Cary Nelson is right. Illinois controversy not an academic freedom issue.

A week ago, the University of Illinois rescinded a faculty job offer to Steven Salaita, a scholar of American Indian studies. Salaita also draws comparisons between American Indian studies and the Israeli-Palestinan conflict. He comments frequently on Israel including controversial tweets attacking Israel using incredibly provocative language. Cary Nelson, an Illinois English professor, long time president of the Association for University Professors (AAUP), and an often outspoken supporter of faculty supported the administration’s move.

Photo credit: MCT Campus

Many faculty advocates have criticized Nelson as well as Illinois for violating Salaita’s academic freedom by taking away the job offer. This debate is complicated by the university’s timing in removing the offer which occurred just before the start of the new academic year. Although the university’s timing was unfortunate and should not have happened, the ensuing debate often seems to misunderstand the nature of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is the freedom of faculty to teach and communicate ideas without being targeted for reprisal. This freedom ensures that faculty can engage in debate without censorship and preserve the integrity to make academic decisions.

Faculty are free to express views related to their discipline, but have a responsibility make sure these views are informed by their expertise.

On the surface, Salaita would appear to fail this test. His tweets are relevant to areas that he publishes on and thus would be in bounds to considered part of his scholarly communication.

To put it simply, Salaita’s tweets are disgusting, but that doesn’t mean they don’t necessarily deserve protection. Yet, in reading his Twitter feed, I can only see anti-Semitism. Pure and simple. I can’t find any evidence that his opinions are based on scholarly conclusions of any kind. Professors have a responsibility to use scholarly evidence and ideas. Without this, you can’t claim academic freedom.

There is a second complicating factor in the Salaita case. He isn’t employed by the University of Illinois. The Board of Trustees did not approve his hiring and, according to published reports, he didn’t have an official contract.

Typically, the trustees are not a major deciding point and their approval is taken for granted. However, it is the trustees that are responsible and they have the authority to decide not to hire a faculty member. Obviously, this is highly unusual, but the nature of this entire case is unusual.

Even if you take the position that Salaita’s tweets should be protected, does academic freedom prevent Illinois from revoking a job offer?

I suggest not. The University of Illinois is free to hire faculty that they believe would benefit their campus. It is certainly understandable why they may have had second thoughts about Salaita.

If he were already on the faculty, this case would then turn on my first point about whether his anti-Israel comments were protected scholarly communication. Since he wasn’t hired, Cary Nelson is right that Illinois can decide if someone is a fit for their campus.

Academic freedom protects faculty from reprisal from campus administrators, government leaders, or faculty colleagues.

However, it is not a blank check for hate speech or speech that doesn’t derive from academic expertise.

Salaita has 1st Amendment rights to tweet whatever he wants about the Middle East. As faculty, we must draw our conclusions from scholarly evidence in order to claim academic freedom.

And this freedom is only for protections from institutional reprisal. If you aren’t hired in the first place, the institution is under no obligation to protect your scholarly communication.

It doesn’t really matter whether his speech isn’t academic and doesn’t deserve protection or if Illinois isn’t under an obligation to protect his tweets. In either case, the university can decide not to hire him.

Academic freedom protects faculty who espouse unpopular ideas. At the end of the day, Cary Nelson is right and the University of Illinois is within its rights to not hire Salaita. It is an unfortunate situation on many accounts, but it isn’t an academic freedom issue.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “Cary Nelson is right. Illinois controversy not an academic freedom issue.

  1. If academic freedom only relates to matters that “derive from academic expertise,” we are in deep trouble.

    1. The is a slippery slope. For example, Salaita might rightly argue that his study for decades of the American Indian/Native Americans offers him a unique perspective on Gaza. It is also a slippery slope, who gets to comment on political issues?

    2. The courts have not made that distinction.

    3. The AAUP has never made that distinction.

    4. That is not what Cary Nelson. He defended the decision arguing that academic freedom was not issue because the issue whether to hire. He suggested that Salaita could not be fired by Virginia Tech (if he had not resigned) for the same tweets that seem to have motivated Illinois not to him.

    For the record, I don’t agree with Nelson on this point. And I’m not alone https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/15/cary-nelson-faces-backlash-over-his-views-controversial-scholar

  2. I agree that this is a slippery slope which makes it (from a higher ed perspective) such an interesting case.

    Salaita should argue that his studies provide him a unique perspective. I think they do and I believe he potentially has a valuable perspective to offer.

    However, I would disagree and believe the AAUP draws a distinction. From the 1940 statement:

    “As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution”

    His tweets don’t meet the letter or spirit of this admonition to me and do not warrant protection under academic freedom.

  3. As a matter of policy, AAUP consider this issue in their 2014 statement: http://www.aaup.org/report/academic-freedom-and-electronic-communications-2014

    Where do we draw the line? What about the dispute at Kansas last year?

    Also the 1940 Statement you quoted was interpreted later:

    This paragraph is the subject of an interpretation adopted by the sponsors of the 1940 Statement immediately following its endorsement which reads as follows:

    If the administration of a college or university feels that a teacher has not observed the admonitions of paragraph 3 of the section on Academic Freedom and believes that the extramural utterances of the teacher have been such as to raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position, it may proceed to file charges under paragraph 4 of the section on Academic Tenure. In pressing such charges, the administration should remember that teachers are citizens and should be accorded the freedom of citizens. In such cases the administration must assume full responsibility, and the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges are free to make an investigation.

    Paragraph 3 of the section on Academic Freedom in the 1940 Statement should also be interpreted in keeping with the 1964 Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances , which states inter alia: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”

  4. It seems to me that the issue is whether or not his comments are extramural utterances. My view and interpretation of the AAUP is that Twitter or other electronic means simply treated the same as print or other sources. That’s not the issue.

    The Kansas policy was clearly wrong and sought to regulate even scholarly communication using Twitter. That’s not okay.

    It still comes back to my main arguments. 1) Is Illinois obligated to hire him and protect his academic freedom. I don’t think so. If he was a member of the faculty, they’d clearly have that expectation. 2) And this is the big point, his tweets are scholarly because he’s made them scholarly by virtue of the work he does. He isn’t a stats professor writing about the conflict. That would be extramural in my mind. They are part of his scholarly communication which does put more burden and responsibility on him. He failed to consider that by commenting about an area of his expertise in the way that he did. I couldn’t say whatever I wanted about women or minorities in higher education and claim academic freedom or freedom of speech. I have a responsibility as a higher education scholar to be more considered. It is a responsibility of my position and academic training.

Comments are closed.