Salaita and Academic Freedom

September 6, 2014

By KC Johnson at Minding the Campus

The Steven Salaita case at the University of Illinois continues to engender controversy. The three most perceptive commentaries came from FIRE and Steven Lubet. In comments with which I entirely agree, FIRE condemned the public statement of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise, who justified the revocation of Salaita’s offer on the grounds “we cannot and will not tolerate . . . personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse . . . viewpoints themselves.” But why, as FIRE noted, should anyone be prohibited from “disrespectfully” “abusing” ideas”—such as racism or sexism or homophobia? Lubet analyzed the differences between Salaita’s academic freedom and legal claims, and correctly took to task a group of mostly left-of-center law professors who penned a letter defending Salaita but in the process minimized or even whitewashed Salaita’s extremist views. He spoke of his own experience with the ACLU defending the Nazis’ right to march at Skokie—but added that “the ACLU never soft-pedaled the Nazis as merely passionate critics of international banking.”

To me, the Salaita case most resembles that of former Colorado professor Ward Churchill—who lost his job on plagiarism charges, after a public backlash regarding his grotesque comments about 9/11. I argued at the time that Colorado should have retained Churchill and then launched an investigation how someone with such marginal qualifications could have been hired and tenured. Churchill should have stayed not because he didn’t plagiarize (the university’s study was convincing on this point) but because the university knew or should have known about the lack of quality in Churchill’s work when it hired and continued to employ him. His lack of professionalism, marginal (at best) qualifications, and extremist beliefs were fine, until they got noticed off campus. Only when his rhetoric became embarrassing for Colorado did the university get rid of him—suggesting that, at base, it was his rhetoric and not his qualifications that led to his dismissal.

Salaita’s case is similar—the university (or its faculty and administrators who supervised the American Indian Studies department) knew or should have known that the professor was an anti-Israel extremist known for vile rhetoric and Churchill-esque quality scholarship. (A particularly bizarre example highlighted by Martin Kramer: “It is well known by Palestinians that anytime one of them enters or exits Israel, regardless of nationality, he or she will likely undergo an anal or vaginal probe. These probes… aren’t intended to be pragmatic. They are acts of psychological domineering and political assertion. The agents of these coercive actions are rehearsing their own depravity through fulfillment of their Orientalist notions of Arab and Muslim sexuality.”) Illinois should have gone through with the hire (lest it create a precedent for firing professors based on what they say) and then conducted a full-scale investigation as to how its personnel processes could have ended with an offer extended to the author of the other-worldly quote above. Instead, the course that Illinois has taken has made a martyr out of Salaita and made it less likely that a full-scale inquiry into the department’s flawed hiring processes will ever occur.

That said: there’s something troubling about most of the Salaita commentary, especially the law professors’ letter and even the FIRE statement. There seems to be a general presumption that the violations of academic freedom at Illinois began when the chancellor declined to forward Salaita’s offer to the trustees. But if academic freedom means that a professor shouldn’t lose a job because of his public statements, no matter how offensive or suggestive of unimpressive intellectual capacity, so too does the concept mean that a professor shouldn’t benefit from his political opinions in pursuing a job.

Salaita was hired for a position in an American Indian studies program. His academic specialization, to the extent it can be called that, appears to be Middle Eastern or Arab-American studies. (His last book was entitled,Israel’s Dead Soul). As the Kramer excerpt illustrated, it can be hard sometimes to distinguish between the quality, tone, and substance of Salaita’s “scholarship” and that of his tweets. Subsequent work by David Bernstein (examining some of Salaita’s book reviews) and Liel Liebovitz (discussing some of Salaita’s “academic” publications) reinforces the concern with the quality of his work.

Perhaps the American Indian studies program at Illinois is a hotbed of Zionist sentiment, and its members, as part of their intense commitment to academic freedom, nonetheless hired Salaita for his impressive scholarship, despite their revulsion at his ideas. Or perhaps—far more likely—the program was attracted to Salaita at least in part because of his anti-Israel extremism, and as a result extended an offer to him at the expense of applicants who actually had done research in the history, literature, or culture of American Indians. (Does anyone believe that if Salaita had tweeted in defense of vitriolic attacks on Muslims rather than Israeli Jews, or had described the Palestinian Authority in the same terms he used to describe Israel, that he would have been extended an offer by Illinois’ American Indian studies department?) Given the quality of mind demonstrated in his tweets, and given the bizarre assertions he has made in his “scholarship,” it’s very hard to imagine that there wasn’t at least one candidate for the Illinois job more qualified than Salaita.

Because searches are perhaps the most opaque aspect of the academic process, the only way that the public will learn the identities of the other semi-finalists and finalists for the Illinois job is if the applicants themselves reveal it publicly. (The chances of that occurring are about zero: who would want to admit they were beaten out for a job by someone like Salaita?) But defenders of academic freedom should be as critical of the Indian Studies program as they are of the Illinois chancellor.

Schools: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign