Salaita and the limits (or lack thereof) of academic speech on social media

The latest installment in the story of academic freedom versus social media comes to us from one Steven Salaita. Here’s a long quote from this Salon piece, “Return of the blacklist?” that more or less sums up what seems to have happened to him:

A few weeks ago Steven Salaita had reason to be pleased.  After a full review by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he had received a generous offer of a tenured, associate professor position there — the normal contract was offered, signed by the school, he had received confirmation of his salary, a teaching schedule, everything except the final approval of the UIUC chancellor.

In academia this is not at all unusual; departments and schools are told to go ahead with the offer, so as to be competitive with both the candidate’s current school and others that might be bidding for their talent.  Salaita is a world-renowned scholar of indigenous studies (and also a frequent Salon contributor). At that point, as required by academic protocols, upon accepting the position he resigned the one he held at Virginia Tech.

But final approval never came.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that “Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for academic affairs, informed the job candidate, Steven G. Salaita, on Friday that they were effectively revoking a written offer of a tenured professorship made to him last year by refusing to submit it to the system’s Board of Trustees next month for confirmation.”

According to Inside Higher Education: “Sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.”  Nevertheless, IHE goes on to report: “But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told the News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”

This has been followed by a number of defenses of Salaita. I think the most articulate one I’ve read is from my long-time blogging friend Michael Bérubé, who at the AAUP blog defended Salaita’s academic freedoms. Among other smart things, Bérubé writes:

Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence. The University of Illinois is therefore clearly in violation of a fundamental principle of academic freedom with regard to extramural speech; moreover, your decision effectively overrides legitimate faculty decision making and peer review in a way that is inconsistent with AAUP guidelines regarding governance. Those faculty members who engaged in the process of peer review for Professor Salaita cannot be said to have been unaware that he has strong opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict– as do many millions of people. To overturn faculty peer review on the basis of a Twitter feed, therefore, is to take a page straight from the Kansas playbook.

The “Kansas playbook” being about that state’s board of regents rather silly social media policy, which I blogged about way back here.

In a kind of interesting twist, former AAUP president Cary Nelson defended the University of Illinois’ decision to not hire/withdraw the offer to Salaita. He writes about it at Inside Higher Ed in “An Appointment to Reject,” and the basic premise of his argument seems to be two-fold. First, Nelson thinks Salaita’s tweets are horrific. Nelson quotes from several of them– and Salaita is a pretty crude dude– and calls him loathsome, sophomoric, irresponsible, sordid, bombastic, and anti-Semitic. But his second reason is more or less based on a technicality. He writes:

I should add that this is not an issue of academic freedom. If Salaita were a faculty member here and he were being sanctioned for his public statements, it would be. But a campus and its faculty members have the right to consider whether, for example, a job candidate’s publications, statements to the press, social media presence, public lectures, teaching profile, and so forth suggest he or she will make a positive contribution to the department, student life, and the community as a whole. Here at Illinois, even the department head who would have appointed Salaita agreed in Inside Higher Ed that “any public statement that someone makes is fair game for consideration.” Had Salaita already signed a contract, then of course he would have to have received full due process, including a full hearing, before his prospective offer could be withdrawn. But my understanding is that he had not received a contract.

And in the Chronicle of Higher Education article about all this, Nelson is quoted as saying “Academic freedom does not require you to hire someone whose views you consider despicable. It prevents you from firing someone from a job for their views.”

More thoughts after the break.

First off, I’m not that interested in the specifics of Salaita’s politics or positions; I just don’t know that much about what he thinks, other than he’s an extremist and he’s obviously pissed some people off. My own views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are fairly mainstream. I wish that Hamas would stop shooting rockets into Israel and acknowledge that they do have the right to exist, and I wish Israel would stop bombing Gaza and expanding their settlements.  I’d like to see both the Israelis and Palestinians find a way to live peacefully together. I kind of agree with Amoz Oz on all this, too.

Second, I think everyone involved in this situation made some pretty boneheaded mistakes. The search committee at the University of Illinois that hired Salaita screwed up because they either didn’t do their homework on Salaita and the twitterosphere or they didn’t think it would be a big deal. Salaita really really screwed up because he quit his tenured position at Virginia Tech before the ink was dry on this position at UI.  The Salon article is not correct; the way this is more typically done is the tenured faculty asks for a year’s leave so that if something goes wrong at the new job, there’s an escape plan. Maybe Salaita asked for that and Virginia Tech denied him the leave (that happens too), but I haven’t read that anywhere. And for UI to do “take-backsies” on the offer is a major boneheaded move. I’m assuming that one of the reasons why Salaita hasn’t had any public comment about this yet is because he’s been too busy lawyering up for his lawsuit. Which brings me to my third thought:

It all depends on whether or not you think Salaita was hired. On the one hand, Salaita seems to have a pretty solid case because getting the approval of the Chancellor really is a technicality. In my view, I think UI hired Salaita and they ought to discipline him for his tweets (or not) as a tenured professor. On the other hand, the Chancellor not signing off on this may be just a technicality, but it is a darn important technicality. Like I said, I’m sure there will be various lawyers and lawsuits to sort this all out. Maybe the powers at UI knew this and they figured they’d rather just buy Salaita out rather than have him as a tenured professor.

Anyway, when you think about it for a second, Bérubé and Nelson are actually making the same argument regarding academic freedom; they just disagree over this contractual issue. Bérubé thinks that Salaita had the job; Nelson thinks he didn’t. And as odd as that logic might sound to anyone outside of academia– that Salaita’s tweets were protected speech if he were a tenured professor but not otherwise– I think that’s pretty much how the system works. It’s kind if bizarre and not fair, but it’s a matter of the flip of a switch: one minute you’ve got no academic freedom to do anything, and the next minute you’ve got all the academic freedom you could possibly want.

I’m all for this kind of arrangement since I benefit from it. But I worry about the fuzziness of this logic, of when “sordid” and “irresponsible” behavior on social media is okay and when it is not, the leaky line between the professional and not professional lives of academics.  It hardly seems fair that my academic freedom to tweet stupid things is more protected than the rights of students or part-timers to tweet stupid things.

And it also seems odd to me that there are essentially no limits to this academic speech. Or maybe another way to put it is what would a tenured professor have to post to Twitter or to Facebook to get her or himself into trouble? I really don’t know the answer to that question.

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