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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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  • brad

    Obvious question, then, for the writer of this letter;
    how does this encourage students at that U to feel safe expressing their views?

    Seems rather obvious it has quite the opposite effect. If they’re going to dump a tenure track prof over questionable but not overblown tweets about a charged issue regarding his fucking homeland then why should any random student feel safe?

    • Davis X. Machina

      ….how does this encourage students at that U to feel safe expressing their views?

      They’re customers. They’re always right. So long as the checks clear.

      • The Dark Avenger

        If I were a professor, I wouldn’t recommend any of my undergraduates to go get any advanced degrees there. If you fart the wrong way and someone thinks it means you’re an anti-Semite, then you’re out on the street, your academic career stillborn because of the cowards in charge of things there.

        • CP

          I think that’s pretty much everywhere. Had at least one professor at my old university who was denied tenure for what everybody was pretty sure was her having been a little too openly critical of Israel.

          I also remember studying abroad in Cairo and making friends with another American student (can’t remember which university he’d come from) who was doing his capstone thesis on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Why? Because he’d wanted to do either the EMB or Hamas… and his adviser had told him there was no way to write anything about Palestine that remotely held up to academic standards, without having far more academic doors slammed in your face than you could afford as someone just out of school. (Hint: it wasn’t the Arab sympathizers’ doors).

          The plain fact is that Israel Is Never Wrong is rigidly enforced dogma in pretty much all mainstream society in this country. (Even more so than “America Is Never Wrong,” to my disgust. It’s been easier for non-right-wing elected representatives to turn against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than to turn against Israel’s killing sprees, and easier for them to criticize events like Abu Ghraib than their Israeli equivalents. Fuck, at least with Bush’s wars you could say “my country, right or wrong” – you’d be an asshole, but still. What in the world did Israel ever do to deserve this much unquestioning obedience?)

      • Barry_D

        “They’re customers. They’re always right. So long as the checks clear.”

        No, not if their views are against Israel, or probably the military-industrial complex, Wall St, police brutality, or the Establishment in general.

  • wengler

    Pathetic response letter from the Chancellor.

    I wonder what the exact chain of events were that led to Salaita’s firing. Someone in the bureaucracy must be trying to get points with the pro-Israel lobby, but we don’t know who.

    • liberalrob

      What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words…

      He said “f*cking” in a tweet about Israel. End of story.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        Well, at least he didn’t tweet “BIGFOOT ISREAL”. That would be totally beyond the pale.

    • drkrick

      The evidence seems to be that it was the fundraisers backed or pushed by some of the donors. Is there any reason to think that isn’t the case?

  • MAJeff

    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.

    They’ll be hired by privately-funded “Institutes” and “Centers” affiliated with, but not controlled by, the University.

    • Someone call the Koch Brothers.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      They’ll be hired by privately-funded “Institutes” and “Centers” affiliated with, but not controlled by, but with plausible deniabilty for the University.

  • Gator90

    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.

    Nor do they typically use phrases like “our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world.”

    If Salaita were an anti-semite I would say fuck him and his academic freedom. I’d say let him starve in the street. That’s just the way I am. But no person who considers the body of his publicly available statements concerning Jews could honestly conclude that he is hostile to Jews. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that his generosity of spirit toward Jews (as distinguished from Zionists) is a great credit to him as a human being, when considered in view of the fact that he is Palestinian-American and Jewish soldiers acting on behalf of a Jewish nation have been murdering Palestinian babies of late.

    • royko

      Even if he had said something so objectionable that it shouldn’t be covered by academic freedom, they could have formally approved his hire and then allowed him his due process under tenure while they removed him.

    • CP

      I never heard of the guy before this, but like I said a week or two ago, it’s hard not to understand why people flipped a shit over the tweet implying that Zionism or Israel had been making antisemitism “respectable” or “honorable” or whatever the word was, however he meant it. I sure as hell would’ve flipped a shit if he’d been writing something similar about 9/11 making Islamophobia honorable (and, in fact, have done so over and over when that exact implication was made, which it often is).

      Of course, people are far less likely to get fired for saying something like that about Muslims.

      • Hogan

        Bad analogy. Salaita didn’t say that, e.g., the attack on Gaza made anti-Semitism honorable; he said that repeatedly calling any criticism of Israeli policy anti-Semitic made anti-Semitism honorable–which is a terrible thing to do, because (as he’s said elsewhere) anti-Semitism is terrible.

  • John Protevi

    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.

    Hear, hear. This is essential and must be kept firmly in mind.

  • MAJeff

    The only message the Chancellor should have had for the fundraisers is, “If we’re losing donors, find us some replacement donors.” They shouldn’t have been anywhere near discussions on a faculty firing.

    • liberalrob

      Money talks.

      • divadab

        Ya this is my conclusion – the trustees made a financial decision: it would be cheaper to pay a settlement to Salaita than to take a big donor hit. i.e. Settlement < Lost funding.

        This is America, after all.

  • muddy
  • DonN

    This is exactly what I meant when I said Scott was the most depressing of the posters. I am gonna go drink a drink so juvenile even Scott won’t say anything. Mudslide, baby!

  • matt w

    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.

    This is one of the most fucking slimy weaselly things I have ever read. Wise has very clearly sent the message that Palestinians who express views that are unacceptable to the University of Illinois’ big donors will be punished swiftly and mercilessly. They are unpersons, and their viewpoint is an unviewpoint.

  • Murc

    I sincerely hope Salaita goddamn soaks these bastards for everything they’re worth in court.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      Concur, plus heads on sticks.
      Pour encourager les autres

  • Marek

    I don’t understand the reference to a “pre-eminent university.”

    • Barry_D

      That in the future, they’ll be an ’eminent university’. Say in 10 years – expressed in Friedman Units.

  • mikeSchilling

    140-word bursts

    ITYM “140-character bursts”. 140 words is enough to express a thought clearly.

    • Lee Rudolph

      140 words is enough to express a thought clearly.

      Although the world is full of 140-word bursts that don’t do that, at all.

      • mikeSchilling

        To the best of my knowledge, Salaita was never governor of Alaska.

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