Professor trouble! Post-structuralist star Judith Butler headed to Columbia

Judith Butler lecturing in Hamburg. ()
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The eminent philosopher, literary critic, and political activist Judith Butler is coming to New York. She will join Columbia University's English and comparative literature department as a visiting professor in the spring semesters of 2012 and 2013, with the expectation that she will become a full-time faculty member in July 2013. If that happens, Columbia will have poached Butler from the University of California at Berkeley, where she has taught since 1993.

Butler, 54, is most famous for two early-'90s books, Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, that became classics of queer theory, using a post-structuralist framework to theorize gender itself as just one more performance. With an extravagantly baroque style—she was a onetime winner of the arch-conservative New Criterion's "Bad Writing Contest"—and passages that included a lengthy deconstruction of Aretha Franklin's "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman," her work made her an intellectual celebrity far beyond the usual academic circles. (Gender Trouble sold over 100,000 copies worldwide.)

But at Columbia, where Mideast policy has been a bit of a powderkeg in the past, Butler is likely to make bigger waves for her position on Israel. She has been an outspoken critic of Israeli policies, arguing for a "post-Zionist" political stance. In her 2003 London Review of Books essay "No, It's Not Anti-Semitic," she took on then-Harvard president Larry Summers' allegation that certain statements about Israel within academia had become anti-Semitic "in their effect, if not their intent."

Her hire is more grim news for public higher education. UC Berkeley, like public universities across the country, has been hit hard by state budget cuts, and has struggled to match offers made to its star faculty from other colleges. Berkeley's vice provost, Sheldon Zedeck, told the Contra Costa Times last week that the university had kept about 75 percent of the professors who received outside offers.

The auto-reply for Butler's Berkeley email said, "I check this email at least once a week and so will reply soon."

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UPDATE: Here is the email announcement sent to Columbia English graduate students by department chair Jean Howard:

Dear Graduate Students,


I am thrilled to announce that Judith Butler will be joining our department
as a regular faculty member.  For each of the next two years she will be a
full-time visitor in the spring terms.  After that she will be here on a
permanent year-round basis.

In spring of this academic year Professor Butler will give a colloquium just
for our department to which all faculty and grad students will be invited.
It will be our chance to welcome her to our community.

Best, Jean Howard

UPDATE 2: This article has been revised to reflect the following: In an email to Capital, Butler was more ambiguous than English department chair Jean Howard about her Columbia future. "I have agreed to visit Columbia University in the Spring semesters of 2012 and 2013 with the option of joining the faculty there full-time starting in July 2013," she wrote. "In the meantime, I remain a faculty member at UC Berkeley and will be on sabbatical under the auspices of the Mellon Distinguished Achievement Grant in the Spring of 2011." Howard has since revised her remarks from her previous email, telling the Columbia Spectator, "We have every expectation that she will join this faculty full-time, but now she is just visiting."