Saturday, August 23, 2014

The University of Illinois' Attack on Academic Freedom

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (an institution where I very nearly went for my graduate degree) recently hired Steven Salaita as an English professor, before revoking that appointment at the beginning of this month.
UIUC and Salaita’s critics have cited the academic’s strongly-worded criticisms of Israel and its war on Gaza as the reason for the administration’s decision to withdraw their offer (Salaita’ quit a position in Virginia to work at UIUC).  Those criticisms were delivered primarily via Twitter, where Salaita was an extraordinarily prolific “tweeter” (if that’s the correct lingo).
These critics have suggested that Salaita is anti-Semitic, and advocated genocide.  I’ve been reading through his tweets for the last hour or more at the quickest speed my admittedly poor internet connection will allow, and I haven’t been able to find evidence of either (if others have, I’d be happy to see it), although Salaita repeatedly argues that Israel is committing a genocide, and that the eagerness of the Israeli government to equate criticism of the regime with criticism of Judaism is actually generating anti-Semitism.  While these might be controversial statements, I don’t see anything particularly outrageous in them.
The University is claiming that Salaita’s tweets mean he would be a bad teacher—evidence from formal evaluations suggesting otherwise notwithstanding—and that they are evidence that he doesn’t possess the right temperament.  According to his leading critic at UIUC, Professor Cary Nelson, Salaita’s tweets are “uncivil”, apparently a capital offense. 
I wouldn’t contest that.  The tweets are not academic, are not always terribly well thought out or articulate, and often sound very angry and frustrated.  You could argue that they are intemperate.
But if Salaita’s tweets are “uncivil”, so are the dreadful deeds that he is denouncing.  There are no polite, clinical words to describe the savage spectacle of a colonial military force razing streets, bombing in a deliberately indiscriminate manner, and targeting buildings under the protection of the United Nations.  At least not words to capture the horror that Israel is unleashing on its colonial subjects, and the cycle of violence its colonialism is perpetuating both for Gazans and for its own citizens.
Some of Salaita’s tweets are rather grotesque.  But they are evoking a violent colonial regime, the violent response of colonial subjects, and the violent and utterly disproportionate response of the Israeli regime, members of which have advocated for ethnic cleansing.  Nothing he can say will approach the grotesque events which play out as part of the inevitable folly associated with colonialism and the hubris it induces in its most deluded practitioners.
Some have argued that UIUC’s leadership is within its rights to block Salaita from being hired.  Others have argued that as a state institution, the university is probably acting illegally. 
But what the university is doing, in defining “civility” as it does, is sending a message that there are certain political views that are beyond the pale., and that accurately describing as brutal a phenomenon as colonialism might not be permissible because the language has the capacity to shock as much as the behavior it describes.  There is a subtext to that: namely that certain research agendas might be equally unacceptable to an institution.  These messages are incompatible with the academic liberty that is indispensible to Universities and their responsibilities to the public.
UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise defended her attack on academic liberty by saying that the university ‘cannot tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them”’.   But as a professor from the University of Chicago rejoined, “as a matter of well-settled American constitutional law, the University of Illinois must tolerate ‘words…that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them’”.
Moreover, if UIUC so values “civility”, perhaps it should think about the cover its actions provide to a murderous colonial regime, bent on the conquest of its colony and the moral impoverishment and physical imperilment of its own citizens. 
You don’t have to agree with every one of Salaita’s criticisms to see that UIUC is heading down a dangerous road in targeting faculty for their political views.  Sadder still, UIUC is sending the message to students who are just making their way out into our troubled world that “civility” is more important than standing up for what is right or calling out injustice as forcefully as possible. 

The university’s administration is making a grave mistake in its efforts to circumscribe academic freedom. 

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