Home / General / Cary Nelson’s Ongoing, If Selective, War On Academic Freedom

Cary Nelson’s Ongoing, If Selective, War On Academic Freedom


I hadn’t intended to write more about the Salaita case for the time being, with the vote in and the matter to move to the courts. But Bijan alterted me in comments to an article with yet more comments from Cary Nelson, who is still using his status as a past president of the AAUP and erstwhile defender of academic freedom to side with the administration against academic freedom in an important case. Given his status in the field, Nelson’s conduct during this affair has been a disgrace, and the quality of his arguments remains pathetic:

Cary Nelson, a professor emeritus at the U of I, has long been a defender of academic freedom; from 2006 to 2012, he was head of the American Association of University Professors, which wrote the book on academic freedom.

While the AAUP supports Salaita in this matter, Nelson says Salaita’s allies are missing key nuances about the case.

Ah, yes, nuances. What are these complexities? Something on the order of “[p]eople are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom,” perhaps.

Nelson doesn’t think Salaita should be recognized as a tenured professor, as his hiring hinged on a full review of his dossier – which happened last year.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that this is true, that as a formal legal matter Salaita is not tenured, and UIUC had the authority to fire him. The nuance Nelson is willfully forgetting is that tenure is a means of protecting academic freedom, not the sum total of academic freedom. Let is turn to the version of Nelson who supported academic freedom:

Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing, and through electronic communication, both on and off campus — without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise.

Not what this doesn’t say — “tenured” faculty. And it shouldn’t. If an assistant professor or adjunct instructor is fired for expressing political views, this is a violation of academic freedom even if they do not have access to the same due process rights. Which, in this case, settles the question. Salaita was given an extremely harsh sanction for expressing political views. There has been no showing that he is professionally incompetent or violated the rights of others.

Nelson said Salaita’s tweets and other comments about Israel should be taken into consideration now that they’ve drawn so much attention and criticism.

This is an absolutely remarkable statement. Academic freedom applies…unless someone’s electronic communications attract a lot of attention, in which case they’re fair game. How this is distinguishable from just abandoning academic freedom altogether is unclear. As with any free speech protection, it is not necessary to protect speech that is unheard or universally regarded as inoffensive.

He said it’s not just Salaita’s tweets that are concerning; he’s read Salaita’s books and says their overall tone leads him to believe Salaita’s classroom would not be one for open and free discussion when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

I’ve already addressed this line of argument in my critique of Nelson’s first op-ed. To summarize, 1)the idea Salaita’s twitter feed is a more reliable guide to his teaching than his teaching evaluations is self-evidently risible; 2)the same applies to an assessment of the “tone” of his books; and 3)this argument proves too much, since it can be inferred that anyone who expresses a political view cannot teach those who hold opposing views. In addition, if Nelson has carefully read all of Salaita’s books I’ll wear a Derek Jeter jersey with one of the special memorial patches in class for a month.

And, finally, since Nelson would probably prefer that people think that he still favors academic freedom, we have a self-serving attempt to find a limiting principle:

“He has a position, a political position, on the Middle East,” he said. “And he explains that position in detail in several of his books. But they’re not based on research, they’re based on his opinion. So I wouldn’t count objectivity as one of the defining characteristics of his work at all.”

As Atrios has put it elsewhere on the internets, the argument is that Salaita’s political views are mere “opinion,” while Nelson’s are “objective.” Amazing how that works. And, of course, we can absolutely trust in the objectivity of Nelson’s ex post facto evaluations of the scholarly merits of Salaita’s work, even though he reached a conclusion that he should be fired based on some isolated and in some cases willfully misread tweets. To re-state these arguments is to refute them.

I’d like to conclude with some remarks from Chancellor Wise, because they allow us to consider the wages of the abandonment of academic freedom that Nelson is defending:

Then came those controversial tweets about Israel. And By late July, U of I chancellor Phyllis Wise was tipped off that the Board of Trustees wouldn’t approve Salaita’s hiring, normally little more than a procedural move. Wise says because of the narrow window of time before Salaita was to arrive on campus, she took action quickly — more quickly than she usually would — and let Salaita know his job offer was cancelled.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh my goodness, this man must be packing,” Wise said. “I can’t let him risk bringing his whole family from Virginia all the way to Urbana-Champaign and then not really have a position.'”

See — she was doing him a favor! Sure, he may have resigned his tenured position, his wife might have resigned her position, they may have sold their house, his career might have been ruined because a job offer that under the norms of the profession he had every reason to expect was final was yanked at the last minute…but as long as he hadn’t actually moved to Champaign to teach the classes he had been scheduled to teach, no harm, no foul! This is a family blog, so I’ll just leave the evaluation of these remarks to your judgement.  But this does underscore the importance of this case, which goes well beyond one individual.  A precedent has been set, and if UIUC gets away with it there were be plenty more Salaitas. 

…Bijan in comments: “Nelson’s current behavior is really so disgraceful that his name should become a term of abuse as in to Cary water for the administration or to put your principles in a full Nelson.”

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
It is main inner container footer text