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Summing Up On Salaita and Academic Freedom

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Earlier this year, the Regents of the University of Kansas ended academic freedom in the state, making something called the “improper use of social media” a firable offense for tenured faculty. But give them this: they were honest about what they were doing. Phyllis Wise and the Board or Trustees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, conversely, are almost comically dishonest about what they just did:

Since this decision, many of you have expressed your concern about its potential impact on academic freedom. I want to assure you in the strongest possible terms that all of us – my administration, the university administration and I – absolutely are committed to this bedrock principle. I began my career as a scientist challenging accepted ideas and pre-conceived notions, and I have continued during my career to invite and encourage such debates in all aspects of university life.

A pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas. One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives. Robust – and even intense and provocative – debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university.

If academic freedom means anything, tenured academics cannot be fired solely for expressing political views. And yet, if you look carefully at Wise’s letter, you will see not a single word about Salaita’s teaching record or his scholarship. To fire him for reasons not related to either is a definitive denial of academic freedom. Trying to square the circle, Wise attempts to argue that some isolated tweets suggested that Salaita is unfit as a teacher:

A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.

As I’ve said earlier, and as Timothy Burke has explained at devastating length, the problems with this argument are manifest and fatal. Salaita has an extensive record of university-level teaching. If there was any evidence that Salaita did not conduct himself in a “civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner,” it would presumably have surfaced during the many courses he’s taught. But there is no such evidence, and to assume that you can infer how someone will teach from how someone tweets is obvious nonsense. And to expand on Burke’s point, Wise’s unfounded assumption is not only insulting to Salaita, it’s insulting to the members of her faculty and administration who were allegedly unable to see that a candidate does not “value students as human beings.” This is an extraordinary claim, and given the paucity of the evidence to support it is a deeply offensive accusation.

Evidently, academic freedom is not absolute. If there was real evidence that Salaita was an anti-Semite, it might warrant an exception (although inferring it from 140-character bursts on social media requires a very high burden when this alleged anti-Semitism has not appeared in his teaching or scholarship.) But people making this allegation just don’t have the goods. The tweets that use the term “anti-Semitism” clearly assume that anti-Semitism is a bad thing if read in context (and even in isolation when given a remotely charitable reading.) Anti-semites generally do not tweet things like “[t]hat particular look has been used to dehumanize Jews for many centuries, to nefarious ends” and “I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in the eyes of God. Equal rights for everybody, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc.” And if his firing is to be consistent with academic freedom, that’s the whole ballgame. Some of his tweets, particularly the eliminationist one about Isaraeli settlers, are offensive, but that cannot be a firable offense if academic freedom is to retain any content.

One interesting thing about Wise’s statement, however, is that it does not seem to rely on the fact that the hiring process was not formally complete. The op-ed by Cary Nelson set the basic template for most UIUC apologists: set up a rhetorical shell game where a terrible argument that firing Salaita is consistent with academic freedom is paired with a terrible argument that he wasn’t really fired (even though he would have been teaching for at least a month prior to receiving pro forma approval.) When the weaknesses of one become apparent, just shift back to the other. While I’m sure their lawyers will be making different arguments, Wise’s logic suggests that Salaita could have been fired if he had a tenured position at UIUC formally rather than just de facto. (This should be terrifying to faculty there.) And I think there’s a reason for that. As Ben Alpers has argued, if taken seriously the assertion that Salaita wasn’t really fired would create chaos in academic job markets:

IANAL, but it seems to me that if Hoffman is correct about the labor law here, the entire academic employment system will be disrupted. If faculty are forced to see regents’ approval of hires as something other than pro forma, either hiring schools will have to wait an extra semester or year to bring faculty aboard or schools from which faculty are hired will be faced with tons of last minute course cancellations. The point is that this is not simply about a single letter sent to single faculty member: the academic employment system as currently constituted is absolutely reliant on what are widely seen as rubber-stamp stages of the hiring process being rubber-stamp stages of the hiring process. If Salaita’s hirefire stands, it will, at the very least, make it much harder for the University of Illinois to hire senior faculty (not because of boycotts, but because of due diligence on the part of potential hires) and may well affect other institutions as well.

I assume that Wise does not want to think that senior faculty she’s trying to attract that she will start arbitrarily overturning dean-approved hires at the last minute as a routine practice. But if I were in that position, I think it’s pretty clear that UIUC cannot be trusted.

But the problems the precedent creates for the academic job market are just the beginning. There are serious First Amendment problems here. Salaita may well have a good argument in civil court. And it’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence  that Salaita was fired after pressure was brought by the development office.

But perhaps it will be shown in court that UIUC was within its formal legal rights when it discarded the basic norms of the profession and callously destroyed someone’s career on false implicit pretenses. And ultimately it doesn’t matter whether Salaita was fired because Wise disagreed with his political views, the Board of Trustees disagreed with his views, wealthy donors disagreed with his views, or any combination thereof. His firing was a disgraceful attack on academic freedom no matter what motivated it, and reflects a situation that’s probably only going to get worse.

…Claire Potter has more.

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