Abandoning the Post

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s governing body just made a serious mistake that will have consequences for the entirety of U.S. academia.

I’ll let people who are better thinkers about organizing a political response within academia take the next steps forward in that respect.

I want to talk about what happens to the larger public culture. Here I think the damage that’s been done is reckless and serious, and I frankly resent it. I use the word “colleague” as my general address to other academic professionals and I very much include administrators in that address. I try very hard to think sympathetically about the institutional responsibilities they have, to live up to those responsibilities myself as an administrative actor, and I’m very willing to turn a critical gaze back on faculty on many issues. But to call someone a colleague, to widen the circle of “we”, means that I expect that consideration in return, and I’m dismayed when it’s not forthcoming. Sometimes leaders just make a mess on their own porch. In this case, they’ve made a mess on the village green.

We’re already seeing the spill-over in the painful deformation of conversations about “civility”, in the implication that it is the same thing as “academic freedom”. It isn’t at all. Academic freedom should protect the capacity to be passionate or detached, to use a range of emotional and expressive affects and styles. It’s possible to have a completely different discussion about what makes for generative dialogues and productive exchanges. It’s fine to suggest that certain ways of entering into a conversation, certain modes of producing knowledge, certain performances of self in the classroom, tend to generate predictable outcomes, some of them generative and some of them destructive. You can unreservedly defend academic freedom while criticizing someone who acts like a bully, you can suggest that some kinds of passion shut down possibilities and silence people, you can complain that some ways of framing deliberation or instruction create a narrow range of possible outcomes. You can even call all of that “civility” if you like, as long as you don’t confuse it with academic freedom and as long as you don’t use “civility” as the standard by which you police what faculty can do and must not do, can say and must not say.

Or at least you could think about this interrelationship before today. But today the administration and board of UIUC did something that muddies those waters. Now they’re either going to have to get serious about the foolish way they’ve intermingled civility and academic freedom, which means sending endless memos to their own faculty about the tone of the last faculty meeting, monitoring the social media use of faculty and graduate students, coming up with lists of forbidden phrases and verboten adjectives, hiring a Vice-President of Civility and the like. Or they’re going to just concede that the policy is a fig leaf to cover a badly-executed decision-making process and let all sorts of grossly “uncivil” concern-trolling by people other than Steven Salaita go unchallenged. If you chase the trolls back to their native habitats, many of the commenters on the case who now claim grave concern about “civility” seem blissfully unconcerned by such worries in their own demense.


It’s possible that the pressure that other academics can bring to bear on UIUC will in time be enough to create a new momentum there and elsewhere. However, academic freedom in the longer term cannot survive without publics beyond academia seeing it as a valuable practice to defend and extend. And in that context, academic freedom has become a hard sell lately.

So why is it a hard sell? How is it a hard sell? I’ve found it personally difficult to know how to reply to some people in my social media feeds and elsewhere who point out with some anger, and not from a particularly conservative position, that they can’t understand why faculty should be allowed to write what they like about their own institutions, or to express ideas and sentiments that draw strongly negative attention to their universities. After all, they point out, nobody else in early 21st Century America has that privilege. If you work for a company and you criticize it on Twitter, you’re very likely to get fired. If you’re an appointee in the government and you publically attack your boss or leak damaging information, very likely the same outcome. Most people know that embarrassing their organization, whatever it is, will lead to termination, demotion or discipline.

There are a few other groups of workers who generally can get away with expression that draws a negative public reaction, up to a point. People who own businesses that aren’t immediately vulnerable to boycotts, or in industries where there is tolerance for certain kinds of extreme speech. Celebrities or people with sufficient reputation capital that they can survive (and maybe even benefit from) some kinds of outrage or critique. Elected officials whose political supporters don’t care about the speech in question (or who welcome it). But only a few other groups claim a specific need in their work for the protection of their speech rights: writers, artists, and other cultural producers are the main example.

This attack on academic freedom (why do you get it when no one else does?) comes at us through something of an intramural class antagonism: it is most sharply expressed by non-academic professionals, middle managers in private industry, civil servants, and others who see themselves as the social peers of professors, who have been consumers of higher education themselves, and who frequently anticipate sending their children to college or university. I think this is an audience that public universities in particular simply can’t afford to lose outright, but that even private universities and colleges desperately want as supporters, politically, financially and otherwise.

We often move to defend academic freedom by citing the importance of free speech generally but also specifically aligning ourselves with authors and artists, that the fruits of our labor for the wider society are available only if we are given wide latitude in our working lives to produce our scholarship, our experiments, our ideas, our innovations. This still has a lot of legs in it. It is an easier sell when it comes to the work produced by scholarly scientists, which is valued by many of the people who might otherwise be skeptical about academic freedom. It is a harder sell for humanistic scholarship, which has smaller and more fragmented publics and has a more internally divided and contradictory way of describing its own research projects and their utility or necessity. In any event, I don’t think this is sufficient to build wider support.

The claim that we could make more often and often don’t is that academic freedom is necessary for good teaching. I know it’s somewhat customary for professional teachers to disavow the exaggerated, romantic portrayal of teaching as messianic and inspirational, as in Dead Poets’ Society. Rewatching the film recently for the obvious melancholic reason, however, I have to say that I still can’t help but be attracted to Robin Williams’ character, John Keating. Moreover, I think in the wake of Williams’ death, it’s fairly clear that people remember that character very well for a reason, that they are also attracted to that concept of a teacher: fearless, impassioned, emotionally alive to the inner life of students, and deeply passionate about the subjects they teach. And suddenly here not only do we make the case for academic freedom, the necessity to give teachers the discretionary room to make connections as they will, to feel as well as think, but we incidentally manage to pull down the proposition that “civility” only exists when one behaves as a kind of church mouse might, meek and peaceful in the temple grove of academe. This would be my major plan to engage publics: remind them that the teaching that changes lives is only possible with academic freedom. Without it, you don’t have teachers: you have bureaucrats who are handing out certifications.

Having made that point, we have some issues on our side of the ledger to attend to. If we’re going to defend fearless thinking and speaking, and decouple that from “civility”, we will lose every inch of ground we might gain with wider publics if we’re seen to be defending fearlessness only when it suits or flatters our own political and social preferences. This is precisely why I argued for a kind of “free speech absolutism” in the spring in response to controversies here at Swarthmore and across academia. When we cut the distinctions fine and work the instance so that in this one case, with this one person, in this particular circumstance, we’re right to disinvite and unhire and sanction and deny, even if the person or the case really is troubling, small wonder that many wider publics conclude that academic freedom is just a weapon rather than a principle. It should take extraordinary circumstances before we conclude that the obligations of academic freedom can be set aside.

I’ve pointed out before that even as academic institutions are more and more distrusted, professors oddly retain a good deal of public respect. We have it because we’re free: free to say the unpopular thing, free to teach the passionate course, free to study what we think needs studying. To be free means we have to occupy the whole possibility space that waits for our explorations, and take not just our students but our publics along for the ride. We have to keep a trust as well as walk the paths we see before us.

Which does mean, sometimes, that we have to not just tolerate but consider and listen to and even at times seek out the presences and practices that we in other respects passionately dislike or critique or reject. We do that not as “civility” but as curiosity, as part of what makes us each a free mind and fearless spirit.

There’s every evidence in the world that Steven Salaita has done just that in his career as a matter of his practice as a teacher and colleague. And there’s now every evidence in the world that the Board of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has tragically, catastrophically failed to do it. They now defend neither the principle of academic freedom nor the practice of civility. Their failure exposes all of us to harm.

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15 Responses to Abandoning the Post

  1. Jeff Rice says:

    At the conclusion of the Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio addressing the students indicated that they had won the right of free speech and now it was up to them to “use that freedom with responsibly” which he had full confidence people would. That was only a half century ago and we now accept that students as well as faculty and administrators have the right to speak freely but we remain committed to including the concept of responsibility when encompassing the definition of free speech. Of course we raise questions about ‘hate speech’ even though that is not clearly defined. But one of the things about hate speech is that it intimidates or raises the issue of discomfort in a public or private space in which we want to maximize open discourse in the enlightenment belief that more and more critical views will lead to a greater sense of clarity and perhaps, truth. (Forgive me for not being post-modern here, i do believe that the whole point of debate is to get closer to something like truth even when it comes to political debate). Academics are especially privileged in terms of the range, the sheer quantity of free speech with which we operate. You and i both know of debates in our fields that have prompted passionate, sometimes ugly fights which can and have led to denials of tenure or refusals to hire. And i am talking about historiographical debates, not debates over the current politics on the Middle East. And we argue that multiple points of view are better rather than mimicking the old communist party in terms of its love affair with dogma. But we have to use this broad range of freedom of speech responsibly, just as Mario Savio voiced fifty years ago December. And this is where it has always been thorny.
    I agree with your main points and wish not to weigh in on recent events at UIUC since i believe that U of I made a significant error as did you and for many of the same reasons you raise. I am taking some issue with your question mark over the concept of civility (a term which i too would like to eschew on the grounds that one’s person’s concept of civility is requiring silence from a subordinate while another’s is quite a bit more symmetrical). I prefer Savio’s concept of responsibility. I am thinking about the role we have in a classroom whereby we have to, we are morally and ethically obligated to protect students from intimidation by other students (or other faculty) or the delimiting of discussion in any form. Yet this happens intentionally or unintentionally all the time in classes; especially in which students invoke personal life experience as a basis for expertise while denying other students the legitimacy of their opinions. As teachers we mediate this; usually successful since we actually have legitimacy as kings and queens of the classroom space and simply point out that there are limits to responsible discourse in a classroom. To pretend otherwise is naive. If students insist on utilizing language or verbal constructions that shut down conversation we have a problem and it is our responsibility to intervene before the students report this to a higher authority. We tend to block language which is overtly offensive based on gender, gender preference, race, religion etc. We know this is a slippery slope so we use soft power rather than hard core repression. And we try to do this in private. At least, speaking for myself this is what i do in the rare occasion that this occurs. Again, i speak not of genuine disagreement but rather taunting and other forms of ill advised behavior.
    Social media has made this much more difficult since no one should be a policeman of people’s public statements. Tweets in particular are a form of largely unreflective speech,designed to use 140 characters to make a point. Brilliant for taunting, offending, and defaming on one hand, excellent for announcing new articles, references to good blog entries, or the score of the latest Eagles game on the other. And everything in-between. All in all, i think its especially bad for academics for whom brevity is an anathema and clarity generally goes unrewarded. In other words, we are not trained to be effective communicators in 140 characters if anyone is. My fear, Tim, is that recent events will become the tip of an new slippery slope/iceberg in which university administrators will gravitate to such postings to find something they don’t like about a faculty member or will find something not to like in someone coming up for hire or tenure or both. How does one keep administrators, department chairs etc. honest? Where does the line get drawn over responsible speech and irresponsible? Will we tolerate speech in postings which we might not tolerate in a classroom from our students for the reason it would shut down open discussion. I have no answer but this is what i am pondering when, in the last three weeks, i have tried to think about recent events in structural terms rather in terms of any one individual. Like you, i am emphatically in favor of free speech, academic freedom or whatever someone wants to call it. But to once again invoke Mario Savio, if academics are going to protect and cherish our (greater than the norm) free speech we must use it responsibly. I think we will and i think this is the internal battle that we must fight with administrators who might feel emboldened by the U of I trustees (until the lawyer bills arrive).

  2. Mark S. says:

    I wonder if part of the reason why teaching is never used as a reason to protect academic freedom is to many academics, especially those in very desirable jobs at brand name universities, teaching is secondary to them. It has almost certainly been secondary in their graduate education and if you end up in an R1 university, it is once again secondary to your being hired, given tenure, and promoted. Those for whom teaching is a larger part of their job are either adjuncts or stationed at smaller/regional schools and not in a position to be a part of public discourse (yourself and those with similar jobs being the exception).

    This is not to say that teaching doesn’t matter to research scholars but that it is a smaller part of the stories that prominent academics tell about themselves than is research. This, even though teaching is what most people associate with the institutions that allow these scholars to work. There is a disconnect. Public discourse about universities deals almost exclusively with the teaching end of the professor’s job (level of education, preparedness for the job market, rigor, etc.) and almost nothing on issues of research. However, the world inhabited by many academics starting in grad schools is one in which these issues are not as important as research. Therefore, the academic defends her free speech using research, puzzling the wider public who see her as a teacher who may or may not do scholarship that they will almost certainly never read.

    Not sure how to solve this problem other than a large scale cultural change, but I think that it goes to the heart of the problem you are getting at. If academics saw themselves as similar to how the public views them (though obviously not exactly which would be a problem in and of itself) then it would be easier to communicate their own importance and make a better case for academic freedom.

    How to do this? you got me…

  3. CarlD says:

    Hear, hear.

    I ended up signing the petition and in general supporting Salaita, in large part convinced by discussions like these here and elsewhere. It seems clear to me that ‘civility’ is a weapon with too big a blast radius to put in the everyday arsenal. And as much as I appreciate and advocate the Savian standard of responsibility, I don’t want to see that weaponized either.

    As a teacher and colleague I regularly engage uncivilly, by some standards. I try to do it responsibly. Sometimes a little shock is just the thing to loosen up smug complacencies and entrenched prejudices, to introduce a compelling otherness into tracked thinking. I’ve been fortunate to have administrators who see the collegial and pedagogical logic of changing the game. My practice would be possible, but much more difficult if I had to worry about exactly calibrating every provocation to every possible objection. My best teachers and colleagues take me seriously enough to challenge me, and I try to pass on the favor.

    I find myself looping back yet again to the discussion of microaggression. It bothers me so much, despite my seeing the justice and force of it, and I think now I know why. Salaita’s aggression was more of the macro variety, yet here we are defending him. We can cut the distinctions fine and work the instance, perhaps by privileging the kind of aggression that speaks truth to power over that which is more clearly just bullying. Just as it’s usually not real hard to tell in a discussion who’s expressing a heartfelt rage aggressively and who’s just being a dick. But either way we’re already in that place where the righteous are armed with the heavy weaponry of discriminating judgment, and everyone else has to tiptoe lest they stray into the crosshairs. There’s no one I trust with that kind of power.

    Maybe this is just concern trolling. To be honest, I’ve never been able to work out a rule for when the things I worry about are worthy enrichments of a complex analysis, and when they’re just distracting tangents to the important business at hand. I bet Chancellor Wise knows the answer to that one.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Beautiful comment, Carl. Speaks for me in a great many ways–in particular, can we learn to articulate preferences that aren’t managerial principles of “fire or hire”? This is not just good for academia.

  5. Jeff Rice says:

    Carl D. has made stunning points and some with a sense of humor often missing during the whole recent discussion. The idea of a “blast radius” and Mario Savio being “weaponized” reminds me of my language in and out of class. But alongside this is a major point and i wish to thank you for this emphasis. Sometimes we provoke to break through either disinterest or a bland acceptance of received wisdom. Indeed, i tell students my whole teaching philosophy is to make skeptics out of the students before they settle in on their conclusions. You and I agree which i why i meant to aver that administrators were not the best judges of classroom behavior. Yet just as many of each teach in ‘smart’ classrooms with wi-fi (competing with Facebook really sucks) the bleeding of outside the classroom and inside the classroom has become robust. I am thinking of a senior faculty member at my own University who in his prominence was recently written up (again) in the Wall Street Journal representing a pessimistic view of long term economic growth. He is outspoken and proud to be widely known and one of his biggest interlocutors nationwide is in the same department. They openly argue, students get the benefits. We also, at my university, have a famous holocaust denier whose presence on campus is protected by free speech. No one will publicly debate him, no one will grant him any legitimacy. Speech is formally protected but he is outside the arena for instructive public debate. Students are not subjected to what most of us would call irresponsible speech. Returning to your initial paragraph i would think that there is a very limited blast radius, administrators protected his basic rights against many seeking his head from students and faculty and trustees and the public, and Savio was not weaponized.

  6. CarlD says:

    Corey Robin’s also been hammering this point via Tocqueville and Weber about how in American society the censorship that’s forbidden in formal politics is enacted in the informal politics of society and the workplace. So what shuts us up is not the gummint but the disciplines of acceptable discourse, mumble mumble Foucault mumble mumble Taliban, operating through codes of etiquette and enforced, ultimately, by fear of unemployment and destitution. That’s why Wise can’t get away with saying this is just a personnel decision having nothing to do with academic freedom – this is exactly the dynamic academic freedom exists to intercept, the one place lifetime tenure becomes something more than a grotty guild privilege. I’m not much for principles, but this hurts in practice, as we’ve all been saying here.

    As to articulating preferences without managerial overkill, I love the stories of Jeff’s colleagues. In practice, sensible people create and manage these bigger and smaller interaction fields without a lot of fuss. So once we get the unsensible people relocated to the reservations, everything will be just peachy.

  7. Contingent Cassandra says:

    Concerned as I am about the implications of the Salaita case for professors’ freedom to express political opinions (civilly or not, related to their fields of study or not), I’m even more concerned about how the issues you raise in the second part of the post will affect professors’ (especially non-tenure-track professors’) ability to speak publicly about issues within the university. At at time when public funding is at an all-time low, and yet another round of budget cuts is looming at many institutions, faculty (including faculty like me who are not only untenured, but untenurable, at least in our present positions) need the freedom to speak up about the effects of growing class sizes and course loads, stagnating salaries, and an ever-increasing desire by a growing administrative class to fund their favored activities (research, more administration) by teaching intro and core classes as cheaply as possible. I (and most, I think, of my contingent colleagues, full- and part-time, as well as my tenure-track colleagues) are perfectly capable of protesting the ways in which current university and political trends and policies are undermining the quality of the education we deliver, while still doing our best to make the actual classes we teach provide the best educational experience possible to our students, but, in order to do that, we need the protection of a robust interpretation of academic freedom. If we can be fired because our critiques of priorities at our employing institutions are seen as undermining the university’s “brand,” and hence its ability to attract the full-tuition-paying students (especially out of state students for public universities, and international ones for pretty much all higher ed institutions) the institution is scrambling to attract, we’ve got a major problem. Presumably we have the same freedom that other public employees do to publicly criticize, as taxpaying citizens, the government bodies for which they work, but we all know protection for such activities is limited (more so in some states than others, I suspect).

    Interestingly, the other institution I can think of that, at least in some of its iterations, takes the protections of dissent pretty seriously is the Christian church. Obviously, this varies considerably by denominations (and, in fact, you could describe denominations in part by their governance structures, handling of disagreement/dissent by both clergy and lay members, and the theology underlying those practices), but, at least in my own mainline Protestant denomination, the question of how to civilly handle disagreement and dissent both between and within various groups — clergy, lay leaders, parishioners — is very much an active topic of conversation. At least in churches with governance structures that make it relatively difficult for any of the various participants to fire or excommunicate each other, or to leave the denomination while retaining the church property, these things have to be worked out, and a lot of energy is being expended right now in figuring out how. I’d like to see the same energy being expended in academia, but I fear the accumulated power imbalances are such that some participants (upper administrators and trustees) have little incentive to engage in such endeavors.

  8. Mike Donnel says:

    Yes, I agree that this is not a good development for faculty governance, but not in the way you suppose.

    Here is Salaita, arguing that the oppresion of Palestinians is the result of the efforts of world Jewry to cultivate their “specialness”:

    “In the past century, the Palestinians have been dispossessed of their land,
    repressed in every facet of their civic and political life, and subjected to a 40-year military occupation that Desmond Tutu has described as worse than South African Apartheid (Paulson 2007). Others around the world have faced similar forms of oppression. What stands out in the case of Palestinians is the fact that
    they are blamed inveterately for their own dispossession. Their oppressors, the Jews, not only have managed to cast themselves as victim in the Israel-Palestine conflict, they have justified that self-image through an assiduous emphasis on their specialness, which grants them access to exceptional privileges.”

    And how do you cultivate that “specialness”? Well claiming to be victims of anti-Semitism is certainly one way to do so, and as Salaita says in Israel’s Dead Soul

    “it is worth noting that numerous cases of anti-Semitic vandalism in 2007 and 2008 were found to actually have been committed by Jews.”

    A claim that has many factual errors. (see for this for example)

    So how does it reflect on the idea that the faculty should be left to govern themselves, that when they are given that latitude they elect to bestow tenure on avowed anti-Semites? It reflects either ignorance or acceptance, neither of which is acceptable. I would argue that’s why lay people are not really troubled that University administrators are increasingly injecting themselves into issues of governance. It’s because the faculty themselves have ceased to take seriously the ideals they claim; it’s because they themselves have “abandoned the post”

  9. I have a lot of respect for the argument in the OP. I’m not sure if I’m onboard completely, but I really need to think it over.

    This, however, is an unfortunate choice of words:

    “Without [academic freedom], you don’t have teachers: you have bureaucrats who are handing out certifications.”

    Many of the “non-academic professionals, middle managers in private industry, civil servants, and others who see themselves as the social peers of professors” who constitute an audience that “public universities in particular simply can’t afford to lose outright” often have to face the argument that they are “mere” bureaucrats who simply fill in the numbers and hand out forms and credentials once all the triplicates have been filled out. Many people whom it’s easy to deride as “bureaucrats” are actually conscientious people with their own sense of professionalism who want to do right by the customers/patrons they serve and the institutional mission. I’ll add that that conscientiousness might be more obviously in evidence when it comes to the “professionals” and “middle managers,” but it can be found even further down, among the more clerical staff, some of whom may not have even gone to college but still are dedicated.

    I realize I’m going off on a tangent here. But I do see a certain contempt in the way that some academics seem to talk about “bureaucrats” as the antithesis to intellectual life and the people without whom life would be so much more amenable to thoughtful living.

  10. bk says:

    Prof Burke,
    Please do a blog post on your take on the book How College Works. As a small LAC with a 1.6B endowment Swarthmore can lead the way in implementing the How College Works findings. I believe implementing his findings could make students and professors Swarthmore experience much more meaningful.

  11. bk says:

    Prof.. Burke
    Please do a blog post on your view of the book How College Works. As a small LAC with a 1.6B endowment Swarthmore can lead the way in implementing the How College Works findings.

  12. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Your light never dims Herr Professor Doktor Burke. I don’t know very much about the details of the problems you have described recently–going back to your lament about the fate of the humanities–but I recognize the nature and causes of those problems. All authoritarian systems produce these difficulties. Only democracy can solve them, and democracy can only flourish is there is sufficient money to fund institutions such as yours. The money must be enough and it must come with no strings attached. That day does not have to be very far off. You may yet see it and the happy changes it will bring. I truly hope so.

    The best of all possible worlds is in reach.

  13. LFC says:

    @Mike Donnel
    That piece you linked at Tablet, criticizing Salaita’s books and other academic work, is basically irrelevant to the U.Illinois controversy, since Salaita was de-hired solely on the basis of his tweets, not his academic work. (Also the Tablet column should have, in consistency, criticized Va. Tech for having tenured S. in the first place, which the column didn’t do.)

  14. Barry says:

    Mike Donnel: “So how does it reflect on the idea that the faculty should be left to govern themselves, that when they are given that latitude they elect to bestow tenure on avowed anti-Semites?”

    Aside from the fact that he’s not, you are quite clearly judging professors by their (left-wing) political beliefs. Unless you’ve got some comments about (for example) John Yoo, who actually committed crimes.

  15. Barry says:

    Tim: “Now they’re either going to have to get serious about the foolish way they’ve intermingled civility and academic freedom, which means sending endless memos to their own faculty about the tone of the last faculty meeting, monitoring the social media use of faculty and graduate students, coming up with lists of forbidden phrases and verboten adjectives, hiring a Vice-President of Civility and the like. Or they’re going to just concede that the policy is a fig leaf to cover a badly-executed decision-making process and let all sorts of grossly “uncivil” concern-trolling by people other than Steven Salaita go unchallenged. ”

    I expect the second, because the pattern is established. ‘Civility’ is nothing more than a code for ‘opinions not liked by authorities’.

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