A week ago, the University of Illinois rescinded a faculty job offer to Steven Salaita, a scholar of American Indian studies.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.
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.