UIUC and Academic Freedom

Professor Steven Salaita was offered a job at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), as associate professor of American Indian Studies, in October 2013. He resigned his previous position at Virginia Tech, and his partner also made arrangements to move with him. 

On August 1 2014, less than a month before classes were to begin, the UIUC Chancellor rescinded the offer, due to angry posts he had made on Twitter about Israel’s attack on Gaza. 

This situation seems to me to be a pretty clear assault on academic freedom. I don’t think the UIUC or it’s chancellor dispute these basic facts — Chancellor Wise’s letter and the Board of Trustees statement of support for the Chancellor claim that “The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel”, but is somewhat less direct in explaining on what grounds ‘the decision’ was made, but imply that Salaita’s tweets constituted “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” and that this is good cause to rescind a job offer (that is, effectively fire a professor).  (Incidentally, Salaita has a proven history of excellence in classroom instruction, including respect for diverse student opinions). 

[I have questions about what constitutes “demeaning and abusing viewpoints themselves”, and generally thought that “demeaning viewpoints themselves”, although never one’s academic peers personally, was a standard and accepted part of scholarly discourse. But anyway.]

I’ve looked through Salaita’s tweets, and am not actually sure which ones are supposed to be the ones justifying effective dismissal.   I’m not sure Chancellor Wise or the trustees are either.  The website Inside Higher Ed made an open records request and received emails indicating that pressure from U of I funders motivated the decision — there are emails from major donors and university development (fund-raising) administrators pressuring the Chancellor to get rid of Salaita. 

This raises academic freedom issues not only in relation to firing a professor because of his political beliefs; but also issues of faculty governance and autonomy, when an administrator rescinds a job offer enthusiastically made by an academic department because of pressure from funders. 

I’ve made no secret of my support for Palestinian human rights, and an end to the Israeli occupation and apartheid system.  However, I stop to consider whether I would have the same reaction if a hypothetical professor had made the same sorts of tweets about the Ukraine/Russia conflict (partisan to either side), or tweeting anti-Palestinian content about Gaza instead. I am confident I would be just as alarmed about an assault on academic freedom. However, the fact that it’s hard to imagine funders exerting concerted pressure because of a professor’s opinions on Ukraine — or a professor’s anti-Palestinian opinions — is telling about the political context here, and I think indicates that this really is about Salaita’s “positions on the conflict in the Middle East and his criticism of Israel.”

So lots of academics are upset about this. So many that I suspected, when this story first developed, the UIUC would clearly have to back down, but instead they dug in further. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has expressed serious concern about violations of Salaita’s academic freedom — and the academic freedom of the faculty members who selected him for hire. The AAUP also notes that they have “long objected to using criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty evaluation,” in part just because of how easy it is to use those criteria as a cover for suppression of political dissent. 

The Chronicle of Higher Ed, in a good article covering the controversy, reports that “Thousands of scholars in a variety of disciplines signed petitions pledging to avoid the campus unless it reversed its decision to rescind the job offer,” and some have already carried through on their pledge of boycott. Including David J. Blacker, director of the Legal Studies Program and a professor of Philosophy at the University of Deleware, who cancelled an appearance in a prestigious lecture series. The UIUC Education Justice project cancelled a conference due to the boycott. The executive council of the Modern Language Association has sent a letter to UIUC urging them to reconsider. 

This isn’t a partisan issue. Instead, it’s illustrative of the increasingly corporatized academy, where administrative decisions in deference to donor preferences or objections take precedence over academic freedom or faculty decisions about their own departmental hiring and other scholarly matters.  Also, the way the university was willing to rescind a job offer due to political speech after Salaita had resigned his previous position, reminds us of the general precarity of junior faculty careers, and the lack of respect and dignity faculty receive from university administration.  

A variety of disciplinary-specific open letters and boycott pledges have been started in support of Salaita.

I think librarians have a special professional responsibility to stand up for academic freedom.  

Dr. Sarah T. Roberts, a UIUC LIS alumnus and professor of Media Studies at Western University in Ontario, hosts a pledge in support of Salaita from LIS practitioners, students and scholars, with a boycott pledge to “not engage with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, including visiting the campus, providing workshops, attending conferences, delivering talks or lectures, offering services, or co-sponsoring events of any kind.”  

I’ve signed the letter, and I encourage you to consider doing so as well. I know I see at least one other signer I know from the Code4Lib community already.   I think it is important for librarians to take action to stand up for academic freedom. 

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