Fighting the Twitter Police

August 8, 2014

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.

Bio

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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