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Communication breakdown: Finkelstein’s fury

By Mark Pesto / Senior Staff Writer

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What Pitt says was a miscommunication with a middleman has shrouded the University’s first-ever National Security Symposium in controversy.

Norman Finkelstein, a popular but contentious expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict, was scheduled to speak today at the symposium, an event sponsored by the Graduate School of Public and International Studies. But last Wednesday, Sept. 16, Pitt told him he couldn’t attend.

In the wake of his rescinded invitation, Finkelstein publicly accused Pitt’s administration of cowardice and academic dishonesty on his website, saying he had been told that administrators nixed his appearance because they disliked his scholarship.

But Brian Sisco, a GSPIA graduate student in charge of the event, and Kenyon Bonner, interim vice provost and dean of students, both said the symposium’s graduate student organizers — not the administration — made the call to withdraw Finkelstein’s invitation, and Sisco said insufficient funding forced the cancellation.

Yesterday, after declining to comment for almost a week, Luke Peterson, the symposium’s liaison between organizers and panelists — and the person who told Finkelstein the administration canceled his appearance — said he had been mistaken and supported Sisco’s and Bonner’s statements.

Peterson, a visiting professor at Pitt and the event’s moderator, told Finkelstein in a phone message on Sept. 16, that University administration had “raised a number of issues regarding [his] appearance.”

However, on Wednesday evening, Sept. 23, Peterson wrote in an email that his previous statement had been incorrect, saying instead that he had misunderstood the situation in his haste to relay the information to Finkelstein.

Although numerous phone calls, emails and Facebook messages failed to reach Finkelstein on Wednesday evening for his response to Peterson’s statement, he previously speculated on his blog that Pitt would prevent Peterson from speaking about the cancellation unless he agreed to support Pitt’s story. Bonner, on the other hand, said Pitt did not ask Peterson to make any sort of statement.

“It was my sincere attempt to do Professor Finkelstein a courtesy by informing him of a change to the program sooner rather than later,” Peterson wrote in his statement Wednesday. “Unfortunately in rushing to speak with him I gave him a version of events that was rife with error.”

What followed Peterson’s first call to Finkelstein was a “he said, he said” volley of dizzying proportions.

Before Peterson’s statement

In April, the symposium’s planning committee, which is made up of GSPIA students, asked Peterson to relay their invitation to Finkelstein. Finkelstein, a harsh critic of Israeli policy, planned to speak about how the media covers the conflict as a part of an expert panel at the symposium.

On Aug. 26, Finkelstein received and signed a contract to appear at the event, but according to both Sisco, the event’s lead organizer, and Bonner, no one at Pitt signed or approved the contract after Finkelstein sent it back. On Sept. 16, Peterson called Finkelstein to inform him his invitation had been withdrawn.

In a phone interview on Sept. 17, Finkelstein said phone and email conversations he’d had with Peterson about the cancellation on Sept. 16 and 17, made him believe the administration cancelled his talk because the content was too controversial.

“The [inaudible] office refused to sign off on your contract for the event next week,” a person who identified himself as Luke Peterson from Pitt told Finkelstein in a voice mail on Sept. 16, which Finkelstein provided to The Pitt News, “and raised a number of issues regarding your presence — all of which I’m sure you’re familiar with, many of which or all of which are either bogus or trumped.”

This is the explanation that Peterson now says was incorrect.

A glitch in the recording obscured Peterson’s words as he explained exactly who refused to sign the contract, but Finkelstein said Peterson later told him that the vice provost’s office nixed the event. According to Finkelstein, he later learned that the vice provost in question was Bonner.

Peterson declined to comment on this phone message several times, referring all questions to Sisco, before he finally said in his Sept. 23 email that he had been mistaken.

“The claim that the University was responsible for Professor Finkelstein’s removal from the program of events was and is simply not true,” Peterson wrote in that email.

Finkelstein could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening despite multiple attempts after Peterson said he had been mistaken in his phone message about the cancellation.

Sisco, the GSPIA student cabinet president and the lead organizer of the symposium, reiterated that the event’s cancellation was entirely his and the planning committee’s decision because they didn’.t have the money to pay him.

“The decision was entirely student-led,” Sisco said. “The University was fully in support of facilitating Norman Finkelstein — or anyone I had proposed — to come visit the University … My background is in human rights, my previous work was in human rights, freedom of press and expression, my career path is in that, I’m studying it. So, I’d be the first one to say if the University was in some conspiracy to suppress that.”

In an emailed statement on Sept. 23, Bonner also said the cancellation of Finkelstein’s appearance was Sisco’s and his fellow planners’ decision.

“The decision to revoke Norman Finkelstein’s invitation was made independently by the student organizing committee that had invited him to speak at their event,” Bonner said in that statement.

Money troubles

According to Sisco, financial trouble caused the committee to rescind Finkelstein’s invitation. Sisco said on Tuesday, Sept. 15 — the day before Peterson called Finkelstein — he emailed Bonner and John Keeler, dean of GSPIA, to inform them that because the student planning committee could not afford to pay Finkelstein’s $4,000 speaking fee, as well as other associated costs, they had decided to cancel his appearance.

Although Finkelstein said he sent the contract back to Pitt on Aug. 26, Sisco said Finkelstein’s signed contract did not arrive until around two weeks before the event. Sisco could not remember the exact day.

Bonner said on Monday, Sept. 21, that he didn’t sign Finkelstein’s contract at the student organizers’ request. When called for comment last week, Keeler’s office said Sisco was handling all media inquiries regarding the symposium.

“Ultimately, we, the students planning the event, were not prepared to host him in time for the event,” Sisco wrote in an email on Sept. 22.

Sisco said although the event’s planning committee had negotiated Finkelstein’s participation since April, which included drawing up a contract for his appearance, fundraising failures and time constraints forced them to withdraw the invitation.

“We were still waiting [on the date of Finkelstein’s cancellation] to secure pledged funds as well as for our crowdfunding campaign to garner more support,” Sisco wrote in his Sept. 22 email. “We had yet to pay for our venue, catering, audio and visual costs, marketing and promotional materials and security.”

The student planning committee had to use grassroots efforts to raise money, Sisco said.

“Our goal was to start with zero dollars and see what, as students, how we could approach organizing a symposium like this for the first time … That’s involved fundraising among departments, crowdfunding, individual outreach,” Sisco said. “Our crowdfunding campaign ended, I believe, at midnight at the end of last week at about 50 percent of our goal.”

Finkelstein’s doubts

Before Peterson’s statement Wednesday, Finkelstein said he doubted Sisco’s explanation. Finkelstein said all the details in Peterson’s original account of the cancellation prove he wasn’t out of the loop.

Originally, in an email sent to Finkelstein Thursday morning, Sept. 17, which Finkelstein forwarded to The Pitt News, Peterson said, “Regrettably it seems that the department’s / University’s decision in this matter is final. Furthermore it is one over which I — as an adjunct professor — have absolutely no influence.”

But in his statement on Wednesday, Peterson said he had been mistaken about those details. Peterson declined to comment on how he reached his previous, incorrect understanding of the situation.

Sisco said Peterson’s comments were misinformed — a fact Peterson agreed with on Wednesday evening— because of haphazard communication. According to Sisco, the organizers’ meeting with Peterson in which they relayed their decision was short and rushed.

“We spoke with Dr. Peterson very briefly, after I already sent the email to Deans Keeler and Bonner,” Sisco said. “In the morning [on Sept. 16] right before class, we were able to meet up with Dr. Peterson really quickly. Now, after all the misinformation that’s been spread, that could have been a breakdown in communication in relaying that information.”

Because Peterson hadn’t been involved in planning the event other than as moderator and liaison with professional panelists, Sisco said Peterson had sometimes been left out of the chain of communication.

“It sounds like a misunderstanding,” Sisco said. “[Peterson’s] been kind of acting on behalf of the students planning this … He hasn’t been involved in the planning, the decision making, nor has he been fully informed throughout the organizing process.”

“[Peterson is] not an organizer at all,” Sisco said. “It’s entirely student-organized. Technically, [he is the] faculty adviser. We approached him … to moderate the event, and we also asked him to be the direct communicator with invitations and such for the professional panel. We just thought that there would be a little bit more, I guess, legitimacy when you have a professor asking another professional.”

Peterson confirmed that he wasn’t involved in organizing the symposium outside of communicating with panelists. Otherwise, he declined to comment before his statement Wednesday in which he agreed he had been mistaken.

“It was the first time we were hosting this event entirely driven by full-time students, and we learned a lot throughout this process,” Sisco wrote in an email.

Demanding an explanation

When Finkelstein called the vice provost’s office Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 16, to demand an explanation, Bonner told him the student planning committee, not the Pitt administration, had decided to withdraw his appearance. Finkelstein, however, remained skeptical.

“I would say that explanation is not credible,” Finkelstein said on Sept. 17.

According to Bonner, who must approve all guest speakers, the administration played no role in canceling Finkelstein’s participation. He said it was at the student organizers’ request that he didn’t sign Finkelstein’s contract, adding that Pitt would have supported Finkelstein’s appearance had the organizers not canceled his invitation.

“Students have the right to bring in speakers, and it’s our job to support that,” Bonner said.

After talking to Bonner, Finkelstein said he called the GSPIA office and asked for Keeler but failed to reach him. He said he then talked to GSPIA Associate Dean Paul Nelson, who said the University would stand by Bonner’s statement. A staffer in the GSPIA office referred all inquiries involving the National Security Symposium to Sisco.

An airing of grievances

Unsatisfied, Finkelstein took his complaints to the Internet.

On Sept. 18, he linked on Facebook to an entry on his blog titled “Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?” in which he stated that Pitt had “shredd[ed] a signed contract in order to shield Israel from informed criticism.” He exhorted his followers to contact Bonner, Keeler and Nelson.

Between Sept. 19 and 23, Finkelstein posted five total blog entries, as well as several tweets and Facebook posts, referring to his cancellation at Pitt, including copies of his email correspondence with Peterson.

“You are right to pursue the matter with University administration as you have done,” Peterson wrote in his last email to Finkelstein, according to a Sept. 19, blog entry by Finkelstein. “I am afraid I cannot comment any further on this issue. You have my sincere apologies.”

Before Wednesday, Peterson had declined to comment on this correspondence.

Another side of the story

After Finkelstein posted on Facebook that Pitt had attributed his cancellation to budget woes, he heard from Zachary Finder, a Pitt student and member of Students for Justice in Palestine. Finkelstein said his exchange with Finder led him to further doubt Sisco’s explanation.

Finder, who follows Finkelstein’s Facebook page, told Finkelstein he’d heard that his invitation had been canceled because paperwork had been returned late — an explanation that differed from Sisco’s budget-shortfall statement.

According to Finder, he and SJP President Raghav Sharma had sought an explanation for Finkelstein’s cancellation from Bonner, Keeler and Nelson, all of whom they failed to reach. Finder and Sharma both said that on Friday, Sept. 18, they met with Sisco and another graduate student organizer, Maggie Gabos, who told them Finkelstein’s appearance had been canceled because his contract had been returned late.

“They said to me, ‘Look, this is all just a big misunderstanding,’” Finder, who later told Finkelstein about his conversation with the organizers, said.

“For the record, Zachary Finder … was told by the student organizers of the symposium that my talk was canceled because the paperwork was submitted too late,” Finkelstein wrote in an email on Sept. 21. “It seems now they’re saying that the crowd-funding fell short. Someone should tell them to get their story straight.”

In response, Sisco suggested that Finder and Sharma might have misunderstood his explanation. He reiterated that the student organizers’ decision was logistical, based on budget and time constraints.

“Before any contract is approved,” Sisco wrote in an email on Sept. 22, “the necessary funds have to exist to pay the individual, and it is prudent that funds should be secured to pay the other necessary logistical costs of hosting the event as well.”

Sisco said he couldn’t remember exactly when Finkelstein’s contract arrived back at Pitt, on Peterson’s desk, but he said they hadn’t gotten it until about two weeks before the event.

“By that point, we’re trying to decide in that short time frame, ‘Is there any chance we’ll raise the necessary funds in that time frame?’” Sisco said, adding that he and the other planners didn’t want to take the chance of having Finkelstein appear without the funds to pay him.

Finkelstein said he signed and sent back his contract to Pitt on Aug. 26, the same day he received it.

More questions for Pitt

According to Finkelstein, no one from Pitt ever asked him to consider reducing his honorarium.

“All he had to say was, ‘The crowdfunding campaign fell short, we’re going to have to reduce your honorarium,’’’ Finkelstein said. “Is that so complicated?”

Finkelstein said he didn’t want to speculate whether he would have reduced his fee if the event organizers had asked.

According to Sisco, the GSPIA graduate students on the planning committee simply never brought up the topic of asking Finkelstein to lower his honorarium. He said he wasn’t sure whether it would have been polite to do so. Because the symposium is an inaugural event, he added, the planning committee has no precedent to guide their actions.

If that was the case, Finkelstein asked, why didn’t the University ask Peterson to confirm it was budget issues that forced his cancellation? He speculated that Pitt had placed a “gag order” on Peterson to prevent him from commenting further on the issue. Bonner denied that Pitt had taken any action to keep Peterson from speaking about the situation.

Peterson’s statement

At 5:25 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 23, Peterson emailed The Pitt News with a statement in which he said that, in his rush to make sure Finkelstein was informed of the change as soon as possible, he provided him with an incorrect version of events.

“I am sorry to say that the information that I gave to Professor Finkelstein blaming University administration for the decision not to include him in the Symposium event was given very hastily,” Peterson wrote in that email. “I very much regret that this mistake maligned University faculty or officials or otherwise inflamed the situation in any way, shape or form.”

Finkelstein could not be reached by numerous phone calls, emails and other attempts to contact him Wednesday evening for his response to Peterson’s statement. However, in a blog entry he wrote Wednesday morning, before Peterson issued his statement, Finkelstein implied that he believed Pitt would prevent Peterson from commenting further on the situation unless he agreed to go along with Pitt’s version of events. Bonner said that was not true.

“This Honorable Scholar [i.e., Peterson] was then placed under a gag order by the University, presumably until he regains his sanity and realizes that my cancellation was just the result of a bureaucratic error,” Finkelstein wrote in this blog entry, which he called “The Freest University in the World.”

Bonner said at around 6 p.m., Wednesday, that the University had not asked Peterson to make a statement. In fact, he said, between Wednesday morning, when Peterson again declined to comment for this story, and Wednesday evening, when Peterson issued his statement, no one from Pitt’s administration so much as contacted Peterson.

Peterson said later Wednesday that he had no comment on Finkelstein’s remarks. He said he preferred to let his statement stand for itself and that he considered the matter closed.

Norman Finkelstein’s performance contract by The Pitt News

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Communication breakdown: Finkelstein’s fury