On the Salaita Decision

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.


Timothy Burke
Department of History
Swarthmore College

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15 Responses to On the Salaita Decision

  1. Thank you for this deeply thoughtful piece. I just wrote a Chronicle piece in which I related the story of a young professor who decided she couldn’t risk writing an opinion piece, lest it cost her professionally. This is the kind of ripple effect from such decisions. Deeply upsetting.

  2. Joey Headset says:

    I agree with your second point entirely, and feel like that point alone should be sufficient to overturn Salaita’s dismissal.

    However, I don’t find your first point entirely convincing. Obviously, you’re right when you say that the key factor in determining whether or not a professor would be able to treat all students/colleagues fairly should be primarily determined by their actual history of interactions with students and colleagues. However, I would argue that some of Salaita’s Twitter comments step over the line of “intensely expressed public views” into the kind of inflammatory and insulting rhetoric that might cause certain students to question how they would be treated in Salaita’s classroom.

    That said, if we’re asking whether Jewish students who support Israel would be *right* to fear mistreatment by Professor Salaita, the answer is probably not, for precisely the reasons you’ve established. But isn’t this the age where academic institutions are super-concerned about establishing safe spaces and eradicating perceived microaggressions? Honestly, I’m still not sure what a microaggression is, but I suspect a professor calling everyone who disagrees with his position on Israel an “awful human being” rises to the level of macro-aggression. Are Jewish students exempt from these concerns, because folks can always stick them inside the durable piñata that is Israel?

    Nevertheless, I agree that Salaita shouldn’t have been fired (or non-fired, or whatever procedural BS they’re going with). When in doubt, I’d always prefer to err on the side of academic freedom. However, you can’t have it both ways. Either social media is a garbage hole into which professors can safely spew invective without fear of consequence, or it’s an important means of academic expression — one with which academic institutions should encourage faculty to “develop greater facility”. If it is, as you suggest, the latter, then I think we can reasonably expect a level of civility from academics who use social media.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Small typo: missing “of” in the 3rd sentence of the “My second concern…” paragraph

  4. Sherifa Zuhur says:

    Just two additions here. 1. The Program in American Indian Studies faculty members have voted no confidence in Chancellor Wise as a result of her statements and actions, and note that she did not confer with them. In other words, their preferences in hiring were not taken into consideration in any way. 2. HR staff and administrators now scour the Web and social media and use even slander or inaccurate statements about candidates to exclude them. Such inappropriate hiring practices will only be strengthened if Wise succeeds in her action. I have suffered through this as a result of in accurate statements made in a CHE article and on a right-wing blog by someone who was angry he wasn’t invited to speak at my institution. Administrators have been, in some cases, frank about this, or as in Wise’s letter, they lie. Let’s stop this right now.

  5. Justin says:

    I don’t think I share your second concern, nor do I see it as one that will be especially moving to administrators. I do think there is a legitimate concern in the ballpark though.

    Your second concern was roughly this. If Illinois’ high-level administrators exert veto power here, that will effectively pressure other high-level administrators at other institutions to consider exerting similar veto powers as well; you take such considerations to be costly, and hence prefer a cheaper system in which very little consideration is given by high-level administrators to hiring decisions. Could you say more about why you think events at Illinois would press administrators at other schools to make decisions in a more costly way? Is the worry that they’ll be open to more litigation if they don’t? I’m afraid I don’t see why that should be…

    Could you also explain why you think this sort of consideration would be persuasive to the administrator to which you wrote this letter? It seems to me that administrators (like people in general) are loathe to give up powers that they have within their grasp. The mere threat that other administrators at other institutions might start lording more veto powers over their own departments doesn’t seem like a compelling reason for this administrator to refrain from exerting her own veto powers in a case where she clearly really wants to do so. In fact, if she’s like many administrators I’ve met, she probably thinks a lot of departments make lousy hiring decisions and really should be second-guessed more often, and she might think that an extra layer of costly administrators is exactly what is needed to keep departments in check.

    The more legitimate worry I see in this ballpark is that, after this whole debacle, job candidates might no longer be willing to accept an institution’s assurances that trustee-confirmation will be a mere formality, and instead demand that they actually get trustee confirmation before they resign their current position. If a lot of candidates demand this, that would completely muck up the timing of hiring processes. My sense is that boards of trustees aren’t the quickest-moving deliberative bodies around, nor do they want to be, and if it became commonplace that candidates demanded trustee-confirmation before being willing to commit to a job at a university, then that will make it a lot harder for that university to engage in the timely negotiations that are required to land good candidates. Over the short run, this will probably be a problem at Illinois, but the fact that this happened at Illinois may also make candidates at other institutions more wary too, so perhaps you’re right that this could poison the well for institutions everywhere.

  6. Barry says:

    Joey, I understand where you’re coming from. And when people who support Israeli ethnic cleansing are under similar sanctions, that would be a fair and balanced and honest thing. Until then, it’s not.

  7. Barry says:

    Here’s another viewpoint: “What most upset me about the 101 Professors volume and still does — I don’t know everyone covered in that book, but a number of the people I’ve known for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, a long period of time and I am familiar with a whole range of work that they’ve produced as scholars.

    When I attempt to evaluate their careers, when I attempt to evaluate their contributions to higher education, I’m concerned with the whole range of things that they’ve done. What’s their life work? Where does the main weight of their intellectual professional and moral commitments lie? What’s the full range of things that they’ve done?

    That’s largely a book in which for many of those people their primary works of scholarship are simply set aside and ignored. Occasional political comments are taken out of context sometimes, letters to the editor, you know, occasional political interventions and their entire lives — and their meaning and their presence in American culture is evaluated on the basis of those occasional statements. That to me, as a scholar, was a fundamental violation of fairness.

    I expect to look at the full range of someone’s work and to evaluate their careers in their entirety.”

    by Cary Nelson (http://www.cary-nelson.org/nelson/horowitz-nelson-debate.html)

  8. Barry says:

    BTW, in light of the BDS movement, can anybody apply the *stated*standards of Cary Nelson to allow any scholars affiliated with or supportive of the government of Israel to speak at a campus in the USA?

  9. Barry says:

    Tim, a comment on what you wrote – it’s true that the Salaita Principle will require more management time and energy and money. The trick is:

    1) Management *always* has the time, energy and money for what they want. They’ll probably hire more vice-whatevers (and staff), and spend more money on this, but they’ll do it.

    2) The real Salaita Principle is that *liberals and leftist* are not to be hire. I’ll buy you a nice bottle of wine when a public university ‘de-hires’ a professor for using bad language in support of Israel (and by that I mean supporting *anything* that Israel does). That’s easy, because internet searches are easy, and the pro-Israel groups will do a lot of this work.

  10. Joey Headset says:

    “Joey, I understand where you’re coming from. And when people who support Israeli ethnic cleansing are under similar sanctions, that would be a fair and balanced and honest thing. Until then, it’s not.”

    Barry, I understand where you’re coming from. And when folks like you stop intentionally mischaracterizing other people’s arguments, then “fair and balanced” blah blah blah unicorns and rainbows, whatever. Until then, go back to Reddit or Stormfront or wherever this particular brand of rhetoric is still appreciated.

  11. Barry says:

    “Barry, I understand where you’re coming from. And when folks like you stop intentionally mischaracterizing other people’s arguments, then “fair and balanced” blah blah blah unicorns and rainbows, whatever. Until then, go back to Reddit or Stormfront or wherever this particular brand of rhetoric is still appreciated.”

    English, please?

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Probably best to leave that particular exchange at that, yes?

  13. Callie says:

    The AAUP position on academic freedom should be our default. The administrative
    aspects of this might be subsumed under the sort of rubric presented by Benjamin
    Ginsberg in The fall of the faculty (Oxford, 2011). We might speculate on the
    Chancellor’s motivations by “following the money.”

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