in part by Islamophobia, which he says has been allowed to “fester” at Brandeis, giving some the “impression that [Islamophobia] is a form of discrimination tolerated on our campus.” This claim is reinforced by several of his former students and peers. Journalists and Muslim advocacy groups have also accused the university of tolerating or encouraging Islamophobia on several occasions, most notably when Brandeis offered an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali (which the university later retracted).
The dispute between Lumbard and Brandeis centered on his dissertation on Ahmad al-Ghazali, which has been accepted for publication, as well as The Study Quran, which many reviewers deem to be an intellectual turning point for Islamic studies. Brandeis’ critical evaluation of both pieces of work is in the minority, with the vast majority of outside opinion lauding the projects.
As such, Lumbard says the criticisms of his academic work are misplaced, disingenuous and exemplify serious flaws within the Western academic tradition’s approach to Islam as a whole. He notes that while the rejection has been devastating for his career and personal life, the implications do not bode well for the future of Islamic studies in Western academia.
Lumbard hopes that shedding light on his journey will help draw attention to these academic flaws and empower the Muslim students at Brandeis for whom he feels he didn’t do enough to help.
From Cairo to Boston
In 2003, Lumbard was living in Cairo with his wife and working at the American University. Although they were happy, they wanted to start a family soon and hoped to settle back in the United States.
He applied at a few schools, particularly those on the East Coast where it would be possible to make day trips to see relatives. Brandeis invited Lumbard for an interview. He flew to Boston, where several faculty members interviewed him, and he came away impressed by the people he met.
Back in Cairo, Lumbard waited for a job offer from Brandeis, and in the interim accepted an offer to be the first interfaith adviser for the king of Jordan. By January 2004, almost immediately after taking the job in Jordan, Brandeis offered him a tenure-track position in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) department. Lumbard was overjoyed and worked with Brandeis to set up a 2006 start date at the university.
As soon as Lumbard joined Brandeis, he realized that the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies (IMES) program in the NEJS department was in an “abysmal state,” and he was eager to set things in order. “In my first year there,” Lumbard says, “I had students coming to me crying and saying ‘I majored in IMES, and I don’t know anything about Islam and I don’t know any Arabic. What do I do?’ ” Lumbard says he took it upon himself to revamp the program over the next few years.
Dean Birren’s official summary of the department’s evaluation of Lumbard’s first tenure application corroborates this, noting that “almost immediately upon [Lumbard’s] arrival, [he] assumed responsibility for the undergraduate program in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies (IMES), a program with a history of difficult interpersonal interactions and tension among several strong personalities. Professor Lumbard proceeded to rebuild IMES [and] to strengthen and raise the level of the program.” The summary also noted that the department members who evaluated Lumbard’s service were “unanimous” in considering it to be “extraordinary.”
Lumbard’s contribution to the school was wide-ranging. According to the summary, he completed an extensive amount of administrative work, including:
- Serving as the chairman and undergrad advising head for IMES
- Working with the IMES graduate advising head to create a five-year bachelor’s and master’s program in IMES
- Introducing a Ph.D. track in Arabic and Islamic civilizations
- Completely revising the IMES curriculum
- Serving on various hiring committees
- Working to create a position for a director for Arabic language studies
These changes significantly improved IMES’ academic standing by introducing more refined curriculum, prestigious programs and tracks to attract high-caliber scholars, according to the summary.
One of Lumbard’s former students, Hannah Levinger, who attended Brandeis from 2008 to 2013 and obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Islamic studies, attests to Lumbard’s impact. In a 2014 letter advocating for Lumbard to be granted tenure, Levinger wrote, “He put his lifeblood into the Islamic Studies Department and brought it from a floundering major to one with a large and highly committed student body.”
Lumbard’s administrative work went far beyond what was expected of him, according to the summary, and has helped make Brandeis an attractive option for students.
Teaching was also one of Lumbard’s strong suits. According to his tenure statement, he taught seven courses while at the university, mainly focusing on classical Islam. Lumbard also directed seven senior theses, three master’s theses, one master’s project, and was an adviser to two Ph.D. students. The summary noted that, “A number of students wrote to the department on Professor Lumbard’s behalf, praising his role in shaping their careers” and that his students “recommended him for teaching awards.”
The summary also noted that Lumbard’s teaching evaluations averaged 4.21 to 4.76 out of 5. It mentioned that he did receive some negative comments on evaluations, but that these concerns were heavily outweighed by praise. Levinger, in her letter of support, wrote that, “It is because of his passion, his phenomenal teaching ability, and his expertise that he has so positively affected his students.”
Lumbard’s scholarship, however, was the element that ultimately determined whether he was granted tenure.
In 2008, he received a performance evaluation from his department noting that he needed to have a monograph published to receive tenure, according to the summary. The monograph agreed upon was Lumbard’s planned book on al-Ghazali. Lumbard was also working on a much broader project, one with the potential to shift the nature of Quranic studies entirely. HarperCollins commissioned The Study Quran in 2005 and published it in November 2015. Lumbard says in his tenure statement that he wrote over 330,000 words for the book, which “provides the first translation of the Quran into English prepared by a committee of academics.”
Lumbard says he was confident that between his proposed dissertation and this massive “side project” — which was actually three times the size of the average academic dissertation — he would be able to receive tenure.
However there were other nagging concerns. Over his years of teaching at Brandeis, Lumbard became aware of tension between Muslim students and the general student body and administration. Levinger told The Islamic Monthly that some students didn’t want to take courses with Lumbard because they believed that a Muslim professor could not be trusted to objectively teach them about Islam.
Still, by the time his tenure application was being considered, Lumbard says his academic career seemed to be going well, he had established roots in Massachusetts with his wife and three daughters, and the family had moved into a new home.
The Tenure Process Begins
Lumbard’s tenure process began in February 2013, when Sylvia Fishman, chairwoman of the NEJS department, requested that Lumbard submit his tenure statement and dossier by September 2013. This was the moment Lumbard had been waiting for his whole career. Tenure-track positions, for which a professor is hired with the possibility of tenure down the road, are rare and the competition is intense. Now, all he needed was to be granted tenure in order to allow him to carry out his long-term vision for his family and the financial stability to make it a reality.
In early March, Lumbard received another request, this time that he submit his tenure statement and dossier a month earlier, by August. In April, the deadline was bumped up yet again, to May. These changes significantly reduced the time that Lumbard had to complete his lengthy application — by four months, with little explanation.
Lumbard rushed to complete his dossier and submitted it in early June. “The fact that I was not given proper notification as to when the tenure statement would be due severely hampered my ability to provide a detailed and comprehensive presentation of my scholarly record,” he said.
Lumbard’s problems continued after he submitted his dossier. Typically, Lumbard says, a tenure applicant will provide the university with a list of potential outside reviewers to evaluate his or her dossier. The school will then review the names provided, trim down the list and select between six and 10 names. Lumbard says his chair told him that his application had over two-dozen reviewers. Tenure committee faculty had looked at the existing outside reviews and tacked on more outside reviewers at their own discretion with little oversight, Lumbard says.
“The people I’ve spoken to, where I’ve described my tenure process with all the outside evaluations, they really look at me like I’ve got three heads, and they’ll go, ‘What?’” Lumbard says.
The Brandeis Faculty Handbook, which outlines the tenure procedure, notes, “The dossier will also include not less than three letters of evaluation from qualified individuals outside the university,” though it does not outline a maximum number of evaluations.
Lumbard also had issues getting his al-Ghazali dissertation accepted for publication by the earlier deadline of his tenure application. He submitted his dissertation to Oxford University Press (OUP) in August 2013. In November, while his tenure application was still under review, Lumbard says he received a negative reader evaluation from Oxford. Lumbard had serious issues with the evaluation, however, and submitted an extensive refutation of the review.
The second reader at Oxford gave Lumbard a positive review, but after receiving the negative one he immediately submitted the dissertation to the State University of New York (SUNY) Press. It was not accepted for publication until March 2014, two months after Brandeis reached a decision on his tenure application.
Tenure is Denied
January 27, 2014, was an average day for Lumbard. He was in his office preparing for his next class when the envelope he’d been waiting for finally arrived: the departmental summary outlining whether he received tenure.
Although Lumbard’s teaching and administrative services were unanimously praised, according to the summary of the departmental report, a majority of the committee decided against tenure due to a lack of consensus on his scholarship, citing three main factors.
The main concern with Lumbard’s application was that his al-Ghazali dissertation had not yet been accepted for publication, a condition that his 2008 performance evaluation stipulated. The summary noted the negative review the monograph received at OUP and said some outside readers felt that the work had “suffered” likely because Lumbard had rushed to submit it. Still, the summary acknowledged that the majority of letters were positive.
The summary also noted concerns with The Study Quran that prevented it from being considered as a project that could earn Lumbard tenure. The report outlined issues with the style and quality of Lumbard’s translations, the supposed lack of contemporary academic critical readings of the text, and that the book “privileges the interpretations of a selection of Islamic commentaries and takes too little account of the work of modern scholars of Quranic studies.” It concluded that the book was too rooted in more “traditional” interpretations of the Quran, and did not work with enough “modern” Western approaches.
The conclusion of the report brought up a critique that, till today, troubles Lumbard and led him to begin believing that he was targeted for being, what he called, an “intellectually committed Muslim.” The summary states that many faculty members “were not convinced that Professor Lumbard’s scholarly work maintained a critical distance.”
The decision dealt Lumbard a serious blow, and he began to discuss the next steps with his wife, who he says was even more upset. “For my wife, it was much more difficult than it was for me,” Lumbard says. “I could respond, and I had something to do. For her it was just like, ‘Ok, great, we’re losing our house.’ ”
But Lumbard remained focused, so in late February he submitted a 27-page reply refuting the evaluation. Lumbard eventually received an email informing him that Dean Birren would convene an ad hoc committee on his application.
The provost, Lisa Lynch, and the Faculty Senate Council appointed a new group of seven faculty members from various departments to the ad hoc committee. They reviewed all submitted materials and made a recommendation to Dean Birren. On May 14, 2014, the dean’s office informed Lumbard that the ad hoc committee was evenly split, and that Birren had decided to reject his application. The provost also wrote a letter to Lumbard a week later supporting Birren’s decision.
Lumbard submitted an appeal to the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities (CFRR) on June 6, noting that the shifting deadline for the tenure application and the list of outside reviewers, who were not vetted by the department chair before the administrator sent them invitations, were significant enough procedural violations to warrant a new tenure process according to the Brandeis Faculty Handbook.
Lumbard had a wide range of concerns with the actual criticisms leveled against him. He believed that the bizarre course of his tenure process would be enough to give him another chance, in which he could then respond to the criticisms with vigor. The CFRR agreed with his concerns, and granted him permission to resubmit his tenure application.
The Second Tenure Process Begins
Lumbard initially felt optimistic about his second tenure application and believed he would have more success with it. In March 2014, he received the outside reviews for his al-Ghazali dissertation from SUNY Press. All three were very positive and strongly recommended publication. SUNY Press accepted the book, which was identical to the one he submitted to OUP months earlier, for publication, so he thought he had overcome the main obstacle he faced in his first tenure process.
Lumbard also had grassroots support, especially from his current and former students. According to the summary of the second departmental report rejecting his tenure application, the school received several letters urging it to grant Lumbard tenure.
“We wrote letters to the Provost,” Levinger writes in an email interview with The Islamic Monthly, “the senior adviser to the provost for faculty, and the assistant provost for academic affairs. By the end of the whole campaign, over 20 students had written letters in support of Professor Lumbard and many others had signed general petition letters.”
Wajida Syed, a former IMES student and Muslim Student Association board member who wrote one of these letters, told The Islamic Monthly that “Lumbard was my teacher, academic advisor, and mentor during my time at Brandeis and beyond. He embodies the true spirit of a teacher — he cared for us as students and as people.”
However, in August 2014, Lumbard’s optimism over his second tenure application received a severe blow. Dean Birren emailed him that his updated application could not mention that his manuscript was accepted for publication at SUNY Press because those reviews had been received in March, two months after the decision on his initial tenure application.
Lumbard says he did not violate tenure application rules by using the additional time he was allotted to alter his al-Ghazali manuscript. The monograph he submitted to SUNY Press was identical to the one he’d submitted to OUP in August 2013. The only difference was that the reviews from SUNY came in later than his original tenure verdict, a problem that he partially attributes to the shifting deadline date.
Lumbard offered to simply quote the SUNY reviews in his second application instead of submitting them in whole, but this was also rejected. Lumbard says this decision was extremely frustrating because he felt that he had met a central tenure requirement, but it wouldn’t be considered.
The End for Lumbard at Brandeis
Lumbard says he received a letter from the dean on October 17, 2014, notifying him that he was denied tenure again, this time with a much clearer majority voting against tenure. The summary of the departmental report noted that “the majority of the NEJS department made their decision mainly on the fact that as of the end of 2013 [Lumbard] had not produced a scholarly monograph.” The summary acknowledged that the book had been accepted by “another publisher,” but said “this happened after the period under review, i.e., through 2013, and therefore was excluded from discussion based on the instructions from President [Frederick] Lawrence.”
Lumbard says he felt like his entire tenure decision rested on an uncharitable technicality. If the school had judged him fairly, he says, they would not have enforced such a harsh interpretation of the tenure process.
But that wasn’t the only reason the department gave for rejecting his tenure application. The department summary said The Study Quran could not be considered as a scholarly project qualifying Lumbard for tenure because he wasn’t its sole author, it did not have a specific methodology, was not the sort of original scholarship typically found in a monograph, and did not critically analyze the Quran. The department argued that Lumbard acted more as an editor on The Study Quran than as someone using his own methodology, a requirement for a dissertation. It also noted a concern with his supposed preference for “classical Islamic scholarship,” stating Lumbard problematically “presents a rather strict dichotomy between ‘Western’ (i.e. modern academic) scholarship and classical Islamic scholarship.”
Caner Dagli, a scholar at College of the Holy Cross who worked on The Study Quran with Lumbard, disputes the NEJS department’s characterization of the work. Dagli told The Islamic Monthly that Lumbard “is a scholar’s scholar. Meticulous, careful, and rigorous.” Dagli adds that, “No single scholar could have produced the Study Quran translation and commentary unless they devoted their entire scholarly career to that project alone. It took a team of us nearly a decade, and we had considerable financial support for graduate assistants to help us. Moreover, plenty of the commentary was in fact written solely by Lumbard.”
Dagli also found the NEJS department’s critiques of The Study Quran to be misguided. “Of course the Study Quran has a methodology; you can read about it in the book and it is crystal clear to anyone who spends time with the text. What they meant is that it doesn’t use the methodology they like, which is a different matter.”
Dagli specifically responds to the notion that The Study Quran didn’t interact with enough “modern” sources, a criticism Lumbard sees as central to his tenure rejection. “The notion that the Study Quran is not critical presumes that ‘critical’ means ‘revisionist’ and that scholarship on Islam is essentially a debunking exercise. It’s astounding that academics can still fail to understand the basic distinction between ‘critical’ in the sense of ‘scholarly’ and ‘critical’ in the sense of ‘undermining,’ ” Dagli says.
The administration at Holy Cross awarded tenure to Dagli with The Study Quran serving as his dissertation project. Dagli says the administration appreciated the enormous scope of the work throughout the entire process and he was recommended unanimously for tenure. However, it is not unusual for universities to have different requirements and procedures for granting tenure to professors.
The response to The Study Quran from academics thus far has been overwhelmingly positive.
Author Karen Armstrong wrote, “It should be on the shelves of libraries and universities throughout the English-speaking world.” Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, Bloomington, wrote that The Study Quran is “truly magisterial and the most comprehensive study of the Quran to date.” Jonathan Brown, who holds the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization and is an associate director at the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, said The Study Quran “solves the perennial problem of how to introduce students to the Quranic text, offering what is perhaps the closest one can get to an ecumenical exegesis of the Quran.”
However, the book also generated some backlash, mainly regarding the notion of perennialism purportedly advanced in the work that argues there are supposed universal truths contained in all religions that serve as their foundation. Others have criticized the translations used in the book, something the Brandeis committee also pointed out.
Public reaction has also been positive thus far. On Amazon, The Study Quran has received over 100 reviews, and at press time, has received a rating of well above four out of five stars. The text was also the No. 1 bestseller in the Quran and Theology sections of Amazon.
As such, Dagli says that “in light of everything other scholars in the field of Quranic studies have had to say about the book, the assertions of those Brandeis faculty members look more and more ludicrous by the day.”
A week after Lumbard received Dean Birren’s letter, he sent her a memo outlining why he believed that Brandeis’ summary of his work was problematic. “The second tenure review was clearly jaundiced by the results of the first vote and what transpired in its wake,” Lumbard wrote. “As soon as the CFRR ruled that there had been significant procedural violations in my tenure case, the question was not if my second tenure application would be denied, but how.”
The second application, however, did not go to an ad hoc committee, and the dean sent Lumbard a notice on November 20, 2014, informing him that she had decided to deny his second tenure application. On December 9, 2014, Lisa Lynch, who was provost at the time, confirmed the dean’s decision.
“This is where I think the dean just really failed at her job,” Lumbard tells The Islamic Monthly. “If the first time they were so close, and the second time there was a far more elaborate description of my work, far more detailed, far more scholarly presentation, and they voted against and got a majority, then something is wrong.”
Lumbard filed an appeal with the CFRR on December 17. This time, he contended that, except for his personal statement, his second application was required to be identical to his first one. Lumbard says this means that evaluations based on an application process that the university admitted had procedural flaws could not be discarded, but were in fact used as evidence against him once more.
On January 23, 2015, the university president, Lawrence, sent a letter to Lumbard saying there were no significant procedural flaws in his tenure process.
Lumbard quickly decided that the 2014-2015 academic year at Brandeis would be his last, opting to turn down the chance to be a visiting professor at the institution for another year. He remained at the school until May 2015.
“This year  has been the most difficult year of my adult life, beyond the shadow of a doubt,” Lumbard says. “It’s extremely difficult to go into work. My gut turns in a knot as I drive onto campus. … It’s crushing to go into work every day and see people that you know are trying to get rid of you.”
Lumbard instead began to look for a new job, which proved to be difficult. “In academia, there are a lot of places that tend not to want someone that has been rejected for tenure,” Lumbard says. “So it’s like you now have a stain on your record.”
This stain is pervasive. Drama is not taken well in academia, and Lumbard says it pushed away many schools that may have otherwise been interested in hiring him. While Lumbard saw his struggle as an injustice, he says many potential employers see it as an unnecessary nuisance attached to his name, regardless of his capabilities.
His rejection has also meant that he spent seven years of his life working toward goals now unattainable. He laments the lost prospect of what he could have done had he remained at Brandeis. For example, he says the Ph.D. program in IMES was almost ready to take off, but it now appears to be defunct because no one has filled the role he left behind. This setback particularly upsets Lumbard, who notes that there aren’t many Ph.D. programs in Islamic studies in the United States.
Lumbard also regrets having to drop the range of connections he had with students. “I had two Ph.D. advisees,” he says. “I had undergraduate students with whom I was working, who I probably would have done senior theses with. I had MA students who wanted to do their thesis with me. I was very sorry to not be able to see those things through.”
His former students have also mourned the departure of their favorite professor from Brandeis. Syed writes in her email interview with The Islamic Monthly, “As a scholar of the Qur’an, losing Prof. Lumbard means that students now lack a broader picture of religious and philosophical issues discussed in their IMES and NEJS classes. How can one study the Islamic world without studying Islam!?”
Good Muslim, Bad Muslim
Lumbard initially believed that some of the flaws in his tenure application process were due to administrative incompetence, such as the ever-shifting due date for his application. But Dean Birren denied that the tenure process at Brandeis is different in any significant way from other universities, telling The Islamic Monthly that, “The tenure policy and our review processes at Brandeis are thorough, fair and consistent with those at other universities.”
Still, Brandeis has had problems with tenure. A February 3, 2015, article on the tenure process at Brandeis in The Justice, a student publication at the university, states that, “Negative departmental recommendations based on politics and other factors have also had a history of preventing individuals from receiving tenure.” The article cites Jacob Cohen, a tenured professor of American Studies at Brandeis, saying, “No one knows what’s said,” resulting in professors coming up for tenure not knowing what is brought up against them.
Over time, Lumbard began suspecting that something more sinister was at work than administrative incompetence. He now believes that he was denied tenure because some staff did not want Muslims to have academic freedom at Brandeis.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s someone who hates Muslims,” Lumbard says, adding, “I think it’s people who don’t want strong, powerful Muslim voices that affirm the coherency of the tradition, that affirm that we as Muslims have the right and responsibility to draw upon our traditions in how we answer the exigencies of the modern world.”
As evidence, Lumbard points to problems evaluators had with his work on The Study Quran.
“I was actually told by my chair … that I have to say I will be more ‘critical’ in my approach to the material. She told me, ‘You need to approach the Quran more like your colleague Mark Brettler does in his book How to Read the Bible.’ ”
Lumbard notes that the “critical distance” asked of him is the result of a misunderstanding of the interpretative skills needed to approach the Quran. “What it really came down to in my mind is insisting Quranic studies must be in the image and likeness of Biblical studies,” Lumbard says. “They’re completely different texts, and completely different histories.”
Lumbard believes that his decision to root his analysis in non-Western methodology caused problems. “When you’re doing it as a Muslim, you’re citing Muslim men instead of non-Muslim men, and the whole Western academic approach to the Quran is grounded in the writing of non-Muslim scholars,” Lumbard says. “You can really actually boil it down to the fact that I chose to cite and follow the methodology of brown men rather than white men.”
Lumbard believes the problem was not the quality of his work. Instead, he says, it was because he was perceived as the wrong type of Muslim. “If I prayed five times a day, and I fasted for Ramadan, and I didn’t drink beer, and yada yada yada, but I was methodologically more grounded in the methodologies with which they’re more familiar, or more comfortable, then that might be more acceptable to them.”
Instead, Lumbard says, he is a “really intellectually committed Muslim,” and he approached Islam on its own terms, not “simply as an entity to be analyzed and integrated within Western academic systems.” Lumbard says this made him the sort of Muslim whom Brandeis was not interested in, because “they don’t want Muslims to have their own epistemic basis within the academy.”
Levinger, Lumbard’s former student, also believes that Lumbard’s identity may have played a role in his tenure application being rejected. She says that “when students found out midway through the semester that Professor Lumbard was Muslim, they began to question his integrity as a teacher of Islam because he was ‘too close’ to the subject and was maybe ‘trying to make Islam look better than it actually is.’ ” Levinger was also Lumbard’s teaching assistant for his Introduction to Islam course, and she says this was a direct and not uncommon quote from students.
Levinger says she doesn’t think the administration was being intentionally Islamophobic, but that it was hard for Brandeis, a primarily Jewish school, to “truly embrace what pluralism means,” and the administration may have had a tough time having an outspoken Muslim voice on campus.
Dean Birren, meanwhile, told The Islamic Monthly that pluralism is important at Brandeis. “While the university has always been a tremendous draw for Jewish students, [its] founders made a distinctive decision to establish Brandeis as a non-sectarian University, open to students and faculty of tremendous academic talent regardless of race, religion, or background.”
Brandeis and Its Trouble with Muslims
Anti-Muslim bias at Brandeis is not limited to one tenure process, Lumbard states, as he believes that his case occurred “in an institution which has this overall, underlying anti-Islamic atmosphere festering.”
However, Dean Birren rejects the notion that discrimination against Muslims has been tolerated, noting that the university was established in response to exclusionary practices. “From that starting moment [in 1948], the institution has embraced a challenging set of goals. Named for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the university prioritizes inclusion and diversity, as well as free expression and a commitment to social justice.”
Still, Muslim students have faced several discriminatory incidents at Brandeis, one of which became a national scandal.
In late September 2002, students awoke to find “anti-Arab” fliers plastered around campus. The Faculty Senate passed a resolution condemning the fliers, calling them “both a racist attack on the Muslim and Arab populations on campus and as severely divisive to the student body.” An estimated dozen Arabs were attending Brandeis at the time at the undergraduate level.
In November 2003, the head of the Middle East Forum, Daniel Pipes, spoke at Brandeis. According to Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, a report published by the Center for American Progress in 2011, Pipes is a “misinformation expert” in the Islamophobia network responsible for generating “false facts and materials used by political leaders, grassroots groups, and the media.”
Several groups at Brandeis opposed Pipes’ visit. The night before his speech, a protest calling for tolerance was attacked by other students who “threatened tolerance protesters, burned their informative handouts, physically blocked their passage through dormitory hallways and called them various obscenities,” according to a letter to the editor in The Justice. Pipes spoke at the school again in 2007.
In 2006, the Ethics Center on campus screened Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West. The film argues that Islam is a threat to Western civilization; features Islamophobic speakers such as Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Pipes and Walid Shoebat; and was called “one of the most important movies of our lifetime” by Glenn Beck. Many people derided the film for being so blatantly Islamophobic.
In April 2014, Brandeis screened the film Honor Diaries, for which Ayaan Hirsi Ali was the executive producer and which was also widely criticized as Islamophobic. Lumbard writes in an email statement to university officials on Islamophobia at the school that, “During the screening of the film at Brandeis, there was also extensive security, something that I have not heard of at other showings of the film. The presence of security at such events is a subtle maneuver employed to reinforce the perception that Muslims are inherently violent and that we must therefore be on our guard whenever we discuss Islam.”
Muslim students were also directly targeted by two instances of vandalism at Brandeis, in 2010 and 2014. In 2010, vandals entered the Muslim Students Association office, trashed it, broke several belongings and stole the campus imam’s copy of the Quran. Levinger says “there was no campus-wide outcry, it was mostly just the Muslim students who felt upset” by the incident. But Brandeis chaplains issued a public condemnation of the incident and in an act of solidarity, met at the Muslim prayer area to issue their written statement, which was also signed by then Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz.
In 2014, a sign on the door to the MSA suite was vandalized. Someone had cut the English part of the sign — on which the phrase “Enter here in peace and security” was written in English and in Arabic —from behind its protective Plexiglas. The Muslim chaplain at Brandeis, Imam Talal Eid, communicated with the dean of student life and persuaded school administrators to install a security camera outside the suite. Eid, who is no longer at the school, said in an interview with The Justice in 2014 that he was very proud of the administration’s response, noting that it was very attentive to the needs of Muslim students on campus.
At the time, the university was embroiled in a much larger controversy — the administration was planning to offer an honorary degree to Hirsi Ali. The offer was made March 31, 2014, and was swiftly met with harsh criticism from students and Muslim groups across the United States.
Sarah Fahmy, a senior at Brandeis and member of the MSA at the time, launched an online petition — which received over 6,800 signatures — calling for the university to rescind the offer. Fahmy told Al Jazeera that the move to offer Hirsi Ali a degree was a “slap in the face” to Muslim students. More than 85 faculty members at Brandeis, including Lumbard, also signed a letter making the same demand.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations also sent a letter to the president of Brandeis demanding that the offer be dropped, with spokesman Ibrahim Hooper saying, “It is unconscionable that such a prestigious university would honor someone with such openly hateful views.”
On April 8, 2014, the university announced that it had retracted the offer to Hirsi Ali, stating, “She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.” Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University, responded to this announcement by saying, “You would think that someone at Brandeis would have learned to use Google.”
Some people believe that this scandal may have affected Lumbard’s tenure process. Tenured Brandeis English professor Mary Baine Campbell told The Justice “that in the faculty petition against granting Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree … the signees were primarily tenured professors.” She says tenured professors didn’t ask non-tenured professors to sign the petition. “[W]e didn’t want to ask anyone to put themselves in a situation to be punished, although some people voluntarily did, which was very brave of them.”
Lumbard was one of the few non-tenured professors to sign the petition, and he took an active role in the fight to have the honorary degree offer rescinded. Levinger says, “I think Professor Lumbard’s outspoken disapproval of Hirsi Ali’s potential honorary degree upset a few powerful people, and that may have had something to do with his tenure rejection.” Former student Syed also believes that this may have affected Lumbard’s tenure application. Departmental reports outlining the reasons for Lumbard’s tenure rejection did not include any mention of his involvement with this petition.
A month after the Hirsi Ali debacle wrapped up, Levinger decided to organize a letter-writing campaign to support Lumbard’s tenure application because she felt “livid” about the department rejecting his initial tenure application, calling him “an amazing professor.”
Levinger says many Muslim students she was in contact with, however, were afraid to speak out. “The Muslim students who I was in contact with ended up deciding to not write anything for the newspapers. They did not want to have any sort of backlash against them, and given that they would have been the ones enduring any sort of repercussions, I did not push it.” No articles concerning Lumbard’s case were published in Brandeis newspapers, though Muslim students did previously write articles condemning the administration for showing “disrespect” to Muslims on campus in light of the Hirsi Ali incident.
Levinger says she faced backlash over the years due to her involvement in groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, “a group for Jewish kids to talk about the injustice perpetrated on the Palestinians by the state of Israel. … I had Jewish friends tell me that they thought I was a traitor and that hanging out with the Muslims had corrupted me.”
Syed spoke more positively, noting that many fellow students made her feel as though “the Brandeis ideals of social justice and ‘truth unto its innermost parts’ [the motto] are taken seriously” by the community at the school. She did, however, note disappointment with “the fact that the Muslim students needed to raise a ruckus to prevent their institution from awarding an honorary degree in Social Justice to someone who supports terrorizing of Muslims.”
In his email to the administration, Lumbard outlined this sense of Islamophobia some students at Brandeis felt. “There is a feeling among Muslims students that the university did not take these [vandalisms of Muslim spaces] seriously enough to conduct a full investigation,” he writes.
Dean Birren declined to comment on the university’s response to the vandalisms, noting, “As we place a very high value on student privacy, we will not comment on any student disciplinary actions. I can assure you that we strive to build and maintain a supportive atmosphere for all of our campus communities and we respond to any incidents that threaten those communities.” Birren noted that the school has taken several initiatives to ensure Muslim students feel safe on campus, including adding the Muslim prayer space and chaplain position in 2005.
Yet, Lumbard wrote in his email on Islamophobia to administrators, “The actions and inactions of the outgoing administration [the president of Brandeis had resigned at the time] give some the impression that this is a form of discrimination tolerated on our campus.”
Large-Scale Implications for Muslims
Lumbard says the significance of his case extends beyond the university, with implications for Muslims in Western academia at large.
“The academy is still challenged as to how it is going to encounter Islam as Islam, and encounter Islam on its own terms,” he says. “If you look through a philosophy program in any university, they’re not going to have anything except Western philosophy, as if the only people in the world who ever had an idea were white.”
This presents a problem for Muslims, Lumbard says, because “Muslims have to be able to stand as themselves within the academy, not as people who are Islamic but operate through paradigms that they borrowed from outside.”
Lumbard believes that unless this happens, any effort to attain diversity is shallow and barely penetrates the surface of true diversity.
“Without epistemic diversity and inclusion, there’s no real inclusion within the university. You could have people of every possible racial, ethnic or religious background within the university, but if they all represent a similar type of epistemology, you really don’t have diversity.”
The drawbacks to lacking this type of diversity, Lumbard says, are severe because, “The vast majority of scholars in the world who are engaging that topic are going to be Muslims who are doing it through methodologies that are informed by classical Islam, not the Western academic tradition.”
“Does the Western academic tradition want to isolate itself and have its own little mini discourse about Islam that really doesn’t pertain to how Muslims are actually engaging with these materials?” Lumbard asks. “Or do they want to be a part of the larger conversation that is happening among all scholars regarding Islam?”
“That’s a question the academy keeps going back and forth on,” Lumbard says, though he believes that in “the case of Brandeis, they’ve made a very clear decision that they would rather be able to keep Islam over here, as a thing to analyze and look at, but not to be treated as an equal.”
An Uncertain Future for Lumbard
In August 2015, Lumbard accepted a teaching position in the Middle East. Although this was positive news, it was difficult to tell his family.
Despite the difficulties he’s faced since he left Brandeis — uprooting the family and resettling in a new country — Lumbard has been trying to focus on the positives, noting that he admires his new peers, while his kids enjoy the pool near their house. Yet the most encouraging event since the journey to the UAE has undoubtedly been the release of The Study Quran in November 2015.
“Everyone has said that this book just changed the field of Quranic studies. Some people will say it changed it for the worse. Fine, they can say that. But with the scholarship, the point is to bring out something that everyone has to deal with. Then you’ve done your job.”
The reaction to the project has validated Lumbard’s feelings that Brandeis erred in its evaluation of his work, and has emboldened him to speak out about his tenure process after some initial hesitation.
“After the first [tenure rejection] came down, my attitude was that I know what they did, they know what they did, God knows what they did. Alhamdulillah, [praise be to God] that’s good enough for me.” His perspective, however, began to change after the second rejection. “My relationship with Brandeis now is to make sure that people know about this issue,” he says.
Tenure processes are known to be long and arduous at any university, with much of it occurring behind closed doors. Even still, Lumbard’s case of denied tenure raises more questions than answers, and brings to the fore the tenuous relationships other Muslim educators may be having with their own administrations in the current atmosphere of normalized Islamophobia. It may also offer an important lesson in the conduct of scholars in Islamic Studies programs and the universities they work for.
Some people will remain silent; others like Lumbard will speak out against the bias they feel they face. “I will quite honestly say that I don’t think I stood up as effectively for the students as I probably should have in my whole time at Brandeis, and now I come to see that my silence didn’t protect me, and my silences aren’t going to protect anybody else going forward. So I might as well just let the whole thing come out, and let the chips fall where they may. I think that justice is probably on my side.”