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.
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.
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.