Academic freedom

Essay defends University of Illinois decision not to hire Steven Salaita

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.

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Essay on this year's controversies over commencement speakers

A ritual of the spring commencement season in the United States is for colleges and universities to invite the most prominent speaker possible to their graduation ceremonies. These luminaries typically offer anodyne platitudes for the graduates and their parents, and, if they are sufficiently famous, the local media as well. This year, an unusual number of speakers have withdrawn from participation because campus groups have complained about their views or actions.

Recent casualties include Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, who withdrew from Smith College’s ceremony when 477 students and faculty signed an online petition complaining about the IMF, and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley who canceled at Haverford College, where 50 students and faculty members complained about his handling of student protests at Berkeley and demanded he agree to nine conditions, including apologizing and supporting reparations for the protesters. Several invited speakers have gotten into trouble because of their support of the Iraq war a decade ago, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University and (a year ago) Robert Zoellick, former World Bank head, at Swarthmore College.

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There are some counterexamples. Last year Jesuit-run Boston College did not pull the plug on Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, despite pressure from some Roman Catholic leaders and a boycott of commencement by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Some were peeved that Kenny’s government supported a bill legalizing abortion in Ireland. This year University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco stood by University of California President and former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, who was criticized by some students for her agency’s immigration deportations.

What’s the Problem?

Why should very small numbers of students and faculty cause commencement speakers to cancel and university administrators to fail to stand up for the speakers? Typically, the speaker says that he or she does not want to bring controversy to a festive occasion, and the administration responds: “We respect the speaker’s wish and, by the way, this does not reflect on our commitment to academic freedom.” A very small number of people, sometimes with rather bizarre complaints, cause an entire institution to change plans, generally for no good reason.

Speaker Fortitude Needed

While a few picketers and perhaps a bit of heckling may be unpleasant, especially on graduation day, most prominent speakers have experienced much worse. Unless there threatens to be a serious public safety problem, the speakers should honor their invitations, perhaps even reflecting on whatever controversy might occur in the talk. There is simply no reason to walk away from a bit of controversy. Indeed, the lesson for the graduates may be salutary.

Administrative Courage Desired

Administrators should try as hard as possible to convince the speaker to participate, ensure appropriate public safety support, and stand up for the principles of campus dialogue, free speech, and academic freedom. The fact is that permitting a small minority to dictate who can speak on campus is a violation of academic freedom and the important commitment of any university — to permit a range of views to be presented on campus.

Top administrators and the academic community in general have become so risk-averse that even a minor possibility of disruption can lead to giving up any battle for principle. Basic academic values need to be protected — campus speakers, including and perhaps especially commencement speakers must be assured that they can express their views. No doubt most of the speakers who decided to pull out commencement exercises this year were motivated by a desire not to make things difficult for the university or for themselves.

The Protesters

The campus community itself, including students and professors, must respect the right of the university to invite commencement speakers to campus and permit free speech on campus. The protesters often claim that commencement speakers are official representatives of the college. The speaker, they claim, has no right to address the commencement even if the topic of the talk has nothing to do with, for example, a war that ended a half-dozen years ago, or  if the speaker is affiliated with an organization, such as the International Monetary Fund, that may be unpopular among a small campus group. If students or faculty want to make their views about an individual, an event, idea, or organization made known, they can issue statements or even protest at the commencement, but it does not seem appropriate to demand that the university withdraw an invitation. This is especially the case for many commencement speakers, who are at least sometimes chosen with considerable campus input in the first place.

What Is To Be Done?

The current situation shows weakness by both the speakers and, especially, university leaders. It shows a remarkable lack of judgment and perspective by the “critics,” who try to blackball distinguished people for some past flaw or opinion. It is time for the higher education community to get some perspective and some backbone.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

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