Yes, Steven Salaita Was Fired, And No, It’s Not Defensible
Via Corey Robin, Inside Higher Ed has an essay by current opponent of academic freedom Cary Nelson giving an extended defense of the firing of Steven Salita, along with a counterpoint from current supporter of academic freedom John K. Wilson. It’s a close call which one ultimately makes the stronger case against the firing, and that’s not because Wilson fails to do the job. Let’s start with the most important way in which Nelson and other supporters of the firing are trying to obfuscate the issue:
I should add that this is not an issue of academic freedom. If Salaita were a faculty member here and he were being sanctioned for his public statements, it would be. But a campus and its faculty members have the right to consider whether, for example, a job candidate’s publications, statements to the press, social media presence, public lectures, teaching profile, and so forth suggest he or she will make a positive contribution to the department, student life, and the community as a whole. Here at Illinois, even the department head who would have appointed Salaita agreed in Inside Higher Ed that “any public statement that someone makes is fair game for consideration.” Had Salaita already signed a contract, then of course he would have to have received full due process, including a full hearing, before his prospective offer could be withdrawn. But my understanding is that he had not received a contract.
To be clear, what Nelson is doing here is trying to bullsh…wait, I don’t want to put my academic career at risk by using bad words on a
widely read public forum, so let’s say “sell a bill of goods” to people who don’t understand how the academic hiring process works, and “insult the intelligence” of those that do. I’ll turn things over to Wilson here:
One thing should be clear: Salaita was fired. I’ve been turned down for jobs before, and it never included receiving a job offer, accepting that offer, moving halfway across the country, and being scheduled to teach classes.
The remaining administrative approval necessary for Salaita to be hired was pro forma. He didn’t resign his position and move because he was a crazy risk-taker but because he had every rational reason to believe the job was his. Whether he had signed all the paperwork might be relevant to his legal remedies, but from that standpoint of norms and ethics the job was his, and if you believe in the principles of academic freedom they clearly apply in this case.
In addition, as Wilson effectively points out even if one assumes for the sake of argument that the strong protections of academic freedom shouldn’t apply here, this is still a terrible argument, an Ivan Tribble argument. People don’t have due process protections when they’re turned down for a job, but this still doesn’t mean that “does the candidate disagree with Cary Nelson about Israeli policy too stridently?” is a criterion that any responsible hiring committee should be taking into account. The “I would choose to have him as a colleague” line gives away the show here — this is supposed to be a professional process, not a consideration of who you’d like to be sharing cognac with at the 19th hole of the country club.
Most of Nelson’s bill of particulars consists of selected tweets. While they sometimes express ideas I don’t agree with in language I would be disinclined to use, they can’t possibly be firable offenses. To add to this, he asks whether “Jewish students in his classes [will] feel comfortable” with his Tweets. At least here we’re talking about something (teaching) that is relevant to whether someone should be fired, as opposed to something that isn’t (whether someone disagrees with Cary Nelson’s political views too vehemently.) But leaving aside his obviously erroneous assumption that no Jewish student could agree with the substance of Salaita’s views, this is again a remarkably poor argument. First of all, as many people have pointed out, this proves too much; it’s just an argument that no faculty member should ever express a view on a controversial topic. And, second, it’s not as if this was Salaita’s first job out of a British PhD program; if he had any record of treating students who disagree with him about Israeli policy unfairly this would, presumably, come out in the evaluation of his teaching. If it didn’t, it’s not relevant.
As part of the LGM community we needn’t dwell on the fallacies of arguing that a retweet constituted an “incitement to violence”; let’s leave the War On Metaphor with Michelle Malkin’s lickspittles, please. Grasping at another straw Nelson asserts that Salaita’s “discourse crosses the line into anti-Semitism.” If there was evidence that Salatia was an anti-Semite, this might justify an exception to the principle of academic freedom. But the case for this hinges almost entirely on this one tweet:
Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.
Conveniently, Nelson provides the context of a previous tweet that makes it clear what Salatia was trying to argue here: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say anti-Semitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” Now, I don’t actually agree with this argument, and I think we can reaffirm that Twitter is a poor medium for making too-clever-by-half points with potentially inflammatory terminology. But as evidence of anti-Semitism, this is nothing, unless you think Nathan Glazer is an anti-Semite.
And, finally, the punchline:
I also do not believe this was a political decision.
Clearly, when I gave the Bush v. Gore Award For Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Bad Faith to another candidate earlier in the week, I acted prematurely. If you’re trying to sell this argument, it’s probably best that your column not focus mostly on how you disagree with the person’s political views.
I’ll leave the final word to Berube:
Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence. The University of Illinois is therefore clearly in violation of a fundamental principle of academic freedom with regard to extramural speech; moreover, your decision effectively overrides legitimate faculty decisionmaking and peer review in a way that is inconsistent with AAUP guidelines regarding governance. Those faculty members who engaged in the process of peer review for Professor Salaita cannot be said to have been unaware that he has strong opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict– as do many millions of people. To overturn faculty peer review on the basis of a Twitter feed, therefore, is to take a page straight from the Kansas playbook.
UPDATE: Nelson’s argument was not only sloppy and tendentious but in one instance relied on a falsehood. Nelson’s assertion that Salaita “had not received a contract” is demonstrably erroneous.