One doesn’t fire a professor like this

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 27, 2009

In August, the Erasmus University Rotterdam fired Professor Tariq Ramadan. Well, strictly speaking, they didn’t fire him, but rater withdrew the invitation to be a guest professor. Since December 2006 Ramadan had a contract with the City Council of Rotterdam to advise the City Council on civic integration & multicultural policies (about half of the population in Rotterdam is not from Dutch origin and the city has enormous socio-economic-cultural problems). At the same time he was invited as a guestprofessor at the Erasmus University for the same period (allegedly he had asked for this affiliation himself when he was asked to work for the City Council). So legally speaking in August the City Council fired him, and at the very same moment the University withdrew its invitation to be affiliated as a guest professor. Yet for what follows, I don’t think this legal quibble is very relevant. From an ethical-political point of view it remains a dismissal. The question is: was this dismissal justified?

I don’t want to go into the firing by the City Council. Frankly, he was appointed on political grounds, so no-one should be surprised that he was fired on political grounds. Politicians get fired or are forced to resign for a variety of reasons, some good and some bad. I don’t know enough of what Ramadan precisely did for the city of Rotterdam, I don’t know how successful he was, I don’t know on what grounds they hired him in the first place, so I simply don’t have an opinion of whether politically speaking his position was strong and stable enough to continue his policy advising work. Politicians and their advisors get hired and fired for all sorts of reasons, including many bad reasons. The firing of Ramadan by the City Council is a different matter than the firing of Ramadan by the University, and I want to focus here on the latter.

As far as I am concerned, the firing by the University is an independent matter. The university authorities could have kept him even if the City council fired him. But they decided not to do so. The grounds which they give is that by working for “Press TV”:, a broadcasting company funded by Iran, he was legitimising the oppressive authoritarian Iranian regime, independent of his intentions, and independent of the actual content of the talk show he was hosting on Press TV. They fired Ramadan two days after they found out that he worked for Press TV. In an interview with Dutch TV, professor Lamberts, who represents the university authorities, said that they did not want to wait 3 weeks till Ramadan came back from holidays and had time to discuss the matter with them. The university authorities fell there was an urgency – an urgency that Ramadan didn’t acknowledge (he was unwilling to interrupt his holidays to go to Rotterdam to discuss these matters). Lamberts said that the university wanted to give a clear signal that Ramadan’s work for Press TV was morally incompatible with his affiliation at the university. There are several Dutch news shows on this affair, with “this NOVA programme”: probably being the most instructive – those of you who understand Dutch can watch the first 7.36 minutes where the university authorities defend themselves; Ramadan responds to the whole affaire in English from 7.36-17.05 minutes.

So I think there are (at least) two questions to be asked: (1) was Ramadan legitimising the Iranian brutalities by continuing to work for Press TV after the bloodsheds in April? (2) Is doing work that is (directly or indirectly) paid by an oppressive regime a sufficient reason to fire someone on the spot? The university authorities answered ‘yes’ to both questions. But is this the only possible way to judge this case?

I doubt it. I have two concerns: the danger of using the notion of ‘legitimacy’ as a valid ground to fire someone, and the failure by the university authorities to recognise the ‘dirty hands’ character of Ramadan’s situation.

The notion that legitimising an oppressive regime is enough to fire someone on the spot can be quite a dangerous principle, since who is to decide when one is legitimising an oppressive regime? Is my university legitimising the Chinese government (which is also violating human rights on a large scale) by supporting student and staff exchanges with Chinese universities? ‘Legitimising’ is such a subjective notion, that one would need to be vary careful before concluding that someone is legitimising an unacceptable actor and its unacceptable behaviour. Only when there is very little evidence for alternative interpretations, could one draw this conclusion.

So, is Ramadan, by working for Press TV, where he claims that he can work independently and is not censured, legitimising the killing and oppressing of the demonstrators? I don’t see how this necessarily follows. It would follow if he would make claims in support of the Iranian rulers in “his programme on Press TV, called Islam and Life.“: Yet I watched a few of these programmes, and did not see anything in this category. On the contrary, what I saw was a very careful, and often indirect, putting on the table of topics that are not openly debated in all sections of Islam. Ramadan has said in interviews that he has repeatedly condemned the brutalities by the Iranian rulers, and that one shouldn’t forget that the Iranian regime is not homogenous and thus one should try to support the democratic and more liberal streams within it. In an interview he gave the day after he was fired on Dutch TV, he said that he was trying to create openings, open up space; that was indeed what I saw in his shows. Reform from within, so to speak. Admittedly, he has to discuss ‘liberal’ topics in a very indirect way, but what if that is the only way to start making any changes? It is a very pragmatic approach, but what other approach is there? Forcing new ideas on people doesn’t work; one has to gradually open up debate to make things first debatable – one step at the time get the ideas out of the taboo sphere into the sphere where it is debatable, then into the sphere where one tolerates certain views and ideas, and, perhaps, finally move it into the sphere where people will accept the ideas. But jumping from taboos to forced toleration or to forced endorsement doesn’t work, since socio-cultural change has to start from within.

If the claim that pragmatism is the only viable strategy is true, or at least one very important strategy that we cannot do without, then it implies that anyone who wants to work on social change in morally difficult circumstances will often get dirty hands. I think this is precisely what happened to Ramadan. His decision to work for Press TV can be explained as using a powerful media that was offered to him for trying to open up discursive space for social change. He could use the air-time he had with Press TV to contribute to reforming Islam; and when the Iranian regime committed the bloodshed, he had to choose between two evils – either giving up his airtime and thus his media-power to work on social change, or else to run the risk of legitimising an oppressive regime. The University authorities, on the other hand, have not acknowledged the possible ‘dirty hands’ character of Ramadan’s situation, and have not given Ramadan the benefit of the doubt. Quite to the contrary, they have said that there cannot be any doubt that continuing to work for Press TV after the bloodsheds on the Iranian streets is unacceptable since it legitimises these brutalities and the regime, independent of Ramadan’s intentions.

The university authorities do have another argument to their defence, though – but again I think it is playing the legal card and is not a very strong argument. They have argued that according to university regulations, each academic staff member has to declare their public activities outside the university, whether remunerated or not. I think that for paid staff this is a fair and good rule. But for guest professors, or ‘extra-ordinary’ professors who work (paid or unpaid) for one day a week sponsored by a company or organisation (religious or otherwise), this seems an unacceptable requirement. Through these ‘extra-ordinary professorships’ the university gets some extra funds and/or free teaching, and a company or organisation gets (more) research or teaching in their area of interest. Since they generally work only one day a week for the university, and are not always paid for that work, it seems unfair to me to put the same requirements on these people. In any case, it is very likely that a significant number of full professors at the Erasmus University do not declare to their deans all their non-university public activities; so if this were the only reason left to fire Ramadan, then (a) it would be hugely out of proportion, and (b) we could fire a significant percentage of the University staff.

Note that nothing in my argument has ruled out that Ramadan has written horrible things. But if that’s the case, than either he should not have been hired by the City Council and offered a guestprofessorship by the University in the first place, or else he should be fired because he himself has unacceptable views that conflicts with human rights and democratic principles or the Dutch constitutions or something similar. But that’s not the reason that has been given. Quite to the contrary, the University has stated that he has done excellent work as a professor.

Ramadan is gone, there has been a public meeting in the university where the University authorities restated and confirmed their views and the critics (which include virtually all academic staff and student who spoke up) could voice their protests and arguments, and then… all went back to normal. At least, that’s how it looks like on the surface. But if my analysis is right, then this affair should really trouble us deeply. If one can get fired on such weak grounds, and if it is not recognised that academics too sometimes are confronted with dirty hands dilemmas, then which professor with inconvenient views will be next?

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Prog Gold » Tracking, with closeups (1): Iran
09.28.09 at 10:39 am



Steve Fuller 09.27.09 at 11:27 am

I agree with Ingrid’s analysis 100%. The only way Erasmus can assure credibility in this matter would be through a demonstration that it has applied the external income principle to guest professors in other cases, with a similar consequence. Indeed, if evidence could be shown that this principle is not generally applied, then the firing of Ramadan looks hypocritical. But to play devil’s advocate, it may be that the only way the university checks is by asking for a self-declaration, which is routinely accepted as true unless shown otherwise. In that case, if Ramadan did not originally declare the Iranian press work, and then it becomes public, he could be fired on grounds of self-misrepresentation alone.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.27.09 at 1:08 pm

There’s nothing here (for example) about disclosure of public activities; and without it this really does sound like a mccarthyist witch-hunt. Ingrid, could you post a link to an article where the non-disclosure argument is discussed, please.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.27.09 at 1:59 pm

Henri, I looked it up and here it is:
It is part of the Collective Labour Agreement of ALL Dutch Universities, so other Dutch-based CT readers will recognise this (‘regeling nevefuncties en nevenactiviteiten’). Though I should say that the practice of how seriously one takes this regulation differs drastically from university to university and from faculty to faculty.

I know that I mentioned, when I started working at the EUR, that I blog at CT :-) (which, I’m happy to say, was (so far!!) not disapproved).

The typical things that one would have to disclose are consultancy jobs, political mandates, active membership of lobby or pressure grops, writing on a regular and paid basis for a magazine or newspaper, etc. One does not have to disclose everything that falls into the category of ‘hobbies’. The deans are responsible for deciding on borderline cases.


Witt 09.27.09 at 2:10 pm

I don’t want to go into the firing by the City Council. Frankly, he was appointed on political grounds, so no-one should be surprised that he was fired on political grounds.


The firing of Ramadan by the City Council is a different matter than the firing of Ramadan by the University, and I want to focus here on the latter. As far as I am concerned, the firing by the University is an independent matter. The university authorities could have kept him even if the City council fired him. But they decided not to do so.

From my U.S., non-academic perspective, this is a scrupulously honest and probably theoretically correct way to frame the argument, but practically speaking, so unrealistic as to be almost impossible to believe.

A political appointee gets fired with a great deal of fanfare over a topic that (for better or worse) is currently occasioning a lot of handwringing* in public discussion. Why would he not also get fired from his tenuously-attached university job?

It seems trivially obvious — at least in my experience of universities’ fear of controversy — that they would fire somebody who was involved in this flavor of controversy and who doesn’t have any kind of protected status, and doesn’t seem to be solidly established (big research lab, lots of grants, long history of popularity among students and colleagues, whatever). At least in my observation in the US, universities are immensely more comfortable with certain kinds of controversies than with others. Picking a giant public fight with your country’s governing politicians about an international flashpoint — not the kind of controversy they want to stir up.

I apologize if this is derailing the post; I actually do think that the logic of your arguments makes sense. If I believed that the university’s two public justifications (as recounted in your post) were the reasons, I’d agree with your assessment. But I don’t believe that the p.r. spin from the university is true — not even if they have convinced themselves that it is.

*I am not meaning to for a second trivialize the situation in Iran; I’m just noting that the US media and public opinion have strong, if underinformed opinions about Iran in a way that they emphatically don’t about a host of other international conflicts.


otto 09.27.09 at 2:39 pm

So my instinct is that 1. if the university job was thrown in with the political consulting, there should be no surprise or complaint if it was thrown out with end of the political consulting. That does not seem to be the justification for throwing it out, however. 2. Leaving aside the question of involvement with PressTV or similar, it should be entirely open to a university professor to publish a defence of the legitimacy of the Iranian regime much more full-throatedly than Ramadan seems to have done, just as it should have been possible to publish a defence of apartheid South Africa way back when and keep one’s academic job. That’s what opinion pluralism is all about: the right to actively argue for the legitimacy of many politics and policies which the current establishment thinks are illegitimate. Whether anyone is persuaded or not is something else entirely, although I’ve often found that full-throated attempts to ‘defend the indefensible’ both produce new information and help me identify more precisely what is indefensible about it.


Malaclypse 09.27.09 at 4:48 pm

Thank God John Yoo is safe.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.27.09 at 5:41 pm

@3: sure, I understand that there are policies. It’s just that, after googling and reading a few articles on the subject, I don’t see any allegations of him violating these disclosure policies. Except in this post.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.27.09 at 6:38 pm

aha, sorry, I had misunderstood your question/point. Well, this issue of violating disclosure policies was brought up in the open debate that was held at the university (of which the NOVA newsshow to which I inserted a link gives a few brief impressions in the first seven minutes). In that public debate the issue of these disclosure policies got a quite prominent airing, and for understandable reasons: the University feels that Ramadan should have explicitely asked the Erasmus University for permission to work for Press TV, whereas Ramadan feels that this is an unacceptable demand on him – he is not making other people decide what he can and cannot do. And there the university and Ramadan have a fundamental disagreement on what the reasonable constraints are that a university can put on the other affiliations of a professor, including for a nonremunerated guestprofessor.

In fact, the issue of not declaring that he worked for Press TV has been addressed in another “interview published by NOVA”: boradcasted on August 18th – very well worth looking at if you’re intersted in this affair (the first 2:30 minutes are in Dutch, but then there is the interview with Ramadan in English – thank Goodness we don’t dub in this country! ;-)


JoB 09.27.09 at 6:52 pm

Hmm, Ingrid, I can see where you’re coming from in your defense of independence but your argument rests on a bit of a technicality. Surely the PressTV thing is but an end of a longer story – although a telling one seen his defense is based on the Western value to be able to speak one’s mind regardless of employer of government.

I’m sorry to say that the whole line of ‘prosecuting independent-minded muslims’ has a distinct Wildersian touch to it.

And as to the technicality being used to end a marriage – where a partner was presented in a light perhaps a tad different from the reality presented after the vows – there are to him abundant possibilities of courts where to put his challenge.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.27.09 at 7:33 pm

Well, my only question is whether Steve Fuller @1 has a point; in a nutshell: did Ramadan lie, deliberately lie in his application? Because that would be, it seems to me, in this situation the only legitimate reason for his dismissal.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.27.09 at 7:37 pm

the answer to that question, as far as I know, is No, since he did not work for Press TV in 2006. He started working for Press TV less than a year ago, and did not first ask for permission at the University to do so.

Of course, I would absolutely agree that if people tell significant lies when they are hired, that’s a good enough reason to fire them on the spot. But that argument has not been made by anyone in this case, as far as I know.


JoB 09.28.09 at 7:27 am

Well Henri, on the technicality he had a duty to inform them of his new job under his contract – and it is not a mere formalism, such contracts are drawn up so as to avoid precisely this type of conflicts (it is fine to be independent from A, but less fine if one uses that independence to be a dependendant of B).


ajay 09.28.09 at 10:11 am

I’m sorry to say that the whole line of ‘prosecuting independent-minded muslims’ has a distinct Wildersian touch to it.

I don’t think independent-mindedness would fit very well with being an employee of the international propaganda arm of the Islamic Republic of Iran.


JoB 09.28.09 at 10:31 am

No, it wouldn’t just like speech of The Voice of Free Speech fits very well but anybody’s free speech except that if Wilders.

(yup, you can get annoyed by Wilders and Ramadan at the same time, in fact it’s a more natural position as they basically give the some story with other main characters)

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