The board and then members of the American Psychological Association are expected to approve a ban on psychologists participating in any way in national security interrogations, The New York Times reported. The association is facing a severe scandal over revelations that some of its leaders worked closely with with Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Department to justify the participation of psychologists in interrogations widely seen as unethical. While some psychologists have said that there are ethical ways they can help intelligence agencies, the scandal has led many to call for a complete end to such a role.
As we approach the anniversary of Steven Salaita’s “unhiring” by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it is worth reflecting on what has and has not happened over the past year. We know much more than we did one year ago about the decision-making process that led to the Palestinian-American scholar losing his job after tweeting during the Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. We also know more about the balance of powers within the university, but many questions remain unresolved -- as do the crises precipitated by the decision.
What looked at first like an ill considered, quickly made decision taken without due consultation looks today like a conscious choice to cast aside the usual processes of deliberation and the customary deference to scholarly expertise. The relevance of donor and political pressure on the decision remains one of the uncertainties in the case. What we do know now is that the university had already hired lawyers before sending the fateful letter to Salaita (and that they have since spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on those lawyers, with no clear end in sight).
We also know that the chancellor and provost did consult very selectively with faculty members; they simply did not consult with those who had any standing in the hiring or tenure process, nor with those who had any expertise in the various areas that the Salaita controversy — or for that matter Salaita’s scholarship — concerned. In contrast to the first moments of the controversy, today it is hard to see the unhiring as a simple blunder; it appears rather as the result of a calculation — or, better, miscalculation — about the relative “costs” to the university of hiring or not hiring Salaita.
Regardless of how one frames that original decision, it remains the case that we are yet to see redress for the many injustices that were precipitated by the August 1, 2014 letter to Steven Salaita from Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre. Among those injustices are the ones done to Salaita’s career and well being as well as his freedom of expression; to colleagues in American Indian studies, who had their search overturned and their program irreparably damaged; and to those of us in the greater Urbana-Champaign campus,, who have suffered the violation of shared governance and the erosion of our ability to maintain an engaged and open intellectual community that many faculty members have spent years (and even decades) building.
Just as the lawsuits emerging from the case remain open, so does the attempt to think through its implications. In a previous essay, I called the Salaita case “overdetermined” in order to capture the many intersecting forces that came together in the unhiring.
I believe this remains an important optic. Like the medium of Twitter itself, the case involves a ricochet of colliding messages and mixed contexts. Ultimately at stake in the case, I argue here, is the interpretive power to decode those messages and to frame the political stakes of those contexts: the conflict-laden contexts of Israel-Palestine, indigeneity, and the university itself.
The tweets that were the pretext for the university’s withdrawal of Salaita’s job offer were written in a moment of pronounced state violence. Salaita was responding to the latest of Israel’s assaults on Gaza — an assault that followed many others on the blockaded territory in previous years and that eventually cost the lives of more than 2,000 Gazans and injured many thousands more. Sixty-five percent of the Palestinian dead, including over 500 children, were civilians, according to the United Nations. Several dozen Israeli soldiers and several Israeli civilians were also killed by Hamas. To identify Israeli state violence as the first context of the Salaita affair is not to deny or downplay war crimes committed by Hamas, but it is to situate the actions of Hamas in the context of ongoing occupation, blockade, and invasion.
While it is tempting to draw a straight line from the assault on Gaza to the unhiring in Urbana-Champaign, the causality is more complicated. Neither simply a “local” affair nor an abstractly global one either, the Salaita controversy condenses diverse sites of conflict as well as various streams of social transformation. Depending on one’s perspective, one can easily see the contemporary politics of anti-Semitism, anti-Arab racism, or settler colonialism at the center of the controversy. It certainly illustrates the transnational dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which includes diasporic contestations of various sorts by Jews and Palestinians in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The conflict over Salaita also grows out of local, national, and transnational features of indigenous history, from Illinois’s ugly “Chief” mascot history to attempts to construct trans-indigenous solidarities that include Palestine. The particularities of those contests then play out in one instantiation of a widely shared neoliberal program to remake the university through top-down, anti-faculty forms of governance. Finally, all of those currents have converged on a stage shaped by the ongoing transformation of public discussion by new media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Why do these various, overdetermined contexts intersect in the Salaita case and what is at stake in that intersection? While Palestinian and indigenous struggles concern, above all, claims to sovereignty and territory, those are not the immediate stakes of this controversy. I want to propose instead that the kernel holding together the multidimensional event of the unhiring is a contestation over interpretive power — a form of contestation that has an indirect though still critical relation to the struggle for sovereignty.
In the most obvious sense, the case involves a contest over the meaning of Salaita’s tweets: are they anti-Semitic or ironic? Within or beyond the bounds of acceptable speech? Relevant or not to an academic appointment? But the real struggle over interpretation lies not in assessment of the content of Salaita’s controversial statements, but rather in the institutional framing of the act of interpretation. What is really at stake is not what these statements mean but who gets to decide on the meaning of scholarly and public discourses and under what conditions. Should non-specialist administrators and politically appointed trustees have the authority to override the carefully vetted decisions of faculty? Should outside pressure — whether from donors or politically-motivated bloggers — be allowed to insinuate itself into academic considerations?
In the struggle over the institutional framing of the Salaita case, resistance to the neoliberal transformation of the university comes to occupy a social location provisionally analogous to Palestinian and indigenous resistance to colonialism and state power. The content of those three struggles is not identical by any means; the histories, scales, and stakes vary decisively. What links them — contingently but powerfully — is the fact that in all three cases, activists and scholar-activists confront powerful hegemonies of interpretive power.
In the United States, at the least, neither the Palestinian cause nor movements of American Indians and indigenous people more generally confront a neutral public sphere. The dominant “common sense” is aligned against the claims of these groups. Similarly, the struggle for control of the university confronts a market logic that has increasingly saturated the idea of the university in recent decades. Within that logic, critical thought of the kind practiced by Salaita and his defenders can only be considered beyond the boundaries of the acceptable: it is, in the shorthand evoked by Chancellor Wise and the university’s Board of Trustees, “uncivil.” Indeed, as Joan Scott and others have argued in relation to the Salaita case, the discourse of civility provides the “positive” vision that guides the hegemonic interpretive framing of the controversy. In this case it sutures together the three very different contexts I have highlighted.
In principle, the struggle over interpretive power could link together any number of radical and progressive causes; that is precisely the point of stressing the contingent, overdetermined nature of this case. But that point alone is far too general to be helpful. A return to the specific histories activated by the affair can help elucidate the particular configurations of power at stake.
It is not “accidental” that American Indian studies should be at the center of this controversy given the University of Illinois’s history of anti-indigenous stereotyping and hostility. It is not “accidental” that Israel’s far-away occupation and blockade of Palestine should have ignited the controversy given the central role that the US plays in propping up Israeli policies and the importance that Jewish-American opinion (as divided as it is) plays in maintaining U.S. support for Israel. Finally, it is not “accidental” that these two fields of conflict should intersect with struggles over the balance of power between faculty and administrators in the university.
In a context in which the university’s mission has been undermined by privatization, and fund-raising has replaced public funding, administrators increasingly feel the need to protect the “brand” by enforcing stricter limits on acceptable speech by faculty and students. Certain radical claims to sovereignty by Palestinian and indigenous activists exceed the bounds of acceptable liberal political discourse in the US and seem to threaten the university’s ability to raise money from wealthy private donors and to make its case for public funding to skeptical state legislatures. “Incivility” must be kept well hidden in order for the public university to function in such a precarious environment.
Yet, it is important to insist that these hegemonies are not total. Indeed, there would be no Salaita controversy — not to mention no boycott of the University of the Illinois — if capitulation to common sense were total. And this is another reason that Twitter and the university have served as sites for this mediated struggle over Israel-Palestine and indigeneity. Those are sites that remain partially open, that remain spaces of possibility despite the pressures of liberal consensus politics and neoliberal normalization. They are spaces from which alternative interpretations and counter-narratives can emerge.
Although the boycott under which some scholars are responding to the Salaita unhiring by staying away from Illinois has had a significant negative impact on faculty and students in the humanities and social sciences at Illinois (with numerous lectures and conferences being canceled), it has also served as the occasion for creating alternative venues and institutional structures. A number of speakers, including Katherine Franke, Bruce Robbins, and Todd Presner, have paid their own way and engaged with the Urbana-Champaign community in non-university spaces. The Salaita case thus illustrates how, as the university is opened up to market forces, scholars cannot simply retreat into the walls of the Ivory Tower: new solidarities that can serve as platforms for the struggle over interpretation need to be created that cut across the boundaries of the university.
There is enough at stake in the Salaita case by itself, but as a point of condensation for multiple conflicts it is also a kind of mirror that reveals a larger political landscape. For those of us who do not share the consensus views on Israel, indigeneity, or the privatization of the university, the case has been an opportunity to engage in a struggle over interpretation.
Like everything else that matters, interpretation is saturated with power. But as scholars trained in the arts of critical analysis — some of whom have far greater job security than many Americans — we possess the tools to engage the uneven field of interpretive power. We have the means to offer counter-narratives, to show how Urbana and Gaza are linked, but also to suggest how complicated those links are.
Michael Rothberg is professor and head of the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also directs the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. His most recent book is Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization.
If the long-term implications of the Salaita affair should be discussed when the case can be recollected in tranquility, then we certainly are nowhere near there yet. Passions remain high, even though the practical actions that can be taken by either side outside the courtroom, save for Salaita’s supporters maintaining the boycott of the university, are for now largely exhausted. Whatever can be said about the roads taken or not taken by both parties, we cannot guess what shall be said “somewhere ages and ages hence.”
University of Illinois officials have said they approached Salaita to make a settlement offer a few months ago. But whatever outreach the university made was rejected on Salaita’s behalf by his attorneys.
The case is in the courts, where the outcome is of course uncertain, though the courts have traditionally been more inclined to award financial compensation than a tenured position, since they are reluctant to override university decision-making about faculty appointments. Remember that Ward Churchill received but $1 when he said he did not want money; he would only accept his job back, and the court refused to force his reappointment. And that was a case decided in Churchill’s favor. Whether the courts will find Salaita’s tweeting behavior befitting a faculty member, or whether they will be willing to consider his conditional offer the equivalent of an unconditional contract remains to be seen. Should he lose his case, the university would have less to gain by offering a settlement, especially since the value of a standard non-disparagement clause would seem minimal. Salaita has been denouncing the university’s actions far and wide, and he has written a book about his case.
But there are nonetheless some lessons to be learned, even if they are mostly based on contested evidence. The foremost of these, I believe, is that the whole academic hiring process disintegrates when a program or department attempts to initiate a faculty hire outside its areas of competence.
The one constant throughout Salaita’s career has been his opposition to the Jewish state and his support for Palestinian rights to all the land between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river. Salaita was to be hired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s American Indian Studies Program. But his first (of six) books is the only one dealing with Native American texts and issues, and even that book is focused on a claim that American Indians and Palestinians are comparable indigenous peoples who were subjected to similar colonialist oppressions.
His main job at Illinois would have been to teach “comparative indigeneity.” Native Americans and Palestinians — the first group objectively indigenous, the second only polemically and politically so — were the indigenous examples he was scheduled to teach. Salaita’s two books on Arab American fiction were neither within the department’s area of expertise nor part of its mission. And his highly polemical Israel’s Dead Soul also served goals outside the program’s mission, even if all but one of the program faculty embraced its argument.
Not only the local but also the credible national support for Salaita is founded on the conviction that a properly constituted academic search committee’s hiring recommendation should be honored. There is of course a not-so-credible local and national component to Salaita advocacy: hostility to Israel and support for the boycott movement’s efforts to discredit and eliminate the Jewish state. Salaita himself asserts that “donors” (read “Jewish donors”) bullied the university and the Board of Trustees not to proceed with a final offer. And others, including members of the American Association of University Professors’s national staff and its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure share that conviction, despite the lack of clear evidence. Still others, including a group of historians, were willing to state that Salaita’s tweets only said what we all knew to be true about Israel. But the principled basis for outrage is really only the assumption that a faculty search committee is a sacred entity. The AAUP has traditionally agreed with that position, and so would I when a search is properly conducted. The AAUP maintains that search committee recommendations should be honored except in exceptional cases. Some of us believe Salaita’s case is exactly that, exceptional.
That said, college and university review committees examining departmental appointment papers do not typically confront doubts about whether either the position being searched for or the candidate being proposed is illegitimate. They can question whether the candidate’s credentials match the job description, whether he or she meets the institution’s standards, whether the outside letters offer only qualified support, what the candidate’s future research prospects are, and so forth. In this case, “comparative indigeneity” was one of the search goals, and there was no serious effort to ask whether the candidate’s obsessive focus on Israel and the Palestinians matched a responsible effort to include comparative indigeneity within the department’s mission or whether experts in Middle East history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played an appropriate role in the decision-making process. Nor had the implications of the American Indian Studies Program’s decision to embrace comparative indigeneity received sufficiently critical review.
At a spring 2015 meeting of the campus’s Faculty Senate, a local law professor, Matthew Finkin, rose to say an authority in anti-Semitism should have reviewed Salaita’s publications. If any members of the university review committees harbored such concerns, they either did not voice them or did not press them hard enough. Perhaps there was an understandable inclination not to challenge the American Indian Studies Program. In any case, the program was not well served by its own evolving standards or by the subsequent review process.
Rather than stay within its academic mission and the academic standards appropriate to that mission, the program acted out of political solidarity and proposed an appointment that was more political than academic. That made the situation still worse and is a warning to those humanities and soft social science departments that have become increasingly politicized over the last generation.
There are still more lessons, challenges, and questions built into this case: What kinds of criteria are appropriate to a search process, as opposed to a tenure decision? What role might a major presence on social media within a candidate’s research and teaching areas play in evaluating a job candidate? How does academic freedom bear on evaluating either a job candidate’s publications or public statements about his or her areas of research? What role should political solidarity play in seeking outside reviewers for a faculty appointment? What questions should college and university reviews pose for problematic proposed hires? Does a Board of Trustees have any meaningful role in the awarding of tenure? In the light of the standard warning that bad cases make bad law, I am not hopeful about the general principles that might be derived from the passions still surrounding the Salaita affair.
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.
So it turns out that -- title notwithstanding -- Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (Princeton University Press) is not a do-it-yourself manual. What’s more, cloned mammoths are, in the author’s considered opinion, impossible. Likewise, alas, with regard to the dodo.
But How Not to Clone a Dodo would never cut it in the marketplace. Besides, the de-extinction of either creature seems possible (and in case of the mammoth, reasonably probable) in the not-too-distant future. The process involved won’t be cloning, per se, but rather one of a variety of forms of bioengineering that Shapiro -- an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz -- explains in moderate detail, and in an amiable manner.
Her approach is to present a step-by-step guide to how an extinct creature could be restored to life given the current state of scientific knowledge and the available (or plausibly foreseeable) advances in technology. There are obstacles. Removing some of them is, by Shapiro’s account, a matter of time and of funding. Whether or not the power to de-exterminate a species is worth pursuing is a question with many parts: ethical and economic, of course, but also ecological. And it grows a little less hypothetical all the time. De-extinction is on the way. (The author allows that the whole topic is hard on the English language, but “resurrection” would probably cause more trouble than it’s worth.)
The subject tickles the public’s curiosity and stirs up powerful emotions. Shapiro says she has received her share of fan and hate mail over the years, including someone’s expressed wish that she be devoured by a flesh-eating mammal of her own making. Perhaps the calmest way into the discussion is by considering why reviving the mammoth or the dodo is possible, but would not be the same thing as cloning one. (And dinosaur cloning is also right out, just to make that part clear without further delay.)
To clone something, in short, requires genetic material from a living cell with an intact genome. “No such cell has ever been recovered from remains of extinct species recovered from the frozen tundra,” writes Shapiro, whose research has involved the search for mammoth remains in Siberia. Flash freezing can preserve the gross anatomy of a mammoth for thousands of years, but nucleases -- the enzymes that fight off pathogens when a cell is alive -- begin breaking down DNA as soon as the cell dies.
What can be recovered, then, is paleogenetic material at some level of dismantling. The challenge is to reconstruct an approximation of the extinct creature’s original genome -- or rather, to integrate the fragments into larger fragments, since rebuilding the whole genetic structure through cut-and-paste efforts is too complex and uncertain a task. The reconstituted strings of genetic data can then be “inserted” at suitable places in the genome of a related creature from our own era. In the case of the woolly mammoth, that would mean genetic material from the Asian elephant; they parted ways on the evolutionary tree a mere 2.5 million years ago. In principle, at least, something similar could be done using DNA from the taxidermy-preserved dodo birds in various collections around the world, punched into the pigeon genome.
“Key to the success of genome editing,” writes Shapiro, “has been the discovery and development of different types of programmable molecular scissors. Programmability allows specificity, which means we can make the cuts we want to make where we want to make them, and we can avoid making cuts that kill the cell.”
Cells containing the retrofitted genome could then be used to spawn a “new” creature that reproduces aspects of the extinct one -- pending the solution of various technical obstacles. For that matter, scraping together enough raw material from millennia past presents its own problems: “In order to recover DNA from specimens that have very little preserved DNA in them, one needs a very sensitive and powerful method for recovering the DNA. But the more sensitive and powerful method is, the more likely it is to produce spurious results.”
Also a factor is the problem of contamination, whether found in the sample (DNA from long-dead mold and bacteria) or brought into the lab in spite of all precautions. Shapiro leaves the reader aware of both the huge barriers to be overcome before some species is brought back from extinction and the strides being made in that direction. She predicts the successful laboratory creation of mammoth cells, if not of viable embryos, within the next few years.
It will be hailed as the cloning of an extinct animal -- headlines that Shapiro (whose experiences with the media do not sound especially happy) regards as wrong but inevitable. The reader comes to suspect one motive for writing the book was to encourage reporters to ask her informed questions when that news breaks, as opposed to trying to get her to speculate about the dangers of Tyrannosaurus rex 2.0.
Besides its explanations of the genetics and technology involved, How to Clone a Mammoth insists on the need to think about what de-extinction would mean for the environment. Returning the closest bioengineerable approximation of a long-lost species to the landscape it once inhabited will not necessarily mean a happy reunion. The niche that animal occupied in the ecosystem might no longer exist. Indeed, the ecosystem could have developed in ways that doom the creature to re-extinction.
Shapiro is dismissive of the idea that being able to revive a species would make us careless about biodiversity (or more careless, perhaps), and she comes close to suggesting that de-extinction techniques will be necessary for preserving existing species. But those things are by no means incompatible. The author herself admits that some species are more charismatic than others: we're more likely to see the passenger pigeon revived than, say, desert rats, even though the latter play an ecological role. The argument may prove harder to take for the humbler species once members of Congress decide to freeze-dry them for eventual relaunching, should that prove necessary.
By now we should know better than to underestimate the human potential for creating a technology that goes from great promise to self-inflicted disaster in under one generation. My guess is that it will take about that long for the horrible consequences of the neo-dodo pet ownership craze of the late 2020s to makes themselves fully felt.