There is a controversy at the University of Illinois over the right of faculty to express views on social media outside of their positions. Steven Salaita had already been offered a tenured position in the American Indian studies program on the Champaign-Urbana campus and was just waiting for approval by the university’s Board of Trustees, usually a perfunctory stage. However, Salaita posted strongly anti-Israeli sentiments after the start of the recent war in Gaza. After those postings, he was informed that the university was rescinding its offer due to opposition on the board.
Salaita is a former associate professor at Virginia Tech. He was offered the new job with an $85,000 salary last October to begin on January 2014. The University was enthusiastic about his joining the faculty. In a letter from Brian Ross, the interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, he was told “Please let me express my sincere enthusiasm about your joining us. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a wonderfully supportive community, and it has always taken a high interest in its newcomers. I feel sure that your career can flourish here, and I hope earnestly that you will accept our invitation.” Salaita signed the offer letter and accepted the position.
The situation changed when Salaita turned to Twitter to express his views about the Israeli attacks in Gaza. For example, on June 20, after three Israelis were kidnapped and killed, Salaita wrote: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the (expletive) West Bank settlers would go missing.” Then, on July 22, he wrote: “#Israel kills civilians faster than the speed of 4G.”
He has also tweeted that “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” In another tweet he suggested that journalist Jeffrey Goldberg ought to get “the pointy end of a shiv.”
Just a couple weeks after those tweets, on August 1st, U. of I. Chancellor Phyllis Wise informed Salaita in an email that the offer was being rescinded because his appointment was subject to approval by the university’s board of trustees, and the appointment would not be submitted to the board: “We believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely. We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty … Thank you for your interest in and consideration of the University of Illinois.”
Steven Lubet of Northwestern University Law School wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “I am among those who find Salaita’s tweets loathsome and incendiary, and not merely outspoken — more on that below — but, like nearly all academics, I do not think his political opinions should affect his job security at his university.”
Hundreds of academics have signed a petition demanding that the University reinstate the offer and pledging to boycott the university if the decision stands. They insist that he is being denied academic freedom as well as the freedom of speech outside of his employment. Peter Kirstein, vice president of the Illinois chapter of the American Association of University Professors, called the action “outlandish” and “highly irregular” as well as a violation of “academic freedom, due process.” Likewise, the legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, Baher Azmy called the action “unprecedented and plainly unlawful in violation of the most elementary principles of academic freedom.” She added that “It is quite transparent that they terminated him because they disliked what he was saying about atrocities in Gaza.”
However, U. of I. English professor Cary Nelson, former national president of the American Association of University Professors, supports the decision to rescind the offer. He notes that Salaita had not yet been formally hired and that his tweets showed that he was “not the right fit for the campus.” He views the tweets as anti-Semitic and can be viewed as linked to his work: “It is because the tweets are an extension of his publication, they are central to his work and many feel they cross the line into anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitism does (bother me) and what appears to be almost a solicitation of violence.” Nelson has been criticized on the Internet by advocacy groups for being part of an effort to block Salaita due to his views.
However, the connection to his work is precisely the point for many of his supporters who note that the university was already aware of his views since he is the author of a 2011 book, “Israel’s Dead Soul.” He has a long academic interest in colonialism and Palestine. This also includes his book, The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan: Middle East Studies Beyond Dominant Paradigms (Syracuse Universi ty Press).He is also part of a large number of faculty members who have called for boycotting Israeli academic institutions.
Clearly, the university has a stronger legal claim based on the lack of final approval of the position. However, it has a less compelling basis under academic freedom principles which are the very touchstone of any legitimate academic institution. There are many professor with outspoken pro-Israeli (and sometimes anti-Palestinian) views who are quite outspoken on those who attack Israel. It is part of the diversity of positions that characterize universities. Students and faculty have sharply different views on the subject and a campus is where such views are expressed openly and freely.
Frankly, I find many of the sentiments expressed by Salaita to be highly disturbing. I do not like to see faculty flippantly referring to killings or disappearances even in the heat of a debate or controversy. As academics we are committed to intellectual exchanges and reason, not joking about journalists being stabbed or settlers disappearing.
However, he has also written more substantively on the Israeli issue. I am very troubled by the action taken in this case and the unclear line being drawn over statements made by academics in such disputes. Indeed, one of my greatest concern is that this decision is not being made by the faculty of his department but by the board, which has little academic standing. I have always been critical of the role of such boards which are often composed of simply big donors, celebrities, or well-connected individuals with precious little understanding of the academic mission or academic freedom.
What do you think? Are these views a legitimate reason to block an academic appointment?
Here is the full statement of Illinois AAUP Committee A Statement on Steven Salaita and UIUC
The following is a statement of the Illinois AAUP Committee A:
The Illinois Conference Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors supports the honoring of the appointment of Steven G. Salaita in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Reports that the university has voided a job offer, if accurate, due to tweets on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country.
Professor Salaita resigned his position at Virginia Tech and was about to assume his new appointment at the University of Illinois. We stand by the appointment and by Professor Salaita and defend his right to engage in extramural utterances.
The AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states in reference to extramural utterances: “When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” It affirms that “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” While Professor’s Salaita’s tweets are construed as controversial, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure affirms the virtue of controversial speech. While the Statement refers to classroom teaching, the virtual classroom today has no limits. In 1970 the 1940 Statement was revised with new “Interpretive Comments.” The second Interpretive Comment would encompass Professor Salaita’s right to be controversial: “The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is ‘controversial.’ Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster.”
Professor Salaita’s words while strident and vulgar were an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East. Issues of life and death during bombardment educes significant emotions and expressions of concern that reflect the tragedy that armed conflict confers on its victims. Speech that is deemed controversial should be challenged with further speech that may abhor and challenge a statement. Yet the University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America.
The AAUP 1940 Statement does require a professor to be “accurate, to exercise appropriate restraint, to show respect for the opinions of others….” However in the AAUP Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances it states in reference to the 1940 Statement:
[An] administration may file charges in accordance with procedures outlined in the Statement if it feels that a faculty member has failed to observe the above admonitions and believes that the professor’s extramural utterances raise grave doubts concerning the professor’s fitness for continuing service.
We are unaware that the university has afforded Professor Salaita any due process. In the absence of due process, particularly if a contract was signed, any institutional action to reverse an offer of appointment would be a grave violation of academic due process. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach. These statements were not made in front of students, are not related to a course that is being taught, and do not reflect in any manner his quality of teaching. What one says out of class rarely, in the absence of peer review of teaching, confirms how one teaches. Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment.
One must not conjecture about a link between extramural statements and the quality of classroom teaching, absent an unmistakable link that would raise issues of competence. None exist here. Indeed, we affirm that fitness to teach can be enhanced with conviction, commitment and an engagement with the outside world. As a professor who was proffered an appointment in American Indian Studies, we are particularly concerned if a university would void a contract of a professor exercising a right of citizenship in protesting actions of another country that much of the global community including the U.N. Secretary General and even the U.S. State Department have found “disgraceful.”
Peter N. Kirstein, Chair of Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, Saint Xavier University
Iymen Chehade, Columbia College
Loretta Capeheart, Northeastern Illinois University
J. Walter Kendall III, John Marshall School of Law
John Wilson, editor, Illinois Academe
Source: Chicago Tribune