Steven Salaita and Academic Freedom in Academic and ‘Non-Academic’ Spaces

Steven Salaita might have thought he was headed for a new faculty position: the University of Illinois had made him a job offer, he had accepted, and resigned his position at Virginia Tech. But not so fast: the Chancellor of the university rescinded the offer, apparently because of Salaita’s aggressively vocal presence on Twitter, where he has sent out more than a few angry 140-character blasts directed at Israel’s current policies in Gaza.

The defenses of the Chancellor’s decision follow rather predictable trajectories: one, curiously adopted by Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP and unstinting champion of academic freedom, is that Salaita’s public speech shows evidence of incivility and uncollegiality, which should be appropriate considerations in hiring and firing decisions; that they show evidence of his inability to ensure his students’ appropriate treatment in his classrooms, presumably because those with ‘pro-Israel’ views would feel threatened that they would not be treated on par with others; that Salaita would have done better to restrict his pronouncements to peer-reviewed academic journals. The second, related to the first, is that Salaita, not being protected by the First Amendment, is subject to the same regulation of his speech that all those who are acted on by private, non-governmental actors are; if you speak in public, you should expect to pay the ‘consequences’ for it.

Academic freedom, in these viewpoints, becomes bogus; there are no special freedoms that accrue to those engaged in teaching and research in universities; or if they do, they are, as Nelson suggests, only to be found in teaching and research in specifically academic forums. When faculty step out of those restricted domains, they leave their academic freedom behind. You are free to teach what you want; you are free to research what you want; you are not free to say and write what you want ‘outside.’

Some of Nelson’s concerns are addressed by my colleague Justin Steinberg, who in an email to Chancellor Wise protesting Salaita’s ‘dehiring’ wrote: :

Tweets are like (self-made) bumper stickers that one might put on one’s car; they do not reveal anything about how one comports oneself in face-to-face discourse or in the classroom. Just as it would be wholly inappropriate to rescind a job offer based on the perceived tastelessness or stridency of the bumper stickers that bedeck one’s car, it is equally inappropriate to do so on account of the tone of one’s social media posts.

As Amardeep Singh notes in his thorough examination of Salaita’s online record, Twitter is an inherently limited medium; it all too easily facilitates reductive understandings of the points made in its confines. Because it is so physically limited, it often encourages polemical excess: your tweet will soon scroll off your followers’ timelines; there are so many tweets; better to pack as much gunpowder as possible into your volley. Further, if Nelson’s guidelines to faculty hiring were to be taken seriously, with so much public speech taking place on social media, an increasing number of conversations could come in for scrutiny, increasing the likelihood that we may be indicted all too easily for incivility. The net result would be to self-censor online speech. Whatever Twitter’s faults, it offers a new medium of discourse, and it would be unfortunate if those using it were to censor themselves.

And why stop at social media? Any polemical remark made anywhere becomes grist for the mill; a conservative professor expressing his unvarnished–but overheard–opinions about the decline of the American family at a colleague’s dinner party should not be allowed into classrooms where single mothers might be taking classes. The ridiculousness of this situation should be apparent. All over the American university system, many professors with radically diverse political and ethical views teach, conduct research and supervise students; are we to now vet their speech in all and any fora so that we may judge whether they are able to provide safe spaces for their students? Or are we rather to trust them to be able to comport themselves in learning environments, which almost invariably feature diverse political opinions and leanings? As we seem to do more often than not. To set aside certain topics and not others as toxic to the touch will rely, rather unsurprisingly, on making untenable distinctions between them and others on which rather pungent opinions are expressed as a matter of course. (With probability one, Twitter’s archives may be searched to find evidence that academics have expressed such views on all manner of topics; have they all been restricted from coming into contact with various student demographics?)

Nelson is also relying on an incoherent distinction between academic and non-academic spheres of speech, with the former only present in conventional fora such as journals. Au contraire; an academic’s intellectual productions are not so easily demarcated. I consider my writing here to be an important component of my academic role; it helps me think aloud in different shape, manner, and form than the confines of monographs and journals, and thus, helps inform them as well. (Material written here has, for instance, found its way into my latest book.) I sometimes ruminate on my teaching experiences here, and sometimes think aloud about my syllabi. This blog is not a peer-reviewed space, but it no less academic for that. Social media is where a great deal of information-sharing and discussion takes place; it offers a modern form of the salon, with different avenues and modes of participation available. To suggest that this is not an academic space of learning and its dissemination is to turn a willfully blind eye to its structures and usage.

The university is supposed to provide a haven for untrammeled inquiry; to provide spaces within which teachers, researchers, and students may explore many avenues of intellectual exploration, with these not restricted by conventional niceties; we expect to have our mental spaces rearranged within its confines. Academic freedom is supposed to safeguard these modes and methods of learning and teaching. And that learning and teaching will take many different forms and modes; to insist that academic freedom will only be offered in some fora and not others is to say that academic freedom is to be restricted, and only made available in safely restricted ways. That is, it is to be rendered meaningless.

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