I wrote a short note to Chancellor Wise when this story first broke expressing hope that she would find a way to delicately undo the decision. I didn’t join some of the collective statements for a variety of reasons. But I’ve written a longer letter today because in many ways I think her defense of the decision today is actually far more troubling than the initial decision itself.
August 22, 2014
Dear Chancellor Wise:
I appreciate that you’re in a difficult position on the Steven Salaita case. I’m also very grateful to you for your appearance at Swarthmore last year. The symposium was terrifically engaging and you were a big part of that.
Nevertheless I urge you to find a way to reverse your decision on Salaita.
I have three significant concerns.
The first you have heard from many other scholars. My own feelings about the issue of Israel and Palestine are mixed, and I personally prefer reading and speaking with scholars who can leave some room for disagreement and debate on that issue. However, my view of academic freedom is that it is more than a restraint against sanctions for speech. I think it’s an obligation to seek out a wide range of viewpoints and expressive styles in faculty, in students and in staff, across the whole of the academic community. So while I admit that if I were sitting in a room looking at candidates for a position, I would be a bit uncomfortable with Professor Salaita’s tweets, I would also try to remind myself of that positive obligation to look for colleagues who are not like me and do not adhere to my preferences. Because all of us are just one decision away from the same kind of negative judgment against us. Which is why we believe in academic freedom.
Both you and Professor Nelson—so far the major public defenders of this decision—insist that in any event it was not about Professor Salaita’s views on Israel and it was not even about the general tone of his writings on social media. You argue instead in your recent public statement that the decision was made because of a belief that Professor Salaita could not maintain appropriate professional attitudes towards his students and colleagues.
I cannot say strongly enough how troubling I find this argument. It is in some respects even worse than what was on offer before.
I am not troubled by the idea that an acceptance of all students as they come to you is an important professional standard. I would go even further than you do in your statement and suggest that persistent inability to accept and respectfully work with students and colleagues with many diverse views is not just a legitimate weight on hiring but should govern whether someone retains tenure. But you must not measure adherence to this standard by reading what scholars or intellectuals say or write in the public sphere, whether in formal publication or in social media.
The proof is in the pudding: in how a professor teaches, in how they participate in the professional evaluation of other scholars, in how they execute their administrative duties. There are innumerable examples of faculty in the last fifty years whose intensely expressed public views had no impact on the professionalism of their work with students and colleagues.
The problem in your case is that neither the University of Illinois nor any of the proponents of your decision have presented any evidence that Professor Salaita would be or has been unable to adhere to those ethics. The only evidence is a handful of tweets that really say nothing about how he approaches the classroom, how he mentors students, how he participates in evaluation. The only evidence available about his teaching and professional demeanor is that he earned tenure at another institution and survived the scrutiny of your own faculty in a hiring process, which is far more powerful than four or five sentences on Twitter dubiously interpreted through a hostile and unfair gaze. I would frankly trust Professor Nelson less based on his recent statements in terms of these professional obligations than I would Professor Salaita.
This is a grave disservice to Professor Salaita: it insinuates something about him as a professional without any evidence whatsoever. If the content of several sentences he wrote is sufficient in your view, then you have a faculty full of unprofessional teachers and colleagues. So does Swarthmore. So does every academic institution in the United States.
My second concern is less commonly expressed by the critics of your decision but equally important. By stepping in at this point in a hiring decision with the justifications you’ve offered, you’ve potentially created a serious administrative problem across all academic institutions. You are as aware as I am that the approval newly hired candidates by trustees or managers is ordinarily a pro forma step of the process, whatever the legalities might be. If it’s ever used to revoke an offer, that is typically because of the emergence of some overwhelmingly and indisputably negative material fact about the candidate which could not possibly have been foreseen through ordinary diligence—the commission of a criminal act in the time between initial offer and approval, involvement in some extraordinary scandal, and so on. None of which are true in this case, whatever one thinks of Professor Salaita’s tweets.
So what is going to happen now if your decision stands is that what was pro forma no longer is, and not just at UIUC. Senior administrators at many institutions, concerned by a newly revealed domain of risk and liability, will be forced to much more heavily scrutinize and micro-manage proposed job offers, with practical authority migrating upwards. Since I suspect that you and Vice President Christopher Pierre do not have significant free time available in your schedules for more assertive, centralized diligence of this kind (nor do your counterparts at other institutions) this will doubtless bring additional pressure for the addition of yet another layer of administrative authority. The net impact, if this develops as I suspect it will is a bigger drain on finances, a slower and less nimble approach to making decisions, and the loss of academic freedom by transferring authority and discretion away from faculty.
The time to make these kinds of discretionary judgments is early. If you privately feel in the aftermath of a search that an individual department is repeatedly demonstrating what you believe is a lack of diligence, that is a good reason for a quiet direct and confidential conversation between yourself and that department. There is precedent for administrative leaders (and often colleagues) to intervene quietly but firmly in a situation where a department is either painfully divided or is seriously out of touch with shared standards and common expectations. But that is done carefully and confidentially for good reason, and it is not aimed at reversing a particular decision about a particular individual. That is precisely what tenure and academic freedom rightfully exist to protect.
My third concern is that this decision is already inhibiting faculty, especially junior faculty, from developing greater facility with social media and its expressive norms. You cannot write a monograph 140 characters at a time, and not just because of the brevity of the format. Different expressive media develop different cultures. What works as expression on Twitter, even by scholars or intellectuals, is different than what works in a three-hundred page book for a scholarly press. It’s important for faculty to be conversant with the entirety of our public culture and to be able to travel across different media and platforms. Not just for the cultivation of their scholarship but also for their ability to teach the current and future generations. I can’t help but feel that the University of Northern Illinois’ dangerous tweaking of their acceptable use policy for faculty and staff announced today has some distant relationship to your decision.
I hope you can find a way to change this decision.
Department of History