U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking Critically About Academic Freedom: The Case of Salaita

Last summer, professor Steven Salaita quit his job at Virginia Tech and prepared to move his family to Illinois to begin an appointment in the University of Illsalaita posterinois American Indian Studies program. However, before his position began he received a letter from Chancellor Phyllis Wise informing him that the offer had been rescinded – alumni and wealthy donors had launched a successful campaign to convince Wise to decline affirming Salaita’s appointment, effectively firing him. The cause cited for this action was a collection of scathing tweets Salaita had penned during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, the military operation in Gaza which had marked the news cycle of the summer with reports of atrocious civilian death tolls and a feverish nationalist atmosphere in Israel.

Immediately, the academic community rushed to Salaita’s defense. In an inspiring avalanche of outrage, more than a dozen petitions, with more than 5,000 signatures, called for the reinstatement of Salaita. An academic boycott also gained steam, with many events cancelled because scholars refused to engage with the University of Illinois unless they reversed their decision. And in most corners of the academic blogosphere, articulate and impassioned essays were written arguing that what happened to Salaita was not only unjust, but dangerous.

The majority of the scholars who contributed to this outpouring framed the debate around the issues of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and civic debate. As one typical petition put it, “diverse and discordant voices that some find ‘difficult,’ are key to the survival of our schools as living institutions. Critical thinking of the kind that can lead directly to political dissent is exactly what any faculty in any college or university worthy of the name must teach.” Such an action, scholars correctly observed, set a dangerous precedent that could enable future erosions of academic freedom.

The organizing that sprung up around Salaita embraced a similar approach. One poster that circulated before the Board of Trustees met to review the decision listed the reasons why the academic community should care about the case, calling on its readers to defend the university against the violation of academic freedom, the breach of shared governance, the abuse of administrative power, and corruption.[1]

Noticeably less common in these demands, however, was discussion of what, ostensibly, had started it all – Israel’s operation against Gaza. Indeed, what one thinks of the occupation, it was clearly argued on several occasions, was beside the point – what mattered was not the content of Salaita’s tweets but the fact that he had been unjustly fired for them.

There were a few exceptions. Corey Robin melded a defense of civil liberties with an analysis that recognized the centrality of the politics of Palestine. Of the dozen or so penned, one interdisciplinary petition also bluntly acknowledged the conflict at the root of the Salaita firing, arguing that “Professor Salaita’s expulsion from UIUC is part of a larger pattern of systematic squelching of free speech that, in effect, supports human rights violations against Palestinians.” And political theorist Bonnie Honig wrote a letter to Chancellor Wise that emphasized that any assessment of Salaita’s tweets had to make an effort at empathizing with his viewpoint – and therefore needed to consider what has actually been happening to Palestinians for the last sixty years.

These approaches, however, were clearly less popular strategies – and the reasons why are obvious. It is true that there are more academic associations, graduate students, and professors coming out in solidarity with Palestinians. Yet the issue remains a stubbornly “controversial” one, and actions such as the American Studies Association’s vote to engage in an academic boycott against Israel come under harsh criticism from within the academy. If the supporters of Salaita had organized primarily under the call to defend Palestinians’ rights – rather than academics’ rights – they would not have had such success.

Thus as a political strategy, this pragmatic move is hard to criticize. It is also understandable that many scholars, even those who support Palestinians, would want to place some distance between themselves and the harshness of some of Salaita’s tweets. Yet it leaves Salaita’s defenders open to an objection that speaks to the larger contradictions of the standard, liberal defense of freedom of speech and academic freedom: What if someone had tweeted something equally offensive about African Americans, Native Americans, or any other minority group? Would her firing have resulted in such outrage?

Of course, this classic “reverse racism” argument is, on its own terms, incoherent. It would be impossible for a theoretical scholar to compose identical tweets in relation to marginalized groups because none of the aforementioned minorities are engaged in the oppression of an entire population whose lands they have been occupying for more than half a century. Context is everything, and there is no “equivalent” of the content of Salaita’s tweets that could have applied to oppressed minorities in the United States.

Yet it is precisely in the difference of the two scenarios that the deeper logic of this objection hits its target. For although we cannot imagine comparable tweets in terms of content, we can imagine comparable amounts of offense being generated – we can imagine, in other words, African Americans feeling as threatened by someone’s tweets as Zionists apparently felt by Salaita’s tweets. Yet in this case, their outrage and corresponding argument that they were not entirely safe in the university space would be legitimate, because it would be accurate. Indeed, the thing that makes the reverse racism argument itself racist is that it implies that the offense of the privileged can be equated with the suffering of the oppressed.

Not surprisingly, such arguments get no traction in the liberal academy, for certain questions of race in America are now established historical fact and no longer dwell in the category of “the controversial.” And when apologists for Salaita’s firing deploy this talking point, they are effectively highlighting – and complaining – that anti-Zionism is not universally equated with bigotry in the same manner. Liberals like to elide this point by falling back on rhetoric about open debate and allowing dissent; yet this obscures the reality that a condition of endlessly tolerated open debate only exists when questions of what is just or unjust still remain unsettled.

For half a century ago, a professor could have, in fact, made public statements greatly offending either Southern whites or African Americans and be defended by her colleagues as simply engaging the public in “difficult issues.” But the civil rights movement succeeded in settling the question against Jim Crow, and consequentially describing Southern prejudice as bigotry is accepted as responsible scholarship, and racist flirtations are likewise no longer neutrally described as “controversial” but are condemned as shameful and unacceptable.

Those organizing against the occupation, however, have still not yet accomplished this crucial shift. Academics clearly came out in support of Salaita’s right to engage the public on this “contentious” issue, yet much fewer defended his appointment on the basis of the ultimate justice of his cause. And while much of the scholarly community is either sympathetic or in outright solidarity with Palestine, the fact that most academic workers prefer to couch their opposition in terms of defending freedom of speech or academic freedom speaks volumes about how far activists have to go in achieving this swing in perception.

Yet at the same time, supporters of BDS and other movements critical of Israel might also be encouraged that so many scholars are willing to come out in support of Salaita at all, regardless of how much the framing of that opposition avoids the fundamental conflict at hand – for in deciding to class Salaita’s statements as relating to a “difficult issue,” they are, at least, not being received by a majority of academics as clearly unacceptable. This, in turn, appears to relate back to a general sense of the accuracy of his argument that Palestinians today, at the least, suffer under an unjust occupation.

Which brings us back to the elephant in the room – despite the legitimacy of concerns about freedom of speech and academic freedom, those liberties are under threat because of a particular power struggle – ultimately, the Salaita controversy was first and foremost a conflict about Israel and Palestine. And as BDS and the movement for Palestinian liberation pushes forward, it will repeatedly come into contact with this question: How close are we to witnessing Palestine being viewed as less a controversial issue and more as a clear example of a struggle for human rights?

This is a question most liberals engaging in the discourse of civil liberties cannot ask, for they are unwilling to acknowledge that this is ultimately what is being contested. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” goes the old liberal shibboleth – yet such a blanket statement runs rich with exceptions. Although no liberal academic would advocate the application of state power to police political expression outside of the academy, nearly all academics believe freedom of speech has limits within the beloved communities of higher education. Freedom of speech, as everyone acknowledges but few wrestle with, has limits – universities do not welcome racist, sexist, or homophobic speech on their campuses, and rightly so. There is no place there for a professor defending Jim Crow or South African apartheid.

Academic institutions, moreover, are spaces that are morally policed – it is not a coincidence, nor due solely to the weak evidential basis for their positions, that only a minority of professors in the liberal arts are conservatives. Declining to hire someone, publish their paper, or chat them up at a conference are exercises in exclusion and shame which those in academia, nearly as much as any other community, participate in. Yet liberals cannot fully recognize their own moral positions for what they are, because they rely – as both a form of political protection and ideological commitment – on the belief that their commitment to pluralism is both infinite and noble.

Which creates an odd sort of handicap for those fighting for social justice. On the one hand, the cultural clout of appealing to freedom of speech and evoking the ideal of the fearlessly critical space of higher education provides powerful tools to those hoping to advance dissenting views. Moreover, the liberal university is, indeed, a space of political struggle where, historically, the voices of the oppressed have often been able to make their demands heard.

Yet at the same time this process of contestation takes place in an arena that denies it is happening at all – the university is not about advancing one cause over another, liberals insist, but creating a neutral and safe space for open debate. Thus we arrive, once again, at another example of liberalism’s ultimate, underlying contradiction: in promoting a moral vision, it denies it is moralistic; and as it exercises its ideological power, it denies it is an ideology.

Thus as academics and activists attempt to support those fighting racism and occupation, they are compelled to speak a language that adopts an agnostic position towards both these injustices, making it more difficult to demand that we no longer commit the ethical absurdity of classing systematic occupation and oppression in the sanitized category of “the controversial.” For Salaita deserves defending not merely because he was wronged, but, even more fundamentally, because he is right.

[1] I wrote this post last summer, and the link to the particular poster I am referencing is broken, and for the life of me I can’t find it again; but the image at the top of the post reflects the general tone I’m describing.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Effectively firing him” begs the question, doesn’t it? The issue of whether or not Salaita had been hired, and had quit his previous job based on a reasonable expectation of employment.

    The First Amendment (“freedom of speech”) applies to government action in the criminal justice realm – employees (including government employees) get fired for speech all the time, often justifiably. As for “academic freedom,” it seems to me that often it’s invoked when what’s really meant is “benefit of clergy” – the idea is that if you have a PhD you can say anything.

    Salaita’s case, I think, is interesting largely because the issue he got in trouble over is arguably related to his academic specialty. Comparing the situation of Palestinians to that of Native Americans may be extremely controversial, but it’s within the scope of his subject.

    • A side note to the main discussion, but an important one: it is simply not true that the 1st Amendment only involves matters of criminal law. Public employees enjoy substantial 1st Amendment protections that private employees do not. Of course these protections are far from absolute. But they’re significant and have been upheld repeatedly by the courts. For example, last June, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Lane v. Franks that public workers cannot be fired for giving truthful testimony even when that testimony is not part of their job responsibilities.

  2. Robin, you present an excellent case for reifying one’s moral vision and ideology in the form of an institutionally approved creedal statement. I say that sincerely, but regretfully, since I still don’t think it would be a good idea.

    • Hi Dave —

      I’m not sure I meant to do what you’re describing here, unless I misunderstand you — while I think the issue of academic freedom is a real and substantial one (which replies to SB’s final comment below), I just don’t think its scope is ever disconnected from larger political battles.

      As for strategy, as I’ve expressed here I understand the desire to couch everything in terms of academic freedom, but I don’t think that’s accurate or entirely honest. My inclination, rather, is to always point to the political conflict driving the discourse about academic freedom, and debate about that mostly, instead — because it’s through that process that we actually fight the battle over values and politics. I didn’t go into that too much here, though, lest this post end up being a refrain of my usual bitching about liberalism, which I’ve done so much extensively elsewhere that it wouldn’t have fit to attach it on to what was already a long essay.

      • The last two paragraphs seem to express a deep yearning for a conclusive consensus statement that will keep anyone from expressing the wrong opinion on the underlying political issues.

      • Well, insofar as I have a deep longing for a consensus that Palestinians shouldn’t be oppressed, or African Americans not be living in the New Jim Crow, that is certainly true! Since then, theoretically, they wouldn’t be; and I think we all hope for that, right? But I would want that consensus based on people actually embracing those beliefs and values on their own merit, not because we simply managed to pull off a rhetorical trick correctly, as tempting or even necessary as that might be in the short term.

  3. There are some complicating factors here. Salaita was initially hired presumably because the faculty on the search committee considered his research and its implications valuable and needed at the University of Illinois. The decision to retract the offer was made presumably at the behest of alumni, potential donors, and administrators, who considered Salaita’s views undesirable and not of value to the university. So there was in the initial conditions of the process a disagreement about Salaita’s ideas. In order to make the broadest possible case in support of Salaita, academics invoked academic freedom. In order to make the broadest case against him, his detractors cited the ‘incivility’ of his tweets. So the case is in many ways 1) similar to the tenure battle of Nadia Abu El-Haj at Barnard (academics successfully defended the quality of her work to outside pressure groups); 2) *also* similar to the recent Kipnis mess (battles over civility, safe discourse, etc.); and 3) *also* indicative of the erosion of shared governance in higher ed & the heavy influence of non-academic outsiders in setting policies.

    I agree completely that the progression of the debate in Salaita’s case increasingly ignored the actual content of his views on Israel and Palestine, but the subsequent battles over academic freedom and shared governance are not obfuscating copouts — they are real and meaningful contests with a lot at stake, including protecting the right to hire Salaita–based on the quality of his scholarship and ideas–in the first place.

  4. Robin thanks so much for this wonderful and important essay. In the interest of broadening the discussion,

    I think it is useful to note that, initially, it was totally unclear why Salaita was fired. For weeks, this indeterminacy played into the hands of reactionaries. It allowed free market types to say: “well why can’t I fire whomever I please?” and it allowed hasbarists to say “this is a special issue that crosses the line, and it cannot be discussed further.”

    It also allowed anti-Semites to say: “oh, you see, rich donors, etc.” I pushed back against that sort of spot analysis, because as a historian I know that life is never that tidy. Surely there was something fishy going on, but I did not think the evidence merited a cut-and-dried narrative. And, as it happens, it looks like there was pressure, but filtered through two faculty members (why them? and what exactly did they do?), and perhaps related to a potential multi-million dollar medical center deal, as the evidence here seems to suggest: http://www.samizdat-startups.org/

    A narrative is emerging of a perhaps much more insidious campaign by wealthy ideologues against Salaita, leveraging participation in some complex private/public partnership in order to get rid of a scholar whose criticisms of Israel were seen as particularly dangerous during the Gaza war. This eventuality is what I would put my money on, if I was a betting person, and that makes the story of Wise’s turnabout (we now know that she initially waved away calls for Salaita’s dismissal on academic protocol grounds, then changed her mind) much more plausible (if no more defensible or honorable).

    I think that it is also worth noting that quite a lot has changed even over the past 6 months. The Gaza war changed a lot of Progressive-Except-Palestine liberals’ minds, and the failure of the final, insane push for brinkmanship on Iran alienated them further. The recently called elections illustrated to those not paying close attention just how extreme the fascist tendencies of the Israeli ruling elites really are. The shift from Iran-fearmongering to BDS-fearmongering, about which Peter Beinart writes, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.659525, will no doubt turn off a further segment of the American intelligenstia, for whom a minimal degree of consistency matters, and for whom academic freedom, however limply defined, remains a cardinal ethical commitment.

    I write all of this not as a critique of your piece, but simply as a historical note–the summer of 2015 is a very different beast from the summer of 2014. In this light, Salaita’s fight gains importance with every passing day. The AAUP moving forward with formal censure of UI matters greatly, and my hope is that increasing numbers of scholars will see connections between Salaita’s case, the bizarre public dressing-down of Prof Grundy, the attacks on tenure in Wisconsin, and the reckless slashing and burning of the North Carolina higher education system. (Against this backdrop, too, it certainly seems that the preponderance of “my liberal students are neo-McCarthyites!” slatepitches are doing the work of the very worst).

    • Thanks so much for this updated info, Kurt! I very much agree that the operation against Gaza and the recent elections have pushed things even further along in terms of more and more former Zionists giving up.

      I also very much agree with your last point about the current painting of students as little McCarthies — part of my point in this essay is that each case of someone claiming their academic freedom has been violated cannot be simply responded to in the exact same way, as each has a political context and struggle with potentially very different consequences that we need to look into. In other words, some people might be tempted to equate what happened to Salaita with what happened to Kipnis, and even though I’m sympathetic with Kipnis for what happened to her (but not for what she originally wrote, which I thought was atrocious), I’m not at all inclined to think they are twin examples of the same phenomenon, and to refer to them both in the same breath is, I think, very politically dangerous (as it will simply be used, whether people want it to or not, to discredit higher education and student activism even more, and not much else).

  5. Robin Marie,

    Thanks for this provocative post. I am thoroughly provoked — for which circumstance I heartily thank you! Beats thinking about this abysmal manuscript.

    The purpose of academic freedom is precisely to avoid an inquisitorial process that vets the statements of the “offending” party against some prior (if not explicitly articulated) political doctrine or nostrum. The compliantly orthodox — whether you measure “orthodoxy” according to the “rule” of those who foot the bill for higher education, or those who set the discursive ground rules within the (generally) left-leaning professoriate (per, e.g., Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University) — rarely need to avail themselves of the protections of academic freedom. But scholars like Salaita, or Erik Loomis, or Laura Kipnis, who all challenged various “orthodoxies,” do need the protections of academic freedom. Moreover, they need those protections to rest upon not a hairsplitting parsing of the content of particular utterances (including, ridiculously, statements that were quite obviously meant as figures of speech), but rather on a more holistic prioritization of the freedom of intellectual inquiry and of intellectual inquirers to speak the truth as they see it, with the full expectation that if their “truth” is deemed in error it will be fully and fairly challenged by other scholars who are equally free to argue against it.

    In short, what they need — and what they deserve — is a thoroughly liberal defense of free inquiry, free speech, free thought.

    And of course I realize that arguing with you, one of my esteemed (and fondly regarded!) colleagues on the blog, will seem in bad form to some observers, while my particular thinking on this issue (liberal with a capital “L”) will seem retrograde to others. At the same time, I also want to acknowledge and commend the risk you have taken: you have expressed here a minoritarian view (as far as I have understood it) of what academic freedom entails. Further, I would argue that this view deserves careful consideration, not only on its merits (which are not negligible, though as you see I have decided that they’re not dispositive), but also because you (and I) are part of an ad hoc intellectual community in which the freedom to dissent is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) defended, precisely because in that freedom lies the potential for forging a new understanding.

    I do not mean to sneakily put in a plug for my version of academic freedom in opposition to yours. I am being as open about it as I can be!

    At the same time, precisely because your politics and mine may differ (and the extent to which they differ is a moving target, not least because I am in something like perpetual motion, and you may be as well), I’m grateful that the culture of this space (which is, I would suggest, modeled on the culture of academe as a liberal institution) has reinforced for me the importance of intellectual dissent, and the duty of the professionally/intellectually “orthodox” (another moving target, depending on the issue) to protect the rights of the “dissident,” not just for the sake of the enterprise of free enquiry, but also for the sake of anyone (read: all of us!) who may suddenly find him- or herself espousing ideas that are increasingly less “orthodox” than they used to be. Precisely because it protects the job security of political/intellectual dissidents, the idea of academic freedom helps preserve a space within which those major epistemic shifts within fields of inquiry, shifts you allude to in your post above, can happen.

    • Thanks for this L.D., I appreciate the spirit of this comment, and interestingly, don’t have much to say in response, except the following:

      “But scholars like Salaita, or Erik Loomis, or Laura Kipnis, who all challenged various ‘orthodoxies,’ do need the protections of academic freedom.”

      I agree, but here’s the rub — not all orthodoxies are created equal. Some ought to be orthodoxies — i.e., black people are not genetically inferior to white people — and some should not be. I would never advocate using state power to say, lock up white supremacists, but I don’t believe that individual citizens and institutions need treat all acts of breaking orthodoxy the same. That makes me deeply illiberal, I know, but that’s why I’m a leftist 🙂

      Which is why, while I agree with all your said about this community and how it is modeled on liberal notions of open discussion and debate, I would hope that, should I ever write a post advancing the argument of say, The Bell Curve, that you would all collectively decide to vote me off the blog. Because I would deserve it, and I don’t advocate any kind of society that refrains from using shame and exclusion to indicate to its members what it consider right, and what it considers wrong. (Although I do believe in strict limits to that exclusion; i.e., you would be justified in kicking me off the blog but not in, say, using state power to throw me in jail or steal my dog, or something. I also believe there has to be a process of forgiveness and reconciliation open to all.)

  6. As an Israeli academic who thinks (based on what I’ve read, admitting that I haven’t followed the debate too closely) that Salaita shouldn’t have been fired for his tweets, and in general is opposed to and embarrassed by his government’s policies toward the Palestinians, I have to say that two things about this post really rub me the wrong way.
    First, in what way is the “offense” taken by Salaita’s opponents “the offense of the privileged”? What assumptions are being made here about people who objected to the tweets, their ethnicity, and the privileges enjoyed by people of that ethnicity? I wasn’t particularly offended by Salaita, but I have to say that I find this line offensive (even if I am privileged).
    Second–and this is really not a criticism of the post but of “former Zionists giving up”–since when are immoral, unjust, or oppressive actions taken by a country considered a reasonable reason for “giving up” on that country? Without getting into details of American actions around the world during the same period as Israel’s occupation and oppression of Palestinians, as well as in the hundreds of years preceding, how many of these conscientious Americans have given up on America, boycotted it, etc.?

  7. Hi David —

    As to the first question, I was referring to the privilege wealth affords one in this country, as well as not being a non-white minority; i.e. brown or black. As for those who were upset and Jewish, I see little point engaging in a drawn out debate about the incorporation of Jews into the category of “white” since the mid-20th century; absolutely, anti-Semitism in America still exists and is not a “non-problem,” but the general position is that something fundamentally changed since circa the 1950s and 60s, when they were incorporated into “whiteness.” You see this in the common use of Jews as an example of the “model minority” other minorities, such as blacks and Latinos & Hispanics, are measured against in a negative light.

    As for the second point, it was partially a problem of succinctness, I think — what I meant was that several formerly liberal Zionists are not giving up on Israel as a whole, but on the idea that Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democratic state. In other words they’ve just given up on Zionism. I’m of the opinion that giving up on Zionism is not the same as giving up on Israel, but that’s again a whole additional can of worms.

    Finally, as far as the America that is embodied by our founding base of slavery and genocide, followed by hundreds of years of ongoing (to this day) racial oppression, the exploitation of working people of all races and backgrounds, and the pursuit of imperial power through spreading capitalist markets, I have pretty much given up on *that* vision of America. As for boycotting it, wish I could, but it’s tricky when you live here.

  8. From Robin Marie’s post:
    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” goes the old liberal shibboleth – yet such a blanket statement runs rich with exceptions. Although no liberal academic would advocate the application of state power to police political expression outside of the academy, nearly all academics believe freedom of speech has limits within the beloved communities of higher education. Freedom of speech, as everyone acknowledges but few wrestle with, has limits – universities do not welcome racist, sexist, or homophobic speech on their campuses, and rightly so.

    I find somewhat disturbing the implication that speech *outside* the campus is, and should be, less restricted than speech *inside* the university. As someone who spent a fairly large part of his life as a student, this strikes me as backwards. Universities should, if anything, be places where there is *more* freedom of expression, not less, than in society at large. If that is not the case now, for whatever reason, I think that probably represents a regression. (The issue of someone advocating, say, apartheid, is a non-issue empirically, since I doubt there are any defenders of apartheid to be found on U.S. campuses. When this was a live issue in the 1980s and congressional sanctions vs South Africa were being debated, South African govt spokesmen did appear on U.S. campuses. They were met with protesters, but in some cases they spoke. I’m not sure they convinced anyone, probably they didn’t; and in retrospect letting them speak seems an arguably defensible, if legitimately debatable, decision. They might have been their own worst representatives, so to speak. But this is a side point.)

    I basically agree with much of what Ben Alpers says in the post that followed this one by Robin Marie. I guess that makes me, on these sorts of issues, a liberal. (And I think, as Ben wrote, that one can be both a liberal in this sense and a leftist or ‘on the left’, but that’s another issue.) Finally, re Robin Marie’s claim that liberals don’t recognize they adhere to an ideology: I know there are various valences and meanings of “ideology” (e.g., in the Marxist lexicon), but personally I don’t view “ideology” as a bad word — I view it mostly as a synonym for ‘worldview’ or ‘set of beliefs’. In that sense, virtually everyone has an ideology and the liberal commitment to free expression is an ideological commitment (and liberals have no reason to shy away from acknowledging that).

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