This month, my campus, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was widely expected to welcome Steven Salaita as a new faculty member. He was to be a tenured professor in the American Indian studies program. But a decision not to present the appointment to the Board of Trustees was made by the chancellor. Although I was not involved in the process and did not communicate my views to the administration, I want to say why I believe the decision not to offer him a job was the right one.
Salaita has written credibly on fiction by Arab Americans and is, so I am told, knowledgeable about Native American studies. But Salaita’s national profile — and the basis of his aspirations to being a public intellectual — is entirely based on his polemical interventions in debates over the Arab/Israeli conflict. Those interventions include his 2011 book Israel’s Dead Soul, which I read last year, and his widely quoted and prolific tweeting. Israel’s Dead Soul is published by Temple University Press, so it is part of his academic profile. His tweets cover precisely the same territory. This more public side of his persona would be widely available to his students; indeed his tweets would be better-known to students than his scholarly publications. His inflammatory tweets are already being widely read. I have been following his tweets for some months because I have been writing about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and co-editing a collection of essays titled The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel. I try to follow the work of all prominent pro-boycott leaders, Salaita among them.
Although I find many of his tweets quite loathsome — as well as sophomoric and irresponsible — I would defend without qualification his right to issue most of them. Academic freedom protects him from university reprisals for his extramural speech, unless he appears to be inciting violence, which one retweeted remark that a well-known American reporter wrote a story that “should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv” appears to do. His June 19 response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers — “You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” — also invokes a violent response to the occupation, since "go missing" refers to kidnapping.
But his right to make most of these statements does not mean I would choose to have him as a colleague. His tweets are the sordid underbelly, the more frank and revealing counterpart, to his more extended arguments about Middle Eastern history and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They are likely to shape his role on campus when 2015’s Israeli Apartheid Week rolls around. I am told he can be quite charismatic in person, so he may deploy his tweeting rhetoric at public events on campus. Faculty members are well within their rights to evaluate someone as a potential colleague and to consider what contributions a candidate might make to the campus community. It is the whole Salaita package that defines in the end the desirability and appropriateness of offering him a faculty appointment.
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.
Salaita condenses boycott-divestment-sanctions wisdom into a continuing series of sophomoric, bombastic, or anti-Semitic tweets: “UCSCdivest passes. Mark Yudoff nervously twirls his two remaining hairs, puts in an angry call to Janet Napolitano” (May 28, 2014); “10,000 students at USF call for divestment. The university dismisses it out of hand. That’s Israel-style democracy” (May 28, 2014); “Somebody just told me F.W. DeKlerk doesn’t believe Israel is an apartheid state. This is what Zionists have been reduced to” (May 28, 2014); “All of Israel’s hand-wringing about demography leads one to only one reasonable conclusion: Zionists are ineffective lovers” (May 26, 2014); “Universities are filled with faculty and admins whose primary focus is policing criticism of Israel that exceeds their stringent preferences” (May 25, 2014); “‘Israel army’ and ‘moral code’ go together like polar bears and rainforests” (May 25, 2014); “Keep BDS going! The more time Israel spends on it, the fewer resources it can devote to pillaging and plundering” (May 23, 2014); “So, how long will it be before the Israeli government starts dropping white phosphorous on American college campuses?” (May 23, 1014); “Even the most tepid overture to Palestinian humanity can result in Zionist histrionics” (May 21, 2014); “All life is sacred. Unless you’re a Zionist, for whom most life is a mere inconvenience to ethnographic supremacy” (May 20, 2014); “I fully expect the Israeli soldiers who murdered two teens in cold blood to receive a commendation or promotion” (May 20, 2014); “Understand that whenever a Zionist frets about Palestinian violence, it is a projection of his own brute psyche” (May 20, 2014); “I don’t want to hear another damn word about ‘nonviolence.’ Save it for Israel’s child-killing soldiers” (May 19, 2014); “I stopped listening at ‘dialogue’ ” (May 27, 2014). The last example here presumably advises BDS students how interested they should be in conversations with people holding different views.
More recently he has said “if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised” (July 19, 2014) and “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say anti-Semitic shit in response to Israeli terror” (July 18, 2014). The following day he offered a definition: “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948” (July 19).
It is remarkable that a senior faculty member chooses to present himself in public this way. Meanwhile, the mix of deadly seriousness, vehemence, and low comedy in this appeal to students is genuinely unsettling. Will Jewish students in his classes feel comfortable after they read “”Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” (July 8), “Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime” (July 14), or “No wonder Israel prefers killing Palestinians from the sky. It turns out American college kids aren’t very good at ground combat?” (July 23)? The last of these tweets obviously disparages the two young American volunteers who lost their lives fighting with the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza. What would he say if the Arab/Israeli conflict were to come up in a class he was teaching on Arab-American fiction? Would he welcome dissent to his views? Would students believe him if he appeared to do so? As Salaita says of his opposition in an accusation better applied to himself, he has found in Twitter “the perfect medium” in which to “dispense slogans in order to validate collective self-righteousness” (May 14, 2014).
While universities need to study all positions on an issue, even the most outrageous ones, I see no good reason to offer a permanent faculty position to someone whose discourse crosses the line into anti-Semitism. I also do not believe this was a political decision. There are many opponents of Israeli policy on the faculty here and many faculty as well who publicly or privately support the boycott movement. If some faculty expressed their view to the chancellor that Salaita’s recent tweets — tweets published long after the search committee made its recommendation — justify not making the appointment, they had a right to do so. I believe this was an academic, not a political, decision.
Were I to have evidence to the contrary, my view would be different. I regret that the decision was not made until the summer, but then many of the most disturbing of Salaita’s tweets did not go online until the summer of 2014, no doubt provoked by events. That is the time frame in which the statements in question were made. That alone made this an exceptional case. I do not think it would have been responsible for the university to have ignored the evolving character of his public profile. For all these reasons I agree that Salaita’s appointment is one that should not have been made.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Attacks on business and business education (including this one recently at Inside Higher Ed) are commonplace, and not just in higher education. The Obama administration’s call to action on income inequality more or less explicitly lays blame at the feet of corporate America, and Pope Francis wrote a letter last December widely interpreted as denigrating business. There is no doubt that the U.S. middle class is suffering downward mobility. Victims include the humanities professors who call for us to close business schools in order to save humanities education. But polarizing comments on these issues from within the academy do little to help us embrace the role that U.S. higher education institutions can and should play in promoting good citizenship, ethical leadership, and national economic vitality.
The cost of a residential four-year college or university experience will contribute to inequality unless we can figure out ways to increase access. This will require both cost control and creative approaches for new revenue generation. Some activities on our campuses generate profits, while others require subsidies. At the undergraduate level, at least, business schools hosted by liberal arts colleges or as parts of large universities that have an arts and sciences college typically generate revenue considerably above costs and have some of the highest “contribution margins” on campus.
Business school deans in these settings, and perhaps others, feel great pressure to balance educational quality and post-graduate opportunity against cost control because, on the one hand, families demand a “return on investment” and, on the other, salaries and infrastructure expenses at business schools tend to be higher than the campus average. Whatever our politics, most of us business school deans believe in the still-great promise of U.S. higher education, with its liberal arts roots, and are pleased to help balance the campuswide budget.
But beyond feeling good, we need the humanities departments precisely because they help our business students become individuals whose actions will demonstrate strong moral and ethical behavior. Around the time of the Enron scandal, as corporations and individual business leaders appeared to lose their way more than usual, many business schools took up the challenge of educating for greater social responsibility. In 1999, business schools around the globe began competing to be highly ranked for their commitment to business education emphasizing social and environmental concerns. So successful was that effort, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, that it was disbanded in 2012 because the issues and concerns initially highlighted as absent from business education had become mainstream.
Playing a similar role, Net Impact is a business-school centered “community of more than 50,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace and the world.” In 2013, leading business schools joined forces with powerful corporate sponsors to launch a national U.S. conference on how business schools can do more to support “underserved communities.”
We need humanities departments to help illuminate the powerful ways in which business can be a force for good. “The freedom and extent of human commerce depend entirely on a fidelity with regard to promises,” wrote David Hume, a leading thinker of the Enlightenment. Confucius put it succinctly, as always: “Virtue is the root, while wealth is the branch.” The Quran says that “Profit cannot be but fair if business follows the religious instructions.” Other examples abound across time and across cultures, including from the U.S.’s pre-Civil War history. Study of business through the lens of the humanities helps explain the language used today by many business leaders who speak about earning and preserving corporations’ “social license to operate.”
Higher education administration makes little sense if one has no faith in our social purpose, but our social license to operate is also under attack. Rather than scurry to meet demand for pre-professional majors on four-year liberal arts campuses and risk aggravating tensions among schools and departments, we should be getting out of our foxholes and looking for alignment and synergy.
The case made for computational thinking skills gained in STEM majors, for example, sounds a lot like the case made for humanities majors. Absent support from a vibrant humanities faculty, I certainly cannot achieve my goal of delivering a “values-based” business education that molds individuals whose actions will affirm corporate commitment to ethical standards and social responsibility. The current bureaucratic structure of most higher-education institutions makes interdisciplinary teaching harder than it should be, and the tenure system arguably militates against cross-disciplinary research. But rather than succumbing to fear and negativity in the face of financial pressures, faculty should take up the challenge of being credible, respected advocates for integrative learning and for the changes required to make it a reality.
Sylvia Maxfield is dean of the Providence College School of Business.
The Illinois conference of the American Association of University Professors issued a statement Wednesday about the way the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign backed away from hiring Steven Salaita, who had been expected to take up a position in the American Indian studies program this month. Salaita had been offered the position, pending board approval, typically a formality, and the university told him recently that his appointment would not go forward, reportedly because of concerns about his comments on Twitter and elsewhere about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Critics have said that the comments suggest a lack of civility, while his defenders say he is being punished for outspoken support of Palestinians.
"Professor Salaita’s words while strident and vulgar were an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East," the Illinois AAUP statement says. "Issues of life and death during bombardment educes significant emotions and expressions of concern that reflect the tragedy that armed conflict confers on its victims. Speech that is deemed controversial should be challenged with further speech that may abhor and challenge a statement. Yet the University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America."
The statement adds: "What one says out of class rarely, in the absence of peer review of teaching, confirms how one teaches. Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment."
The university has said it will not comment on the situation.
In today's Academic Minute, Sean Morrison, director of the Children’s Research Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, explains how a new technique for understanding the way stem cells function reveals new clues about aging and opens an undiscovered world of biology. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued Harold Washington College for age discrimination against a 66-year-old adjunct English instructor, The Chicago Tribune reported. The suit says that, when the woman applied for a full-time position, she was passed over in favor of candidates who were younger and lacked her qualifications. A spokeswoman for City Colleges of Chicago, of which Harold Washington College is a part, declined to comment.