Why Academic Freedom Shouldn’t End Anywhere: Steven Salaita, UIUC, and the Power of Bosses

Over the past few days, my fellow graduate students and I have been engaged in a discussion about Steven Salaita, the professor whose job offer at the University of Illinois was rescinded due to some tweets he composed in response to Israel’s recent war on Gaza. In one post, I made the comment that academic freedom doesn’t end anywhere. A friend of mine pushed back and asked me to explain this seemingly radical claim. Below is the email I sent in response.

Hi Everyone,

I’m happy to see this conversation continue. For one, I think this particular case is an important one and if this discussion moves people to get involved with it and push for the resolution they would like to see then it has been worthwhile. For another, the questions that have been resurfaced bear on the practice of teaching and the well-being of students, which we should be attentive to regardless of the specific case sparking debate. And finally, the questions of where our professional lives and personal lives intersect and where the boundaries exist between them are important for anyone contemplating not just an academic career but any kind of working life. If we are unclear about where these lines are stark and where they are blurred, we risk losing any access to speech that is not subject to the whims of elites.

With these questions in mind, I do not believe that tweets are frivolous. In fact, I find them less frivolous than a carefully crafted Op-Ed in the NY Times. Tweets are often raw and revealing of certain truths. They have been inseparable (if not causal) from powerful revolutionary movements, from Egypt, to Turkey, to Ferguson. One could argue that Twitter was instrumental in getting images out of Gaza when major news media failed to so, and for shifting the tide of public discourse against Israel’s backers. These are claims that need to be verified, of course, but the point is that tweets have power. If people’s livelihoods are at stake based on their social media use, then that power evaporates until people en masse are willing to risk their livelihoods for speech. In Salaita’s case, powerful people who took offense to his particular views and form of expression used their veto power over his livelihood. In an alternative world where we did not so readily accept the power of the boss and the shareholder to regulate the lives of their workers, we would be fighting this veto power all over the place and not just in academia.

However, in academia we still kind of adhere to the notion of academic freedom. My claim that academic freedom does not end is radical, but it does not equate to being able to do anything you want anywhere at any time. Rather, it is an argument for due process and against arbitrary action by unaccountable administrators acting on behalf of donors. There is no instance in which a chancellor, in consultation with the extremely powerful (and anonymous!), should be able to act unilaterally to deprive someone of their livelihood. The radicalness of this claim really emerges, though, when I suggest that all people should share in this protection from arbitrary and unilateral dismissal unless their livelihood is guaranteed. In a sense, this is the basic guarantee enshrined in the safety net. But as many sociologists know, the welfare system is inadequate. For this reason, my flip remarks about boycotting capitalism are to be taken more seriously than I let on.

So what to do about the experiences of students? The safety of students is primary and no attack should be allowed to occur without consequence. If any student feels threatened or even if students just think that a hypothetical student could be threatened, then the university has an obligation to address it. But there should be due process for that and, in the worst cases, the force of the law (even though ACAB). Reputation is another matter and this gets squarely at life outside of academia. On the one hand, students who are aware of the reputation of a professor should not have to take the course. If it’s a requirement, the university should be able to find alternatives for students who feel threatened by the reputation of a professor. If a professor’s reputation is so offensive to a university that has hired and tenured this person, then they can take actions such as not giving them classes to teach. This may be costly, but if donors are so threatened by a professor’s reputation they can pony up the cash to buy this person off. Why should the preferences of the elites cost them nothing? But the university should not be in the business of holding standards for people outside of academia. As Jenn mentioned, faculty hold all kinds of horrible wretched views of the world. There is even an emeritus professor at UIUC who is an open white supremacist! But just because one’s racism or misogyny or trans-phobia operates in less visible forms than another’s, this does not make the subtle hate-monger more deserving of employment than the other. It’s important to keep in mind that good taste and acceptability are fickle and that the university should not move with the changing winds. But this is not meant to be blanket protection for awful people. The university should be able to decide through a transparent process who they want to be part of the university. The university should not have to retain Nazis or anti-Semites. But neither should it be able to willy nilly revoke their livelihoods. That’s fascism.

I want to make one final point about students and the reputations of academics. And that is that students are capable of protesting those they find intolerable. They are not children in need of protection beyond the protection offered to the rest of the adults on a campus. There is, undoubtedly, a special relationship of trust between a sage on a stage who can use that position of authority to direct abuse at students who are simultaneously an audience and an initiate into the subjects being taught. But they are also adults who are often savvier than the adults that profess to them. Peaceful protest actions against faculty and administrators should be happening on every campus for all sorts of reasons. Entire departments of mainstream economics should be picketed day and night by students! And to link back to the arguments about due process, I believe due process would actually respect students more if it involved their voices in dealing transparently with offensive faculty. Protecting them by not even letting them decide to take or not take a course is patronizing at best.

I hope I’ve clarified my possibly radical claim about academic freedom and stayed on topic in the process. My concerns stem as much from the extreme imbalance of power in our institutions as much as the specific case of Salaita and UIUC. And I sincerely hope that if there is cause for push back that I get it here and out in the open. I don’t have time to proofread, so I apologize for any lack of clarity and awful exposition in general.




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