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Lessons of Salaita

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Why have we seen a recent crackdown on academic freedom and freedom of speech against academics, whether Stephen Salaita or myself? The answer is that administrators are scared of controversy. It reminds me of World War I, when U.S. entry and the following Red Scare led to the firing of many academics. We are reaching a point where academics are increasingly unable to take controversial positions at the peril of their employment. But one key difference between the two periods is that while the earlier attacks on academic freedom were coming from leading politicians and major power players, what has happened to Salaita is that he made upper University of Illinois administrators worried about how he would reflect upon them. Modern university administrations do not operate to serve students or education. They exist primarily to send administrators farther up the administrative totem pole, whether at the current institution or at another. How do you rise up that food chain? You cut funding for liberal arts and humanities. You reorient resources to big rethinkings of some part of the university you can put on your c.v., even though they will never be implemented. You convince rich donors to give money to build a nice building for the departments and programs you care about, like business. You move resources toward whatever is going to serve your personal future and away from the core mission of the university. You denigrate any majors that rich donors don’t see as valuable or that you can’t fundraise from. If you can, you even retrench faculty, sending 50 year old professors of German and Philosophy who have been at your school for 20 years onto the street.

What you don’t do is have employees say things that might attract attention. For a long time, people said we needed to run our colleges and universities like corporations. And now we are and people like Salaita have no room in the corporate university. Like corporations, the executive class serves itself, not the employees or the students/clients. What happened to me and what happened to Salaita are examples of that. In the linked piece above, I thought this was fairly heartbreaking:

I worry that a lot of academics will decide it’s the latter, and that the only safe path for them is to stay out of the limelight. I’ve seen scholars face this question before, and retreat in order to preserve their careers—a decision I cannot fault. A few weeks ago, for example, an untenured friend of mine noted a powerful link between current events and her field of expertise. She’s a brilliant scholar and great writer, so I encouraged her to write about it. It would have been a great essay, one easily pitched to major publications. It would have helped to shape our understanding of the world in which we live. It was also political in nature.

When she ran the idea by her dean, he said that while he supported her writing about public issues in theory, he wouldn’t necessarily support an opinion piece. He said faculty members must remember that their institution will be judged by statements they make in public. My friend took this as a sign that she risked not getting tenure if she took a controversial stance in public. She didn’t write the essay.

This is bad for my friend’s institution and bad for her. Her small college loses the opportunity to demonstrate the expertise of its faculty members in a responsible way. And she not only has an idea she can’t express, she loses the chance to be read by thousands of people, an experience that most academics never get.

Of course the dean told her not to write it. What if it reflected poorly on him? And because she is an assistant professor, she can’t buck him. Or I mean, she could but there’s a risk there. And so the public discourse is denied a valuable voice and the ability for academics to connect with the broader public–something administrators always say they want but which they really don’t unless it is the business faculty working with local corporations or some such thing–is cut off.

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