academic freedom and the Steven Salaita case

I want to draw additional attention to the case of Steven Salaita, because it poses a threat to academic freedom. Here is the petition to reinstate him, which I have signed.

Last year, the University of Illinois granted professor Salaita a tenured faculty position as a professor of American Indian Studies, subject only to a vote of the Board of Trustees, which was described to him as a formality. He did what you’re supposed to do and resigned his position at Virginia Tech as he prepared to move to Illinois to start teaching this fall. He then composed a series of tweets against the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

With support of the Board of Trustees, the Illinois Chancellor revoked the position offered to Prof. Salaita. They made no bones about the fact that his tweets were the reason for their decision. In an explanatory letter, the Trustees endorsed freedom of speech but went on to say:

Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.  We … write today to add our collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights – these are the same core values which have guided this institution since its founding. … The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multi-cultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.

Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university [emphasis added].

I have argued that a university may assess the quality and content of a professor’s public communications in deciding whether to hire her, publish her, or invite her to speak. “Civility” could be relevant to those judgments. (Jennifer Saul makes that point well.) However, it is very hard to see Prof. Salaita’s tweets as uncharacteristically lacking in civility or as especially demeaning. What they are is critical of Israel.

The Brown University professor Bonnie Honig interprets his tweets as the opposite of uncivil:

Here is a man of Palestinian descent watching people he may know, perhaps friends, colleagues, or relatives, bombed to bits while a seemingly uncaring or powerless world watched. He was touched by violence and responded in a way that showed it. In one of the tweets that was most objected to (Netanyahu, necklace, children’s teeth), Salaita commented on a public figure who is fair game and who was promoting acts of terrible violence against a mostly civilian population. I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel. Perhaps tweets like Prof. Salaita’s, along with images of violence from Gaza and our innate sense of fair play, could wake us from our uncritical slumbers. It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way – awakened to thinking.

Prof. Salaita is also a strong supporter of the “boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” which I happen to oppose. I would reject any academic boycott, and I disagree that the one country in the world to single out this way is Israel. But if Prof. Salaita was “unhired” because he supports the boycott, that is a clear violation of his freedom of speech and association. He is entitled to advocate a boycott; I just don’t endorse it.

As Michael Dorf explains, it’s a little bit complicated whether Prof. Salaita had a legal right to his position. Illinois was not obligated to hire him in the first place. It did, however, extend him an offer. He was told that the Trustees’ vote was a formality, and, as Brian Leiter writes, “Such approval clauses … had, previously, been pro forma at Illinois, as they are at all serious universities: it is not the job of the Board of Trustees of a research institution to second-guess the judgment of academics and scholars.” Thus, arguably, the University was constrained to hire him.

One could argue the reverse–that the Trustees’ vote is precisely meant to be a check on the decisions of the faculty and administration, to be used rarely but at the Board’s discretion. That would be a legal defense of the Trustees’ decision (I cannot say how plausible), but it is not a moral justification of this particular choice, whose basis appears clear enough.

I am not sure I would go far as to say that the University of Illinois has “repealed the First Amendment for its faculty.” Professors already in place there cannot be unhired. This case actually reinforces the value of tenure. But it is a problem if you can lose your academic freedom during a period of transition. And the bigger problem is: a major state university cannot seem to tolerate criticism of Israel.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.