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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Latest on the Salaita Case at the University of Illinois

As you probably know, at the beginning of August University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided to rescind an offer of a tenured position to Steven Salaita formerly of Virginia Tech.   Professor Salaita had been chosen by the American Indian Studies Program last October after, as far as I can tell, passing through all of the appropriate Academic vetting processes at U of I. The offer was, as all job offers are at U of I, conditional on approval by the Board of Trustees.  For some reason, the Illinois Board does not meet to make final approval until September, after most new faculty have started their jobs.  In the interim, under conditions that remain clouded in mystery, Chancellor Wise apparently became convinced that Professor Salaita's tweets on the Israeli-Palestine conflict made him unqualified to join the faculty and she chose not to submit his name to the Board of Trustees.

Chancellor Wise's latest statement on her decision can be found here.

There have already been responses to her statement.  I list three below:

John K. Wise has posted at the Academe Blog.

Peter Kirstein has a comment here.

Timothy Burke has a commentary here.

Whatever one's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the BDS movement (which are the underlying points of political controversy here) Chancellor Wise's statement only highlights the dangers facing academic freedom from administrative intervention into faculty judgment about the appropriate scholar to fill a position. Chancellor Wise insists that her decision "was not influenced in any way by [Professor Salaita's] positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel."  This claim is then followed not by any discussion about why Professor Salaita's offer should be withdrawn but by generalized commentary about showing respect in the classroom for people holding alternative positions and for alternative positions themselves. Her statement is so vague that, as John Wilson points out (linked above) it could apply to a biology professor who was disrespectful of creationism.  Or, I would add, if you were to take a different political position, should an administration be able to prevent an appointment of an anti-abortion tweeter because some of his or her teaching might upset pro-choice students?

What appears to be at stake here is criticism of Professor Salaita's tweets.  I have already commented in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the threats to academic freedom posed by administrations and Boards seeking to control people's statements as citizens on social media.  But this case sharpens the point.  As the blog Mondoweiss points out, Professor Salaita has a long teaching record which shows no evidence of the dangers that Chancellor Wise claims to fear, i.e. whatever one's opinion on his tweets there is no evidence that students feel unwelcome in expressing their thoughts or alternative views.   And if there is no connection between tweeting and his interaction with students in his classrooms then there is no relevance to the tweets.

The Board's defense of the Chancellor's decision displays an even more disturbing confusion. The Board insists that "we" (I think they intend the University but it could just be the Board) "must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship."  They apparently believe that this entails discourse that will not make students or others feel uncomfortable.  Now it is certainly right that colleges and universities ensure that professor's don't demean or abuse their students--and there are plenty of mechanisms to do that.  But to insist on some undefined standard of "civility" in debate and to claim that it is as important as scholarship is, frankly, absurd.  Part of a student's higher education is becoming uncomfortable as your accepted ideas are challenged, defended, and rethought.  The level of confusion here is enough to justify asking the Board to stay out of these decisions.

There are other deeper issues that need to be raised.  As far as I have been able to determine Professor Salaita's appointment went, as I said above, through all the normal academic channels.  But there is no evidence that, when Chancellor Wise developed concerns, she returned the file to the appropriate faculty organs to ask for clarification or extra materials.  Nor, apparently, was there any attempt to communicate with Professor Salaita.  In other words, what we have here is an administrative override of a considered faculty judgment based on unproven concerns that there might be some relationship between social media and the classroom.  Given that, it seems unreasonable for Chancellor Wise to insist that the decision was not politically motivated.

Nor is the claim, forwarded by some, that since Salaita was not already a member of the U of I faculty there is no academic freedom issue anything more than a red herring.  If academic freedom is to mean anything it must be a system.  For it to work nationally and internationally scholars cannot be worried that if they say or publish something a board or an administrator at a position they seek will block their appointment.  It is incumbent on faculty and on colleges and universities to honor academic freedom not only of their own members but of scholars at other institutions.

Finally, although administrators have the authority to set priorities and determine how faculty lines are distributed, the decision about the individual scholar chosen is primarily a faculty one and should not be imposed or denied by upper administrations separate from the faculty review process.  At the University of Illinois under its present Chair Christopher Kennedy the Board already intervened in two previous cases of individual faculty positions.  (See here and here)  Indeed, Chancellor Wise indicated that she did not forward Professor Salaita's appointment to the Board in part because she doubted it would be approved.  It is quite possible that she has been charged with doing their work for them.

Although this case is, of course, singular it reveals a more general pattern.  Boards and upper administration are pressing against the autonomy of the actual scholarly and curricular life of universities and colleges--something for decades has been organized and overseen by faculty.  The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has recently insisted that Boards take an even greater role in university and college affairs and that shared governance "cannot and must not be an excuse for board inaction."  Instead they insist that

trustees must have the last word when it comes to guarding the central values of American higher education--academic excellence and academic freedom.  The preservation of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the integrity of scholarship and teaching rightly falls under their purview.  While the occasions should be rare, they must be prepared to intervene when internal constituencies are unable or unwilling to institute urgently needed reforms.

I want to be clear here.  Despite the calls for academic freedom and expression, the central theme of the ACTA statement is that trustees are the only group that can view the institution and its relation with society whole. Therefore, more than narrow faculty or even preoccupied administrators, they must control the relationship between the university or college and the wider world.  Central to this relationship is reputation, only this is defined by ACTA as public acceptance rather than academic autonomy.  ACTA wants to professionalize Board service so as to limit the professional claims of faculty over their own areas.  Indeed, since faculty are so focused on their professional responsibilities, ACTA suggests, they are unable to see the big picture.  It is this logic that justifies the Board of Trustees at Illinois to support the Chancellor in overriding all of the normal faculty review processes.

The approach advocated by ACTA and enacted in the Salaita case threatens to undermine the academic autonomy that faculty have struggled for since the early twentieth-century. If faculty lose their autonomy, the autonomy of colleges and universities will be lost as well.

All those who want to prevent higher education from becoming even more of a sphere of reputational fear and institutional timidity need to push back against this vision as forcefully as they can.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post Chris. I hope people understand the severity of this threat. This is our academic 9/11, as if we needed one. If this stands, there is little doubt that most every other university and college will follow suit, and before we know it, what remains of shared--never mind, autonomous--faculty governance will be history. Administrators and Trustees want more power for themselves and less for faculty. They grow their budgets while shrinking ours. They expand their power while shrinking ours. This case is tinged with the curse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so it's easy to lose the bigger picture and perhaps some colleagues who either "support" Israel or don't like to get involved in hot button issues, might turn away from this episode and not consider the much bigger picture. It begins here, but it will end with the end of academic freedom, with all kinds of actions deemed "uncivil" and all kinds of opinion that are crucial to be debated in the academy removed from discussion on pain of firing. Look at Lynne Cheney's remarks at ACTA. She specifically talks about universities having the job of "training future leaders." This is key. Our future leaders should not think independently. They should not think dangerous or uncivil thoughts. The should not be exposed to alternative and deeply held positions. They should toe the line because, after all, they'll never be allowed to lead if it's not clear that they'll follow the dictates of power holders without question.

I have just spoken today with very senior people in two major professional associations, and both are more worried than I have ever seen them about the potential impact of this decision. This is a declaration of war. The question is, are we going to lie down like sheep or fight like our professional and corporate futures depend on it? Because they do.

Mark LeVine
Dept. of History, UCI

Anonymous said...

Sorry, meant Michael, not Chris. You two are kind of like Lennon and McCartney...

Brian Riley said...

This is how ACTA reacted to 9/11:



Silberstein, S. (2004). War of words: Language, politics and 9/11. London; New York: Routledge, pp. 132-144.

Brian Riley said...


Vanessa Vaile said...

@Brian Riley

Thank you Brian for the enlightening and quite chilling link.It helps connect yet more dots.

Vanessa Vaile said...


I do the same a lot too and sometimes wish Michael or Remaking had a Twitter handle.

Brian Riley said...

@Vanessa Vaile

You're welcome! I suspect (though can't prove it) that people on the ACTA staff have been involved in dishonest behavior. Back in 2006, after the Unity for Gallaudet protest in Washington, DC, the Washington Post published an article with the headline:

"At Gallaudet, Peace"

and the sub-headline:

"As Tents Come Down, Protesters' Sense of Victory in Ouster Of Incoming President Contrasts With Some Officials' Concerns"

Then when you read the article, it turns out that the "Official" referred to was Anne D. Neal, then (and still) president of ACTA. However, if you look closely at ACTA's website it explains that ACTA is an "independent, non-profit organization," and so therefore Neal wasn't a government official at all (which is what the article seemed clearly to be implying). I pointed that out to one of the reporters and sometime later the sub-headline was removed from the online version of the article.

California Policy Issues said...

I hate to rain on the parade, but you really can't say that faculty are free to post absolutely ANYTHING on social media without some consequences to their employment relationship to a university.

Consider the difference between writing an op ed disagreeing with the US policy in the Middle East vs. threatening violence against the President on Twitter. Consider the difference between writing the op ed or stating that students in your classes who disagree are not welcome to enroll.

By the way, you can be anonymous on Facebook or Twitter if you choose to be and you can say outrageous things, if you feel you must, without implicating your university. If, however, you sign your postings as Prof. Smith of the XYZ University, then - whatever disclaimers you add - you are effectively saying that readers should pay attention to you because your university affiliation shows your opinions have weight.

Bottom line: Absolutes in such cases are not appropriate. "It depends" is the appropriate approach. What was said? How was it said? Was the university connection of the poster evident or easily obtained? In the hypothetical case of the biologist commenting on creationism in class, he/she could say that the evidence points to evolution if a student objected. He/she couldn't say creationists should be hanged without there being employment consequences. I know a faculty member at a university - an archeologist - who ran into such a situation with a student who believed that the world was created 5000+ years ago. The faculty member simply told the student in a respectful manner he/she would have to learn the material of the course or drop it, but no one was saying what the student must "believe." It's not a question of whether a student is upset by some material, but the way it is presented.

What boards and administrators should do is to insulate faculty who do treat the views of students and others respectfully from outside pressures. There was an economics professor at UCLA back in the days of the Red Scare of the 1950s, who - after explaining a particular monetary theory - was accused by a student of being a communist. There was a ruckus given that era but no employment consequence. In that case, someone in authority was doing the right thing in protecting the faculty member. On the other hand, there was a loyalty oath of that era that was plainly an example of administrators and boards not doing the right thing.

Dan Mitchell, UCLA

Michael Meranze said...

@California Policy Issues


Sorry but I don't think that you are really speaking to the issue here. If you read the official positions out of U of I the position is that you are not supposed to make anyone uncomfortable. And as I indicated there are clear limits in terms of the sort of thing you are talking about in terms of treating students in class or not letting them join the class. What U of I appears to have done is to say that because Salaita made some tweets that were very harsh about Israeli action and despite years of teaching evaluations he might make someone uncomfortable.

In addition, the general rule of thumb has to do with whether you are using a university account (and I don't mean in the sense of whether your computer goes through the university) or a personal account. You cannot speak for the University but you should be able to speak for yourself.

If Universities and colleges can refuse employment to someone because somewhere someone might be offended by something said on social media (to paraphrase Mencken) it is a very bad situation.

California Policy Issues said...

There is a big difference between upset, offended, and intimidated. Upset is ok. Offended might or might not be ok, depending. Intimidated is not ok. Dan Mitchell

Michael Meranze said...

There is no evidence of intimidation in this case. Apparently his teaching evaluations are quite good with no complaints in that regard. If you read today's IHE the only evidence of intimidation is by those people opposed ro his appointment who threatened the university with loss of donations.

Chris Newfield said...

@Brian Riley thanks for this cite Brian. I also analyze this report in ch 15 of Unmaking the Public University, where a content analysis shows the extent to which ACTA had to fabricate extremism as something more than a tiny micro-trend. They found their main example in Ward Churchill's "little Eichmanns" comment, and then tried to suggest that he spoke for a possible faculty silent majority in "How Many Ward Churchills" in 2006 http://www.goacta.org/publications/how_many_ward_churchills ACTA has done a good job of offering both "extremist' pretext for intervention and then a philosophy of intervention where they reciprocally validate each other. I don't think ACTA has huge direct influence but there's growing influence for their view that boards should govern the entire university

Chris Newfield said...

@Vanessa Vaile i tweet Remaking at @cnewf Michael is a twitter refusnik.

Chris Newfield said...

A couple of updates: Scott Jaschik at IHE received a cache of U of I emails through an open records act request, and confirms that Chancellor Wise was in fact pressured, contrary to her assurances, and that some of the pressure came from donors (and the fundraising arm of the university). John K Wilson comments: "what’s really unique about today’s story is this revelation that the top fundraising official was emailing Wise and may have been advising her not to hire Salaita because it would hurt the flow of money. The fact that Wise was anxious to set up a meeting to discuss donors and Salaita’s hiring suggests that money may have a factor in this decision, and not just politics, as does the fact that the University of Illinois has redacted sections of this email about fundraising (in violation of FOIA laws). The University of Illinois needs to come clean and obey the law by disclosing the entirety of these emails by staff about fundraising, and Wise and her staff need to talk about what was discussed in these meetings and whether donors influenced the decision to fire Salaita. None of this changes the fact that the University of Illinois violated academic freedom by firing a professor for political reasons, but it makes an ugly story even worse."

In addition, Claire Potter blogs at CHE about the role of Board chair Chris Kennedy, who'd previously led the campaign to deny Bill Ayers emeritus privileges: "Looking back on it, Kennedy’s successful and pointless vendetta against Ayers paved the way for what happened to Steven Salaita. Other than the principles at stake (free speech, academic freedom, and UIUC’s utter failure to respect the spirit of its own institutional policies), the time to raise questions about this appointment had long since passed."

California Policy Issues said...

@Michael Meranze

In looking at the emails, I would feel intimidated as a student in his class. Certainly, a Jewish student would, or anyone who had a different opinion. And, beyond that, the postings are basically immature. They are the kinds of things teenagers get in trouble for tweeting that suggest it's not even the issue at hand that matters. It's all about me showing off in public. I wouldn't hire someone as an RA or TA who couldn't control himself/herself. I wouldn't vote for such a hire as a faculty member. And if he were already on board, I would urge him to seek professional help.

This is one of those bad cases make bad law situations.

-Dan Mitchell

Brian Riley said...

@California Policy Issues

Hi Dan,

If you will allow me to speak freely for a moment, your prior comment (above mine here) seems quite Pollyannaish and demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the culture of Twitter. Just because someone gets into heated Twitter exchanges that sometimes push the envelope in terms of polite discourse, that doesn't really mean that that's the way that person would behave, or has behaved, in the classroom.

Students know this. You apparently don't. The whole thing about Salaita supposedly intimidating students is a red herring. See this video:


Anonymous said...

Some thoughts as a layman:

I am not free to post on social media in any fashion that implicates my employer (i.e. the State of California). In other words, while I'm free to express my opinion, I can't sign it with (name), (name of agency). State law and personnel rules forbid it.

A captain at Cal Fish & Wildlife just lost his job because he wrote a letter of recommendation to the Feds on state letterhead (the no no) regarding Ted Nugent. He appealed and lost at State Personnel Board.

The divestment movement is touchy. Our university president is utterly opposed to it and has said so publicly in a statement last spring.

I can understand why U of I might be nervous. Donors are an important part of university sustainability.

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