From “The Academe Blog” comes an entry by John K. Wilson, “Chancellor Phyllis Wise Explains the Firing of Steven Salaita,” which is a post that raises some important issues regarding the role of “respectable” behavior for faculty-types and the public/private borders of that behavior. I agree 100% with Wilson and I think EMUTalk.org (and the future of sites like it) depend on Wilson being correct.
But let me back up a bit for those who haven’t feel following this that closely. I wrote about this a week and a half ago or so on my own blog here, so a lot of this recap is taken directly from that entry. For those readers who feel caught up on what has come before the Wise statement on Wilson is blogging about: skip ahead to the break.
Here’s a long quote from this Salon piece, “Return of the blacklist?” that more or less sums up what seems to have happened to Salaita:
A few weeks ago Steven Salaita had reason to be pleased. After a full review by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he had received a generous offer of a tenured, associate professor position there — the normal contract was offered, signed by the school, he had received confirmation of his salary, a teaching schedule, everything except the final approval of the UIUC chancellor.
In academia this is not at all unusual; departments and schools are told to go ahead with the offer, so as to be competitive with both the candidate’s current school and others that might be bidding for their talent. Salaita is a world-renowned scholar of indigenous studies (and also a frequent Salon contributor). At that point, as required by academic protocols, upon accepting the position he resigned the one he held at Virginia Tech.
But final approval never came. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that “Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for academic affairs, informed the job candidate, Steven G. Salaita, on Friday that they were effectively revoking a written offer of a tenured professorship made to him last year by refusing to submit it to the system’s Board of Trustees next month for confirmation.”
According to Inside Higher Education: “Sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.” Nevertheless, IHE goes on to report: “But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told the News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”
This has been followed by a number of defenses of Salaita, including from the national and University of Illinois chapter of the AAUP. There are several various petitions floating around of faculty at U of Ill and elsewhere condemning the dehiring of Salaita.
Interestingly, perhaps the most outspoken defender of the U of Ill’s administration on this is the once leader of the charge at the AAUP, Cary Nelson. In an Inside Higher Ed column called “An Appointment to Reject,” Nelson basically presents two arguments about why the dehiring is okay. First, Nelson thinks Salaita’s tweets were horrific. Nelson quotes from several of them– and Salaita is a pretty crude dude– and calls him loathsome, sophomoric, irresponsible, sordid, bombastic, and anti-Semitic. But his second reason is more or less based on a technicality. He writes:
I should add that this is not an issue of academic freedom. If Salaita were a faculty member here and he were being sanctioned for his public statements, it would be. But a campus and its faculty members have the right to consider whether, for example, a job candidate’s publications, statements to the press, social media presence, public lectures, teaching profile, and so forth suggest he or she will make a positive contribution to the department, student life, and the community as a whole. Here at Illinois, even the department head who would have appointed Salaita agreed in Inside Higher Ed that “any public statement that someone makes is fair game for consideration.” Had Salaita already signed a contract, then of course he would have to have received full due process, including a full hearing, before his prospective offer could be withdrawn. But my understanding is that he had not received a contract.
Now, I blogged and commented elsewhere on my own take regarding all this already. But to summarize:
- I certainly don’t agree with Salaita’s extremist views. My own take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more middle of the road and I think fairly mainstream in that I wish Hamas (et al) would acknowledge the right for Israel to exist and I wish Israel would stop bombing Gaza and provocatively expanding their settlements to claim more territory. But again, the issue for me is not Salaita’s extremist position per se; it’s more about what role his reckless expression of those views on Twitter has with his job as a professor.
- I think everyone involved in this hire screwed up in all kinds of different ways, but there are two big ones. Salaita screwed himself big-time. Despite what that Salon quote suggests, the common practice when a tenured faculty person leaves one tenured position for another tenured position is to take some kind of unpaid leave from the first position in case the second one doesn’t work out. In other words, Salaita shouldn’t have just quit his tenured job at Virginia Tech before the ink was dry on his new job at the University of Illinois. Maybe Virginia Tech didn’t let him do that, I don’t know; that’d be an interesting fun fact to hear more about though. And of course U of Ill screwed up in the dehiring thing.
- A lot of this seems to circle around the technicality of whether or not Salaita was actually hired at U of Ill and then dehired. Here’s a link to the PDF of Salaita’s appointment letter. On the one hand, this to me is pretty solid evidence that Salaita was hired because that recommendation by the board thing is a technicality and a rubber stamp. On the other hand, it is a pretty important technicality.This is why lawyers and courts are ultimately going to get involved.
- What more generally/theoretically concerns me is the line between who is and isn’t protected in terms of academic free speech, and the fuzzy and leaky definitions of what’s allowable. I think it is a little weird that there seems universal agreement among Nelson and defenders of Salaita (who is pretty much everyone else in academia– I haven’t read another support of the University of Illinois on this) that free speech is tied to the magical flip of the tenure switch. Before tenure, you can be fired for anything you say; after tenure, you can say anything and not be fired. I’m not crazy about either one of those extremes as I think that people who are never going to get tenure– grad students, part-timers, lecturers, etc.– deserve some degree of protection, and I think there are logical extremes of what a tenured professor can say or do to get her or himself into trouble.
Okay, still here? Now what’s happened lately: