Cary Nelson, Salaita and Speaking for AAUP

Cary Nelson and I are friends but have significant disagreement on the academic freedom limits of opposition to Israeli policy and military action related to Palestine. We disagree on the Salaita case since I wrote with Committee A (Illinois) on Academic Freedom and Tenure approval the first academic response to the egregious University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign firing of Steven Salaita.

He was quoted in an Inside Higher Ed piece on the Salaita case that broke the story in approving the firing of Steven Salaita for provocative tweets on Israel’s bombing of Gaza. Professor Nelson is the past president of the American Association of University Professors and my first thought was, “Who is he? He does not speak for the association.” Yet he does not claim to do so. He was identified accurately in the piece as “a longtime English professor at Illinois and a past president of the American Association of University Professors.” Dr Nelson does not claim to speak for anyone but himself.

While the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure contains an unnecessary and archaic burden, that professors “should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution,” it does not require such unnecessary disclaimers from A.A.U.P. members. While the initial story might have included opinion that opposed the Salaita firing, Nelson was merely responding, as he had every right, to a request for his viewpoint on the limits of academic freedom as it pertains to electronic, extramural communication. His association with the University of Illinois also contributed I am sure to his inclusion in the story.

The solid and useful A.A.U.P. statement that followed the Illinois Committee A rapid response to this mean spirited if not vicious blacklisting of Professor Salaita, appropriately distanced itself from the Nelson position and A.A.U.P. should be lauded for such a stance. Yet it stated that Cary does not speak for the A.A.U.P.:

We feel it necessary to comment on this case not only because it involves principles that A.A.U.P. has long defended, but also because Cary Nelson, a former president of the Association and a current member of our Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, is quoted as approving the Illinois Chancellor’s action. Professor Nelson is entitled to his opinions. Indeed, one of A.A.U.P.’s great strengths is our ability to bring together many differing viewpoints and ideas, including about the meaning of academic freedom. However, we wish to make clear that Professor Nelson’s comments do not reflect an official position of A.A.U.P. or of its Committee A.

I am not sure why A.A.U.P. felt it necessary “to make clear” that Dr Nelson was not speaking for the association. Admittedly his public position on Israel, opposition to BDS and support of firing Salaita certainly afforded him significant public space on this issue. I would prefer that Cary be challenged, vigorously so, as I have done but without suggesting that he has assumed a status within A.AU.P. that exaggerates his authority or position. Again, he has not.

Having said that, I am pleased that the current officers, Rudy Fichtenbaum and Hank Reichman are more zealous in tolerating disparate views on the Israel/Palestine conflict than we have seen under prior A.A.U.P. presidents. In addition, while both the Nelson and Fichtenbaum administrations opposed academic boycotts of Israel, I think the association has demonstrated greater vigilance, than during the Nelson presidency, to avoid demonizing or coercing faculty members or organisations that support the boycott of Israel. The intent behind the boycotts is noble to end the apartheid and ethnic cleansing that has prevailed for almost seventy years. The practice of boycotts does divide and lend itself to violations of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. Yes I do express my views and defend the rights of others to do so as well.

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