Competing Op-Eds in News Gazette on Salaita Academic Freedom Case

Competing opinions of three professors on the Salaita-firing case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were published in The News-Gazette of Urbana-Champaign. It is interesting that two professors at the university, Joyce Tolliver and Nick Burbules, support the non-appointment of Steven Salaita and even asserted “there is…no evidence” that he was fired for his tweets on the Israel/Palestinian conflict. I am grateful that the paper allowed my response as the two professors repeatedly refer to the American Association of University Professors Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure statement that was issued in support of academic freedom and countering the rise of the New McCarthyism that grips many campuses in the United States.

It is interesting that the scrappy News-Gazette was the first paper under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to release the Salaita Papers. It is ironic that the University of Illinois apparently includes with each offer of an academic appointment two seminal AAUP documents including the 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure. The latter, according to our statement, was egregiously violated when tweets were used to bar a professor some ten months after he signed his contract from assuming his promised duties.

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Steven Salaita: photo courtesy of the News-Gazette of Urbana-Champaign

Illinois AAUP defends Salaita’s academic freedom

By Peter N. Kirstein

Professors Joyce Tolliver and Nick Burbules of the University of Illinois in their Sunday, Aug. 17, op-ed, “Salaita case calls for honest debate,” support the firing of tenured Associate Professor Steven G. Salaita. However, as chair of Illinois American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, I wish to offer a different viewpoint.

They claim it is speculative to assert that Professor Steven Salaita was fired due to his comments on the Israel/Palestinian conflict: “There is, at this point, no evidence that this is the case.”

Then they undermine their stunning claim by asserting that “the real issue is with the form and substance of Salaita’s comments.”

Academic freedom requires that both substance and form are protected speech when engaging in extramural utterances. It does not differentiate between the two. It is, in fact, impossible to separate the rhetoric style from the topic. The former gives vitality and expressive force to the latter.

The professors might consult the landmark Supreme Court case, Cohen v California (1971). Justice John Marshall Harlan in his majority opinion averred that, “words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force. We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function.”

While the professors twice cite Illinois AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure report’s description of Salaita’s tweets as “strident and vulgar,” we defended his academic freedom to express himself as bombs were flying into children, U.N. safe houses and mosques in blockaded Gaza. We do not make such a fine distinction as apparently Professors Tolliver and Burbules do between “substance” and “form” when assessing tweets as protected extramural utterances.

Professors Tolliver and Burbules refer to Professor Salaita’s tweets as being characterized as “incendiary and anti-Semitic.” I wonder if they are familiar with the full range of his tweets from 2014. These include:

— It’s a beautiful thing to see our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world deploring #Israel’s brutality in #Gaza. (July 18)

— My stand is fundamentally one of acknowledging and countering the horror of antisemitism. (July 19)

— Equal rights for everybody, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc. (July 20)

— I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs. (July 27)

If there is any ambiguity concerning why Professor Salaita’s appointment was not sent to the board of trustees, the fault lies with Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre. In their egregious dismissal letter of Aug. 1, no reason is given why a contract offered nine months ago is voided. It is unconscionable that an academician would be fired in this manner. While I believe there are legal grounds for reversal from a promissory estoppel — a promise of appointment — to the suppression of First Amendment rights of free speech, the absence of an explanation is one of the worst cases of administration abuse of a faculty member I have ever witnessed.

Professors Tolliver and Burbules, with a “cri de coeur,” defend administrators from the “familiar frame of faculty victims being silenced by evil administrators.” Certainly AAUP has not used such language. It has, however, used widely accepted documents such as the seminal 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure that affirms, “When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”

While the sounds of silence from the University of Illinois remain deafening, only the restoration of Professor Salaita to his appointment in the American Indian Studies Program can restore academic justice to Salaita and his peers that chose him as a colleague.

Peter N. Kirstein, a history professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, is vice president of the Illinois Conference of the American Association of University Professors and is chair of the Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Salaita case calls for honest debate

By Joyce Tolliver and Nick Burbules

The sides are lining up over the University of Illinois’ decision not to seek board of trustees approval for Dr. Steven Salaita’s tenured faculty position. Since neither the university nor Salaita has spoken publicly about the issue, there is much we do not know. The national American Association of University Professors has rightly decided not to take a final position until all the facts are known.

However, the Illinois branch of the AAUP did weigh in, releasing a statement asserting that Salaita’s recent comments, “while strident and vulgar,” were protected by academic freedom and hence that it was not defensible for the university to withhold Salaita’s appointment. The Campus Faculty Association was quick to attack the campus administration’s decision. The faculty union up at UI Chicago has also jumped into the fray, criticizing our campus and calling for a national investigation.

There are two aspects of this public debate that are based on questionable assumptions. The first is the frequent assertion that Salaita’s position offer was terminated because of his stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There is, at this point, no evidence that this is the case: Many faculty hold similar views on the Middle East, and no one has suggested that they are not entitled to engage in open debate over this controversy.

The real issue is with the form and substance of Salaita’s comments. He has made numerous public statements over the summer that are not just “strident and vulgar,” but are, in the view of many people, incendiary and anti-Semitic.

Of greatest concern to an academic community is that many of his comments preclude any possibility of dialogue, disagreement or reasoned examination. This is not what one would expect from a thoughtful, reflective teacher and scholar.

The question is not whether Salaita has a First Amendment right to make such comments — of course he does. It is whether, in light of this new information, the university has the right to choose not to proceed with hiring someone who speaks and writes that way in public.

There is a serious policy question here of how to manage a situation in which new and damaging information comes to light about a prospective hire after an initial letter of offer is sent, but before the beginning of the appointment period and before final board approval.

At Virginia Tech, his previous institution, the university chose to publicly disavow some of his extreme comments, in order to protect its own reputation. And apparently they have made no effort to retain Salaita after he received word that board approval would not be sought for his appointment at Illinois.

The other questionable assumption of the current debate is that the university’s action violates Salaita’s academic freedom. But the principle of academic freedom is not an absolute, open-ended license; the AAUP’s own statement on principles of academic freedom emphasizes that faculty are also bound by the standards of professional ethics: “As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, (and) should show respect for the opinions of others ….” Salaita’s comments raise legitimate questions about the limits of academic freedom.

An honest debate about this case would engage these serious and difficult questions, instead of invoking the familiar frame of faculty victims being silenced by evil administrators. That framing might serve other political agendas, but it does not serve the campus or the wider academic profession well — and it does not fit the facts of this case as we know them, so far.

Nick Burbules and Joyce Tolliver, current members of the UI faculty, are past leaders of the campus academic senate.

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