David Palumbo-Liu writes: A few weeks ago Steven Salaita had reason to be pleased. After a full review by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he had received a generous offer of a tenured, associate professor position there — the normal contract was offered, signed by the school, he had received confirmation of his salary, a teaching schedule, everything except the final approval of the UIUC chancellor.
In academia this is not at all unusual; departments and schools are told to go ahead with the offer, so as to be competitive with both the candidate’s current school and others that might be bidding for their talent. Salaita is a world-renowned scholar of indigenous studies (and also a frequent Salon contributor). At that point, as required by academic protocols, upon accepting the position he resigned the one he held at Virginia Tech.
But final approval never came. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that “Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for academic affairs, informed the job candidate, Steven G. Salaita, on Friday that they were effectively revoking a written offer of a tenured professorship made to him last year by refusing to submit it to the system’s Board of Trustees next month for confirmation.”
According to Inside Higher Education: “Sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.” Nevertheless, IHE goes on to report: “But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told the News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”
With both the university and Salaita keeping quiet on the details of the firing at the moment, it’s hard to tell what exactly changed the university’s mind. But it would seem that Salaita would be doubly protected from summary firing. First of all, no matter how “uncivil,” “disagreeable” or even repugnant some of his tweets might appear to some people, they are nonetheless protected under the First Amendment. This holds true for all individuals. But Salaita is also protected by academic freedom, a concept enshrined in American institutions of higher education.
Not only that, Salaita would be protected as a tenured professor, had it not been for his being caught between resigning from Virginia Tech and being formally hired by UIUC. The concepts of academic freedom and tenure go hand in hand — both are aimed at guaranteeing professors the freedom to found new knowledge, which is often only possible by critically examining old knowledge and continually retesting norms and assumptions, without fear of reprisals from entrenched interests, or from those who might be threatened or offended. Besides the lofty ideals of the pursuit of knowledge, academic freedom and tenure have practical goals as well — they assure that no professor will lose their livelihood for taking unpopular stances. In sum, then, Salaita was on firm ground according to all the norms and protocols for both free speech and academic freedom.
But his tweets had indeed offended not a few, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which wrote to UI president Robert Easter accusing Salaita of being anti-Semitic and declaring that “such outrageous statements present a real danger to the entire campus community, especially to its Jewish students.” Here is where things start to blur, and to blur in ways that make this issue much more than simply a matter for the ivory tower. We see a deliberate confusion of a private individual’s thoughts and beliefs and their professional life. Despite the fears of the Wiesenthal Center, there has been no proof whatsoever that Salaita’s tweets would be required reading in the classroom. Or that his political views would be force-fed to the students. Furthermore, the “danger” mentioned here is extremely vague. What is deeply troubling in this case is the influence of outside agencies and organizations on a university decision, and the absolute lack of transparency on the part of the university. [Continue reading…]