Conflicts of interest are inherent in faculty control over curriculum. When not addressed, these conflicts can result in faculty behavior that is neither in the best interest of their students nor of their colleges and universities. Our proposed approach for mitigating such conflicts involves shared governance, with faculty and administrators facing, and mitigating, potential conflicts together.
The possibility that conflicts of interest can lead to inappropriate decisions is recognized by nearly every profession and form of governance. Whether for lawyers, physicians,journalists, governments, the financial industry, or nonprofit corporations, a national or international regulatory body or trade association has imposed or recommended standards and disclosure requirements covering all types of conflicts.
Academe has also addressed conflicts of interest. The Redbook of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) defines a conflict of interest:
“A circumstance in which a person’s primary interests and responsibilities (such as the responsibility to analyze research results as dispassionately as possible) may be compromised by a secondary interest (such as financial gain). Identifying a conflict of interest does not entail an accusation of wrongdoing. Conflicts of interest have been shown to affect judgments unconsciously, so a conflict of interest refers to a factual circumstance wherein an impartial observer might reasonably infer that a conflict is present. Not all conflicts of interest are financial in nature, but financial conflicts of interest are not only the ones most easily managed but also the ones most likely to undermine public respect for, and trust in, higher education.”
Other academic organizations as diverse as the National Science Foundation (which requires its grantee institutions to have “an appropriate written and enforced policy on conflict of interest”) and the American Psychological Association (one of the largest academic organizations in the world), also have such policies. Virtually every college and university also has its own conflict of interest policy. For example, the conflict of interest policy of the State University of New York defines a conflict of interest generally as “any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect; participation in any business, transaction or professional activity; or incurring of any obligation of any nature, which is or appears to be in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of an employee’s duties in the public interest.”
However, all of the examples provided by SUNY concern financial conflicts, and the policy requires the identification of only a “financial disclosure designee” for each campus. This is typical of higher education policies, which focus on financial and/or research integrity conflicts. The City University of New York (CUNY) does have a policy (the multiple positions policy) that limits faculty teaching extra courses (for pay) within their institutions, but this policy does not directly touch upon faculty work concerning curriculum.
There is one internal, course-related, conflict of interest situation for which policies do exist: faculty assigning their own textbooks in their courses. The AAUP has such a policy. Rather than state that faculty members should not assign their own texts, however, the policy states that faculty should “seek to ensure that course-assignment decisions are not compromised by even the appearance of impropriety.” Again, this policy does not directly address the issue of faculty conflicts that may exist regarding curriculum.
For the majority of faculty members, course instruction constitutes a substantial workload, and the amount and type of that workload depends on what they are teaching. At the same time, decisions about what sorts of courses should be required for a major or a degree and what courses should be available are usually made by faculty members. Hence the potential conflicts.
The decisions made by faculty about what courses students should take not only have a direct impact on the work done by the faculty but also on department resources. Robert Zemsky, in his excellent book Checklist for Change, goes so far as to say that the question that “dogs nearly every attempt to change a collegiate curriculum [is] to what extent is the real purpose of a college curriculum today to distribute enrollments in such a way as to preserve faculty slots?” The more faculty in a department, say, of English, the more influence, power, and budget that department, especially its chair, has.
Consider some specific possible examples of conflicts of interest involving faculty members and curriculum. These examples are based on the almost 40 years of personal experiences of one of us (Logue) as a faculty member and administrator involving approximately 30 colleges and universities (though the experiences are primarily from prior to Logue’s most recent administrative position).
Faculty members could decide that a course should be a required general education course for all students, thus guaranteeing enrollments for a given faculty member and/or department. Further, two departments might agree to vote for each others’ courses being required general education courses, so that both departments’ courses would be included. Such actions could result in unusually high total general education requirements for students, so that students have fewer electives, and increasing students’ difficulty in efficiently scheduling all required courses and in doing double majors.
A department could decide to require students without college-level skills to take remedial courses that generate substantial enrollments for that department, even though the students cannot afford these courses, may be likely to fail them (repeatedly), and the students may not receive from these courses information or skills they are likely to need in college or beyond.
Departments or individual faculty could deny transfer credit so that transfer students will have to take these institutions’ own courses, delaying the transfer students’ graduation.
Courses of little student interest could be offered, thus enabling particular faculty members to teach them, either because the topics or the low enrollments are favored by these faculty. This would increase average course cost.
Faculty members could refuse to expend additional course preparation time in order to incorporate new technologies into their teaching, even though there is evidence that these technologies result in students learning more and/or having to spend less time to learn.
The faculty of a campus within a system could object to participating in establishing a system-wide course (such as calculus) that would ease student transfer within the system, due to the campus’s faculty not wanting to spend the extra time needed to work with a system-wide faculty committee to design the course.
A campus’s faculty could seek to offer more advanced degrees (e.g., master’s degrees at a baccalaureate college), not due to evidence that more graduates with those degrees are needed, but because those faculty wish to teach more advanced students, thus decreasing the institution’s time and funds that can be expended on the campus’s other students.
A department’s courses could be scheduled at the times preferred by faculty members, making it difficult for students to put together a full schedule of courses.
These are all situations in which faculty are making decisions regarding what sorts of courses should be required for or available to students. In some colleges or universities faculty members have been given, essentially, actual veto power over curriculum. In others, tension between the faculty and the administration has resulted in the administration awarding faculty what amounts to veto power. For example, at San Jose State University, the president had unsuccessfully tried to promote the use of online pedagogies, and then approved the following policy: “As departments and faculty control and determine the appropriate pedagogies for their courses, the university will not agree in a contract with any private or public entity to deliver technology intensive, hybrid, or online courses or programs without the prior approval of the relevant department, through the same department procedure that the department reviews pedagogical changes in in-person courses."
In still other institutions, the administration has the final authority and has exercised it (e.g., CUNY regarding its Pathways program). The Wisconsin legislature is moving to establish such an authority structure for the University of Wisconsin system. However, none of these cases address the issue of faculty conflict of interest with respect to curriculum.
Virtually everyone — board members, administrators, and faculty — agrees that it is the faculty members who have curricular expertise. Virtually everyone also agrees that when all parties work together, participating in shared governance, colleges and universities function better, including with better outcomes for students. However, there are disagreements as to precisely how shared governance should be structured. Some contend that it should consist of dividing up campus authority.
We contend, consistent with the eloquent exposition in Bowen and Tobin’s new book, Locus of Authority, that governance works best when everyone works together in teams with the administration making he final decisions, at least regarding faculty conflicts of interest (for an example of a recent disagreement about who should have final see see this article.)
Some writers see shared governance as a way for faculty to put checks on “administrators [who] often find it expedient to pursue their own purposes rather than, or at the expense of, those of the larger organization or their supposed superiors” (Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty). There is no doubt that some administrators engage in such behavior. One of us (Logue) saw an administrator at a not-wealthy university spend a large proportion of the administrator’s budget to start a new center that lacked an adequate business plan. Instead of bringing fame to the administrator, the center imploded within a few years.
However, although it may be useful for administrators and faculty to participate together in governance of institutions of higher education, the existing protections against conflicts of interest are not identical for these two groups. Most administrators — even presidents and board members — have supervisors who have the authority to terminate the administrators’ employment if their job performance is not satisfactory. Theoretically at least, major decisions made by any administrator can be reviewed by his or her supervisor, and if the supervisor views this administrator to have acted more with personal, rather than the campus’s, interest in mind, termination can ensue.
Most states are employment-at-will states, meaning that employers have the right to terminate their employees without justified cause. The administrator referenced above who started the inadequately funded, short-lived center that drew funds from departments that badly needed them lost his position soon after the center began to implode.
Contrast the situation of administrators with that of faculty members. Most faculty are members of a department led by a department chair. However, for tenured faculty members, that chair, though he or she may review department faculty, has no authority to terminate any faculty member simply for unsatisfactory performance, nor does anyone else have that authority. At most institutions, the standard for removal of tenure-track and tenured faculty would consist of significant unprofessional conduct, and would involve multiple reviews with multiple opportunities for appeal by the faculty member. (Non-tenure-track faculty members are unfortunately often lacking in job security, but they also are often not consulted in curricular decisions.)
These differences in the employment status of faculty members and administrators are essential, many would claim, to ensuring that faculty have academic freedom. Faculty members need job protections to ensure that they are not removed for expressing views that may be unpopular with others, and for protecting the important status of higher education as a place in which all views can be expressed without retribution.
The AAUP policy about faculty assigning their own textbooks states that “it is equally necessary to ensure that procedures followed by colleges and universities to protect students do not impair the freedom of faculty members or their flexibility of choice in deciding what materials to assign their students.” There is no question that tenure and the particular employment status of faculty members help to protect the tradition of academic freedom that we in the United States — justifiably — hold so dear. However, this structure also ensures that there are no checks or balances on curricular actions taken by faculty that may be motivated more by self-interest than by interest in the best outcomes for students or by an interest in exercising freedom of speech. At many institutions, faculty are essentially functioning as managers of themselves and of the academic enterprise, which is why conflicts of interest arise.
American higher education cannot maximize its efficiency or efficacy in producing qualified graduates, and cannot maintain credibility with the public (and funding sources), unless every effort is made to disclose and minimize all types of faculty conflicts of interest, including with regard to curricular, and not just financial, aspects of their institutions.
How can this situation be improved? Here is what we recommend:
National academic organizations should take the lead in devising model policies that cover all types of faculty conflicts of interest, including with regard to curriculum.
Using the national organizations’ policies as models, faculty and administrators should work together to devise conflict of interest policies that are appropriate for their particular institutions, policies that cover the curricular, and not just financial, interests of faculty.
These policies should recognize that curricular expertise lies with the faculty.
These policies should also recognize that, wherever possible, in order to minimize even the appearance of conflicts, curricular decisions should be based on objectively obtained data such as enrollments and demonstrated learning outcomes, and not simply on individual faculty members’ opinions.
Faculty with appropriate expertise should continue to make recommendations regarding curricular action items, whether those items are initiated by faculty or by other members of the institutions. However, consistent with the standards existing in so many other professions, and in accordance with their institutions’ agreed upon conflict of interest policies, along with those recommendations faculty should disclose, to appropriate faculty members and administrators, any possible conflicts of interest.
Simply disclosing possible conflicts of interest may have a dampening effect on them. Nevertheless, prior to any adoption of the faculty’s curricular recommendations, nonconflicted faculty (perhaps a curriculum committee whose members, according to themselves and others, have no conflicts with the particular item) should conduct an independent review of the curricular recommendations, of whether the conflict of interest policies have been followed, and of any potential conflicts of interest. If they find that there are potential conflicts, they should also state whether or not the curricular recommendations are nevertheless justified for the students.
Final decisions concerning procedural issues and whether there are conflicts (including among members of the review committee) should be made by a senior academic administrator. Should the administrator decide that one or more conflicts are present, the institution’s procedure might give that administrator one or more options, such as that the administrator can (i) reject the curricular recommendations as not being in the best interests of the students, (ii) ask for another faculty review, (iii) remove or reduce the conflict by approving the recommendations, but decreasing the benefits to the relevant faculty member and/or department, and/or (iv) decide that the curricular recommendations benefit students sufficiently to proceed even though a conflict exists.
We live in a country that has now fallen to 14th in the world in terms of the percentage of young adults with college degrees, a country in which public funding of higher education has been decreasing. Resources flow to higher education, in part, depending on how well the public perceives that higher education is doing its job, and that, in turn, depends, in part, on how much the public trusts higher education. That some of the instruction provided is designed more for the benefit of the instructors than for the students can harm that trust. Above all else we need to remain true to our mission of advancing learning. All of those involved in higher education should work together in facing these issues.
Alexandra W. Logue is a research professor in the Center for Advanced Study in Education of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She was CUNY’s executive vice chancellor and university provost 2008-2014. Ian Shrank is a lawyer who provides pro bono legal services to educational and other nonprofit organizations.
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.
We talk, we text, we tweet. And that’s fine. We needn’t require ourselves to think deeply at all hours, in all weather. Some things just don’t need the time, space and gravity we associate with such terms as “discourse,” “debate” and “dialogue.”
But many things do. And one of the dangers for a society that gets too used to the frenetic and featherweight -- and to media tailored to delivering little else -- is that when a real issue comes along, with conflicting ideas and multiple facets, and complexity and weight and much in the balance, we simply have no way to discuss it.
Think immigration in Arizona, justice in Ferguson, religious freedom in Indiana, water wars in California, Confederate iconography in the South, sexual assault on college campuses.
And, importantly, issues like these don’t “come along.” They’re always with us, constantly testing us, and our decisions about them matter. They determine what lives we lead, and what world we’ll leave behind.
So it makes a difference that discourse today, when it happens at all, is often rife with personality, politics, opinion and noise but short on facts -- much less analysis and insight.
This predicament touches on a counterintuitive point that goes to the heart of the problem: facts are not enough. Daniel Moynihan’s eminently quotable “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” is true enough as far as it goes. But simply memorizing those facts, then trading them with people who already agree with you, advances no argument and makes no decision easier or wiser.
To argue in the sense of debate, to hold a constructive, reasoned conversation with the potential to change minds, we first have to engage the minds we would change: our own as well as others’. Students don’t necessarily arrive at college with the skills to do that, unfortunately, and it’s no wonder. Our digital bubbles and the social media hall of mirrors make it possible to seem connected to every person alive, discussing every topic under the sun, when in truth we’re often engaging merely with enclaves of the like-minded.
A hall of mirrors doesn’t add perspectives, it only multiplies your own; its depth is all pretense.
This is a major paradox of our time. Think, for example, of the heyday of broadcast TV, when news networks numbered exactly three and were indisputably more homogenous than today. And yet they routinely offered opposing points of view. Today our options for news and views have grown exponentially, but paradoxically so too have our tools for sorting ourselves into virtual silos. Two points of view are rarely sufficient in any case, as almost nothing worth arguing about has just two sides. But now, with 1,000 channels and countless blogs that double as echo chambers, we don’t have to listen to even that many.
And while real debate would doubtlessly improve our current landscape, perhaps “dialogue” is the best word for what is most needed today, and always. For true dialogue, two things are required, besides the will to think for oneself rather than accept some authority’s shrink-wrapped opinion package.
The first is to find a sense in which we’re in it together. “We” can be students in a classroom, business competitors, House and Senate colleagues, or newly established neighborhood associations, but the default position has to be the same: if an “us vs. them” dynamic prevails, everybody loses.
In this way, dialogue is equally pledge as practice: it urges us to uphold a sense of community above all, no matter the size of the controversy or the intensity of the conflict. It’s more huddle, less face-off.
It’s also our best tool for delivering productive, civil and nuanced results from even the most passionate disagreements -- which, it’s worth pointing out, is not only inevitable but desirable in a place dedicated to the life of the mind.
Here higher education plays a role that can be easily obscured by the very proper focus on difference. College should most definitely put young people in touch with the vast variety of human thought and experience. But if we do it right, they should also have a growing appreciation for what unites us beneath our differences in color and country, class and gender, age and era: the reassuring bedrock of the genuine human needs, abilities, drives and virtues that we hold in common.
And let’s not pretend any of this is easily done or effortlessly taught. It takes considerable self-awareness, patience and discipline to contribute to such complex conversations, and it takes even more to lead them, to say nothing of the skills and wisdom needed to teach others to do the same. It should be the goal of every intellectual community to advance the depth, breadth and sustaining power of face-to-face dialogue.
The second requirement for true dialogue may be even more important. It depends on a mind-set that can be expressed in four words: I might be wrong.
“The spirit of liberty,” Judge Learned Hand famously said in a 1944 speech, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” The rest of his sentence is less often quoted but equally pertinent: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women … which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
That’s a high bar for a species as tribal and fallible as ours, but it’s a worthy one. Truth be told, it’s the only way we’ll ever make progress in judging how best to live together, whether that means in colleges, communities or countries.
The best way to start clearing that bar?
Helping our young people to value reflection over reflexes, giving them effective ways to listen, think, converse and cooperate -- not offering them “cut flowers,” as the educational leader John Gardner once put it, but “teaching them to grow their own plants.”
Ryan Hays is executive vice president at the University of Cincinnati.
New report documents a range of types of attacks on higher education worldwide, including killings, imprisonments, wrongful dismissals and expulsions, and restrictions on the movements of students and scholars.