Academic freedom

Princeton professor protests his exclusion from a panel on Gaza on political grounds

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Princeton professor protests his preemptive exclusion from a panel based on his support of the academic boycott of Israel.

Essay defending the value of civility in higher education

Social media and the blogosphere have been awash for weeks with outrage that university chancellors and presidents are urging their faculty and students to conduct campus debates in a civil manner. The debates in question are mostly about the Arab/Israeli conflict, debates that have intensified since this summer’s war in Gaza. Those who relish their free speech right to denounce one another are taking umbrage at any suggestion that reasoned discussion might benefit from reluctance to indulge in mutual hatred.

Printed posters carried aloft in a September demonstration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign read “Civility = Silence. Silence = Death.” In a particularly hyperbolic move, Henry Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professor’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, claimed that charges of incivility are being used to silence faculty members in the same way that accusations of communist sympathies were used to silence them during the McCarthy period of the 1950s. Historical comparisons should be carefully justified. This equation is at best frivolous; at worst it risks fomenting unwarranted feelings of victimhood.

Faculty members and students share with all Americans the right to indulge in uninformed and intemperate speech. Social media provide them with effective means for doing so. But does unrestrained antagonism make for the best learning environment? Does it advance knowledge in the way higher education is pledged to do? Does it train students to evaluate evidence dispassionately? Does it prepare students to participate productively in public life? Does it help students learn that it is possible, indeed preferable, to be zealous in advocating a point of view without vilifying or trying to silence those who differ?

These effects include long-term consequences. The immediate effects of uncontrolled campus hostility can be more dramatic. We have already seen intemperate campus speech escalate toward violence. That happens most often with debates over Israel. Indeed verbal excess, aggression, and ad hominem attacks are part of the standard repertoire of the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement. That typically stimulates raised tempers and sometimes similar behavior on the pro-Israeli side. Nothing good comes of these confrontations.

We have recently seen campus passions cross the line into a moment of physical violence at Temple University. We saw extreme speech and symbolic action degenerate into threats, accusations, and even arrests at Ohio University. If we add to the list instances when campus groups sought to undermine academic freedom by denying invited speakers the right to speak the list of examples would grow. A silent protest at a lecture is a dignified act of moral and political witness. A brief noisy demonstration that ends after a minute registers passionate discontent but preserves academic freedom. Both of course require group discipline. A vocal demonstration that blocks a lecture abandons civility and undermines the purpose of higher education.

A certain portion of the American left now regards civility as a bland form of corporate speak. Or, worse still, as an Orwellian effort to stifle academic freedom. And the far right thrives on hostility and ad hominem attack. Our divided national political culture can hardly be said to encourage anything different. But should a campus try hard to emulate Washington?

Academic freedom does indeed protect both current faculty members and students from institutional reprisals for deplorable speech. But it was never intended to protect people from criticism for what they write and say. Uncivil students and faculty at a university should not be punished. University presidents who urge civility are not trying to stifle dissent or suppress speech. They are trying to make the campus an oasis of sanity. They are trying to urge faculty and students to showcase productive dialogue. That is part of what higher education owes the country. That is part of the cultural and political difference higher education can make.

Civility does not preclude passionate advocacy. It doesn’t preclude devices like irony and humor. Nor does it mean ideas and arguments cannot be strongly expressed and severely criticized. Civil discourse need not be bland. Civility should lead us to treat people with respect, but it doesn’t mean that all arguments or ideas merit respect. Eloquence in the service of conviction does not require abusive rhetoric or personal accusation. It does not require us to claim we know what is in one another’s hearts and to indict people on that basis. It does not require us to demonize our opponents unless we believe they are beyond hope and fundamentally corrupt or evil, a perspective not likely to apply to campus colleagues. Campus speech that harasses, bullies, or intimidates cheapens our communities and diminishes their value.

When administrators urge us to be models of civility they are doing exactly what their job requires. Civility does not mark the boundaries of free speech protection. But it helps describe how we can most often relate to one another productively. Voluntary civility is the best way to conduct difficult debates, but it is not a limit on permissible speech. Faculty members need to teach by example. They need to take the lead in demonstrating what good citizenship entails. Unfortunately, far too many faculty members are doing precisely the opposite.

The Arab/Israeli conflict gives continuing evidence of how inflammatory rhetoric in the Middle East can lead to actual violence. It is thus both sad and ironic to see our campuses conduct debate on the subject as if campus debate amounted to war by other means.

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.

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After his sculpture caricaturing the university president was seized and dismantled, professor creates new piece

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After university officials seized and dismantled a professor's sculpture caricaturing the university president, he created a whole new piece consisting, in part, of the original components. 

Scripps College uninvites George Will to speak at lecture series for conservatives

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Scripps College, citing the columnist's controversial piece expressing doubt about sexual assaults on campus, revokes invitation for him to speak at lecture series focused on conservative thinkers.

Most of the faculty at General Theological Seminary is gone. What happened?

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Most of the faculty at General Theological Seminary is out. But whether they resigned or were fired depends on who you ask.

Essay sees a double standard in how U. of Illinois responds to controversial professors

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign officials have argued that they were justified in refusing to hire Steven Salaita because his bigoted comments indicated a bias that would deprive students of their right to be “comfortable” (a right that does not and should not exist at any college committed to the discussion of ideas that may lead to uncomfortable truths).

But what’s been missing from the Salaita debate so far is the fact that, only four years ago, the University of Illinois dealt with a remarkably similar case of academic freedom involving allegations of bigotry against a professor. In that case, the University of Illinois came to a radically different conclusion. Kenneth Howell was teaching a class on Roman Catholicism when he wrote an email to his students on May 4, 2010, that offended the friend of one of Howell’s students, who complained about it. Howell wrote to his students, “in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the ‘woman’ while the other acts as the ‘man.’ In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men.”

The chair of religion department at the university decided not to reappoint Howell, an adjunct, to teach the class again in the fall of 2010. Howell’s defenders, including the Alliance Defense Fund, argued that he “was fired for explaining the position of the Roman Catholic Church on human sexual behavior.” Considering that Howell was rambling in his email about what an unnamed doctor told him about gay sex, it can hardly be regarded as an explanation of Catholic doctrine.

By the standards announced in the Salaita case, it is difficult to see how anyone could endorse the employment of Howell. Chancellor Phyllis Wise argued about Salaita, “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” Certainly, Howell was demeaning gay people in a personal and disrespectful manner.

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees wrote about Salaita, “Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.”

Can gay students feel valued and respected in a class where the professor publicly advocates that the government should discriminate against them, as Howell did in opposing gay marriage? If Salaita (who has never called for government discrimination against Jews) deserved to be fired, then every professor in the country who opposes gay marriage should also be fired.

One article praising Howell during the 2010 controversy over his class quoted him as saying, “Everyone who has a good conscience can see that killing an innocent human being is wrong. In the same way, certain sexual acts are wrong, because they go against the natural course of things." So, Howell believed that gay sex is like murder, because it’s unnatural. And Howell was saying that if you think gay sex is permissible, then you don’t have a good conscience.

Cary Nelson argued about the Salaita case, “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’...?” But would gay students in Howell’s classes feel comfortable with a professor who claims that they’re unnatural, comparable to murderers, lack a good conscience, are physically damaged, and should be discriminated against?

Back in 2010, Nelson defended Howell: "What's better for a student? To in a variety of learning environments hear these positions and the consequences of these positions advocated with passion and commitment or to hear them all presented with a style of even-handedness? I would rather hear them advocated strenuously." Nelson in 2010 was right, but today he has abandoned that belief that passionate professors, even those accused of bigoted ideas, are a valuable thing.

The similarities between Howell and Salaita are extensive, except that Salaita’s case for academic freedom is stronger in almost every way. Both Howell and Salaita never had a contract approved by the Board of Trustees, and were not regarded by officials as employees of the university (in a bizarre practice now abandoned after his case publicized it, Howell’s salary was paid by the Peoria Diocese of the Catholic Church, which also had selected him to teach the University of Illinois class). Neither Howell nor Salaita received a hearing about their academic competence. Both Howell and Salaita were accused of bigotry for their offensive remarks (although Howell’s came in a classroom environment, where professional standards do apply).

And one factor in Howell’s dismissal was a strange discussion in his email of utilitarianism, which he claimed would justify bestiality and pedophilia on grounds of consent, an analysis that some faculty in his department felt was evidence of professional incompetence. By contrast, no one on the Board of Trustees ever questioned (or even examined) Salaita’s professional record.

Both Howell and Salaita were very popular teachers with their students. While there is no evidence of any student even making a complaint about Salaita, the complaint in Howell’s case raised an (unproven) allegation that Howell silenced dissenting views in his class: “my friend also told me that the teacher allowed little room for any opposition to Catholic dogma. Once again, he is guilty of limiting the marketplace of ideas and acting out of accord with this institution’s mission and principles.” And Howell’s own letter to his students declared (without any sense of irony): “Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter.” When a professor declares that only experts on a subject are allowed to judge moral truth, it does seem like an attempt to silence students.

But the reactions of the University of Illinois to the Howell and Salaita cases were radically different. Out of concern about academic freedom (even though issues other than his offensive comments had been raised), the University of Illinois administration (with the cooperation of the Board of Trustees) decided to overrule an academic department and hired Howell to teach in fall 2010 while awaiting a report by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT). By contrast, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees immediately decided to fire Salaita on July 24, 2014, without consulting any academics.

The CAFT report in the Howell case was critical of Howell as “unlearned” but declared that “students have no right not to be offended” and added, “We could not do our job, which is to instill the habits of a critical mind, if we had to be chary of giving offense.“

Howell was hired again to teach in spring 2011, but he then decided not to apply for a one-year visiting position (believing that it was a plot “engineered” to get rid of him). Howell is now director of pastoral care for the Coming Home Network International, but he remains free to express his homophobic views, such as this: “the imposition of a gay philosophy on American society is one of the biggest threats to American welfare that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

As I noted during the Howell case, I think the University of Illinois deserves praise for that decision. Compared to the Howell decision, the Salaita case is a much easier call to make: Howell’s words were more clearly bigoted, they came in a classroom discussion instead of extramural utterances (which, under American Association of University Professors guidelines and University of Illinois statutes, cannot be punished). Howell’s professional competence as a teacher was also questioned, as was his openness to dissenting views in the classroom, while Salaita’s teaching record has never been attacked.

In the Howell case, the University of Illinois administration, in order to protect academic freedom, overruled a department’s judgment because of the fear that non-academic criteria might have influenced the decision. In the Salaita case, the University of Illinois administration took precisely the opposite position by firing a professor purely for his non-academic comments online.

Rarely has any university taken such radically different approaches to academic freedom within the span of a few years, which is especially strange considering that Board of Trustees chair, Christopher Kennedy, and a majority of the current voting trustees served during both the Howell and Salaita controversies. (Chancellor Wise had yet to arrive at Illinois at the time of the Howell debate.)

The Howell case established an important precedent for the University of Illinois: that dismissing a professor scheduled to teach requires a fair hearing by an academic committee, that allegations of bigotry do not trump academic freedom, and that students have no right to feel comfortable in a class even if their professors made offensive comments. But the Howell precedent was completely abandoned in the Salaita case.

Unless you think that the alleged bigotry of an anti-gay professor is more palatable than the alleged bigotry of a critic of the Israeli government, it’s hard to conceive of any principle that would justify the University of Illinois’ aggressive protection of academic freedom during the Howell case and its complete abandonment of academic freedom during the Salaita case.

John K. Wilson is the co-editor of AcademeBlog.org, editor of Illinois Academe (ilaaup.org), and the author of seven books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.

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Scrutiny for Delaware State professor's statements on Ebola

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Delaware State U. defends (and also criticizes) professor who published piece in Liberian newspaper suggesting Western authorities may be responsible for Ebola.

Interview with professor fired by West Bank university who compares himself to Steven Salaita

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Professor fired by Israeli university in West Bank explains why he feels allied with the controversial scholar denied a job by the University of Illinois.

Steven Salaita speaks out about lost job offer at Illinois

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In his first public remarks since losing his job offer, controversial scholar says he still wants to teach at U. of Illinois.

Essay criticizing U. of Illinois for blocking a controversial faculty hire

The dismissal of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, just days before he was scheduled to start teaching classes, is a serious threat to academic freedom because it was based solely upon Salaita’s extramural utterances on Twitter about Israel.

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.

This is not the first time the University of Illinois has fired a professor for his extramural utterances. In 1960, the University fired an assistant professor of biology, Leo Koch, because he wrote a letter to the student newspaper in which he denounced “a Christian code of ethics which was already decrepit in the days of Queen Victoria,” attacked the “the widespread crusades against obscenity,” and urged the university to condone sex among mature students.

The AAUP was unified in opposing the lack of due process in Koch’s firing, and censured the University of Illinois. But the AAUP in 1960 was deeply divided about whether extramural utterances should receive the full protection that all citizens are entitled to, or if extramural utterances must meet the standards of “academic responsibility.” Eventually, the AAUP reached a strong consensus: the 1964 Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances declared: “a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve.”

This is an extremely high standard, and the arguments against Salaita don’t come anywhere close to meeting it. The best that Salaita’s critics can come up with is the belief that Salaita’s pro-Israel students might feel uncomfortable (by that standard, no professor could ever take a public stand on anything), or that criticizing a foreign government makes you guilty of hate speech (which is a slogan, not a category of prohibited speech), or proves you are uncivil (whatever that means), or that swearing on Twitter means you are evil (remember those “crusades against obscenity”).

Now the University of Illinois and Cary Nelson, a longtime faculty member there, a past AAUP president, and now a critic of Salaita, are marking the 50th anniversary of that important statement by trying to take academic freedom backward to a half-century ago, when extramural utterances that offend the public could justify the firing of a professor.

Academic freedom means that scholars are hired, promoted, and fired based upon purely academic criteria, and not for their political opinions. There are not different kinds of academic freedom for hiring and for tenure. Nelson, by adding that consideration of extramural comments is legitimate before a hire, is attempting to draw a line in academic freedom that doesn’t exist, between hiring and promotion decisions.

Of course, requirements are different for tenure denials. Every professor being fired deserves due process and a full explanation for dismissals, and that’s not possible for the hundreds of applicants rejected with every academic job.

But the standards of academic freedom do not change, only the thoroughness of the procedures. If a university president decreed that no socialists could be hired for faculty positions, would Nelson (or anyone else) accept this principle if it only affected hiring decisions? Clearly, academic freedom does not change for hiring decisions; it is simply harder to identify violations that occur in the hiring process.

But the violations of academic freedom in Salaita’s firing are easy to see because he was already hired. The arguments used to justify Salaita’s dismissal do not withstand scrutiny. According to Nelson, "Salaita’s extremist and uncivil views stand alone.” The fact that a professor is deemed more “extreme” than the rest is no basis for dismissal. If it was acceptable for universities to fire the professor with the most “extreme” views on a particular topic, then dozens of faculty could be purged for their political views each year on every college campus.

The AAUP has never endorsed the firing of faculty members on grounds of “incivility.” The only AAUP statement I can find that mentions civility is “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes” (1992), which declares, “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden.”

Academic decisions, including job offers, must be based upon academic criteria, and not a judgment about an individual’s tweeting decorum. It is also essential that academic decisions are made by qualified academics. Even if civility were a valid consideration in hiring (and it isn’t), the people who would have to consider it are the faculty experts examining the full academic record and qualifications of a professor, not an administrator who chooses to fire a professor based solely upon public disapproval of extramural utterances. It is noteworthy that Nelson expressed support for Salaita’s firing based entirely upon tweets, and without any consideration of Salaita’s entire record of teaching, research, or service.

All the evidence indicates that the firing of Steven Salaita was purely a political decision, not an academic one, and it violates every principle of academic freedom.

John K. Wilson is the co-editor of AcademeBlog.org, editor of Illinois Academe (ilaaup.org), and the author of seven books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.

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