On Not Celebrating Steven Salaita’s Settlement With UIUC

I cannot bring myself to celebrate the news of Steven Salaita‘s settlement with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). The reasons for this are fairly straightforward–as noted in a petition now circulating: the crucial legal issues at the heart of his dismissal remain unresolved, and his job has not been reinstated.

Shortly after Salaita announced he would be taking legal action against UIUC, I made some caustic remarks–in the company of many friends–to the effect that UIUC should fire its legal team. How could they possibly have advised a public university to take action that seemed clearly punitive and retaliatory against the exercise of political speech by one of its employees? Did they not envisage the terrible damage that would be done to the university in the discovery stage of trial, where email correspondences and internal deliberations would go public, where it would become clear that the university had succumbed to the pressure exerted by donors?

In conversations with my wife–a lawyer herself–another disturbing possibility presented itself. That the university’s legal team had not discounted such a possibility, that a cost-benefit analysis had been carried out, one which reckoned the financial damage to the university resulting from the loss of donor money if Salaita was appointed as being greater than that resulting from the terms of any out-of-court settlement with Salaita. (The amount that Salaita settled for, $875,000, is far less than some big-pocket donor might have threaten to withhold had Salaita’s appointment not been rescinded. By way of comparison too, think of the salaries of football coaches at large university systems like the University of Illinois.)

And so it has come to pass. Salaita’s case never went to trial; the crucial First Amendment issue that lay at its core was never resolved; and instead, a simple calculus for violating academic freedom has emerged. In saying all this, I do not mean to second-guess the decision made by Salaita and his legal team; he must have wanted put the legal dispute behind him and get on with his life, which has been subject to terrible emotional pressure, and that is not an insignificant consideration. He has a life to live, and it does not need to include being the poster child for a political movement. But it remains unclear whether he will ever find employment at an American university again, for as we might well expect news of his hiring will be greeted by the same furor that precipitated the loss of his UIUC job. His academic future remains in limbo.

To reiterate, the courts of this country were not called on to put their considerable weight behind Salaita’s plea to be reinstated on the grounds that his First Amendment rights had been violated. An important legal precedent would have been set had he won, and academic freedom–seemingly perennially under threat when it comes to particular issues in the current political climate–would have received important legal, political, and moral protection. Perhaps I’m too glib in assuming that Salaita would have won, and perhaps his legal team, based on its knowledge of the relevant case law, felt this was the safest path. Fair enough.

Still, when the smoke has cleared, the landscape looks much like the one before. Indeed, university administrators have learned from Chancellor Phyllis Wise‘s behavior how not to fire someone for exercising their  academic freedom, and the amount of settlement lays down a marker all its own. Academics will still remain uncertain about what their free speech rights in this situation.

Steven Salaita, Palestinians, And Autobiography

Last night, along with many Brooklyn College students, faculty (and some external visitors) I attended ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine. (My previous posts on this event can be found here and here.)

As Robin has noted over at his blog, there was a genuine conversation to be participated in: hard questions, hard answers, disputation. Most importantly, I think, there were moments of discomfort and bluntness.

I want to make note here, very quickly, of  a point of interest that stood out for me (among many, many others).

I was intrigued by Robin’s opening questions to Salaita, asking him to tell the audience a little bit about himself: his family background, his academic interests, his writings etc. At this stage, I was, as someone who had read–and sometimes written–a great deal about La Affaire Salaita, eager and impatient to move on to a discussion of the finer particulars of his case: what’s next in the legal battles, how strong is the First Amendment case etc. Surely, all this was just throat-clearing before the substantive discussion would begin.

But as Salaita began answering these queries, I realized something all over again: all too often, ‘the Palestinian’ is a shadowy figure: not fully filled out, a zone of unknowing into which all too many fears and anxieties are projected.  The state of exile of the Palestinian people, their refugee status, their diasporic existence has often meant that they seem like creatures that flit from place to place, not resting, not stopping to acquire detail, painted on by everyone but themselves. (‘All the Palestinian people, where do they all come from’?) They exist in a blur, our understandings of them underwritten by forces often beyond their control. In that context, the mere fact of hearing a Palestinian speak, telling us ‘where he is coming from’ – whether it is by informing us of the nationality of his father, a Jordanian, or his mother, a Palestinian, born and raised in Nicaragua, and where he was born – Appalachia, if I heard him right! – is enlightening. These simple autobiographical details humanize the too-frequently dehumanized. (The little intellectual autobiography that Salaita provided–for instance, detailing his realization of the notions of colonialism and dispossession tied together American Indian studies and the Palestinian question–did this too.)

For Americans, these particulars Steven Salaita fit into the fabric of American life, into its immigrant past, into cultures and histories and geographies in which they too have a stake. They might force a reckoning of the Palestinian as a ‘new kind of American,’ as heir to long-standing local traditions of political disputation, and enabled a viewing of his dissent in a different light. Without the context of Salaita’s embedding in his past, his family and the places he made his own, his intellectual journeys, those who encounter him will always find it easy to rely on, yet again, on the accounts of those who have an ideological interest in offering alternative narratives of his motivations and inclinations.

Standing By Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last week, I made note here of the philosophy department at Brooklyn College co-sponsoring ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th.

As you will notice, on the link for the event above, there is a disclaimer, in fine print, which reads:

Co-sponsorship does not imply agreement with, or support of, views expressed at a student-hosted event.

This disclaimer was deemed necessary–in this case, at least–because departments are made skittish by accusations of anti-semitism and anti-Israel stances.  But that is not all. The SJP’s use of the word ‘allies’–again, in the link above for the event–has not sat well with some of my colleagues in the philosophy department: it seems to imply the department is engaged in active endorsement of the ‘content’ of the event.  Perhaps the philosophy department shouldn’t be co-sponsoring any such events for fear of not being able to ‘control the message’?

In response to their expressions of concern, I sent the following email to my colleagues:

Some thoughts.

1. I think it would be an ambitious inference for someone to make that the ‘allies’ in question refer to the departments and organizations sponsoring the event (as opposed to say, those attending the event). Some folks will, no doubt, make precisely such an inference. But I wonder if that were even true, what would we be allies to? I still think it would be precisely those issues which are at stake: academic freedom, free speech, academic governance – and the chance to see them discussed in an open forum.  We should be able to articulate a defense for that even in the face of ill-motivated accusations. There should be no need to backpedal in the face of an accusation that “we are actively promoting a pro-Palestine/anti-Israel stance” when it is false. (Indeed, the event is titled ‘Silencing Dissent”.)

2. The word ‘sponsor’ has had, prior to the BDS event last year, a relatively unambiguous meaning on our campus; it has acquired this notoriety almost entirely due to hostility expressed to events organized by the SJP. Has there ever been such a fuss about the word when some other student organization is involved? Indeed, given that the student organization in question is named Students for Justice in Palestine, their events are *always* going to be characterized as being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. I mean, JUSTICE in PALESTINE? That’s a red rag if there ever was one. If departments get too skitty when it comes to the SJP, if they do not co-sponsor any events organized by SJP for fear of the furore it will provoke, then they will co-operate in a de-facto ostracization of a student group. “Every time you guys organize an event, we get shit from alumni and the press – no thanks, we can’t co-sponsor.” This doesn’t seem like a great move for us to make as a department of philosophy, ostensible lovers of wisdom. [link added]

I don’t want to broaden this discussion too much, but let us not kid ourselves about what is going on here. A tenured faculty member was fired, from a state university, for his public speech, because it was deemed to render him unfit to fulfill his academic duties. (Let us not forget the administration at UIUC rode roughshod over faculty decisions pertaining to hiring and tenure.) We are doing the right thing by sponsoring this event, by being part of the effort to have Salaita on campus, talking about the issues involved.

Personally, I see it as an honorable act by this department to ‘co-sponsor’ an event that highlights issues of utmost importance to the modern university. We are a philosophy department; we claim to teach analytic and argumentative skills, all the better to puncture hypocrisy, irrationality, and intellectual dishonesty. We should be able to mount an adequate defense of our actions here and in any other situation we think deserves our support. I do not think we should run for the hills because of a dishonest rhetorical tirade, because people insist on imputing motives and reasons for our actions that we do not actually hold.

Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last Tuesday, the philosophy department of Brooklyn College voted to co-sponsor ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th. (In so doing, we joined the ranks of the departments of political science and sociology, as well as the Shirley Chisholm Project, Brooklyn for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace – New York Chapter, and the International Socialist Organization.)

Because I had suggested–during the ‘new business’ section of our department meeting–that the department sponsor the event, and because the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College focused so much attention on the business of academic departments ‘sponsoring’ supposedly ‘political’ and ‘one-sided’ events, I offered some arguments about the desirability of the philosophy department signing on as a co-sponsor, even if our vote to do so would attract some of the same hostility the political science department at Brooklyn College had during the BDS event.

Those arguments can be summed up quite easily. Steven Salaita will soon be claiming, in a court of law, that: he lost his job because his constitutional right to free speech was infringed by a state actor; his speech was found offensive on political grounds; his academic freedom was violated; he lost his livelihood because he espoused his political opinions in a manner offensive to some. A debate about these issues, conducted with a law professor and moderated by a political theorist (who also teaches Constitutional Law), would offer to our students–even if they disagreed vehemently with Salaita’s political viewpoints–a chance to engage with many philosophical, political and legal problems, all of which they are exposed to, in theoretical form, in their many readings across our curriculum.

Most broadly, philosophy students would see philosophy in action: they would see arguments presented and analyzed and applied to an issue of contemporary political and moral significance. (One of my colleagues pointed out that our department offers a popular Philosophy and Law major, which ostensibly prepares them for law school admission and careers in the law; this demographic would be an ideal audience for the discussion.)

As might be imagined, given the furore generated by the BDS event last year, there was some trepidation over whether such a departmental vote, or the use of the language of ‘sponsorship’ was a good idea. In response, I analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion  of a reading on a class syllabus (During the BDS controversy, I had made a similar argument in response to the claim that sponsoring an event entailed ‘endorsement’ of the speakers’ opinions.) When a philosophy professor does so, she says no more than that she thinks her students should read the reading and engage with it critically; it is worth reading, even if only to criticize it. (This semester, I had included Gobineau in my Social Philosophy reading list; I certainly did not intend to promulgate a theory of the Aryan master race by doing so.)

Lastly, I suggested issues of academic freedom are of utmost relevance and importance for all academic disciplines today. Every department on campus should be interested in a discussion centering on them.

We voted; the motion carried.

Steven Salaita And The Anger Of the Subjugated

In response to my post yesterday, which I crossposted over at the NewAPPS blog, a couple of readers there wondered about the analogy I had drawn between Professor F and Steven Salaita‘s cases. Reader Meir Alon suggested my comparison was ‘very wrong’, Darius Jedburgh said my comparison of Salaita was, indeed, ‘slanderous’, and yet another worthy wondered what the point of it all was.

In constructing the analogy I noted Professor F, like Salaita, had a distinguished academic record, that she worked in a field which often featured polemically charged debates, many of which for her, because of her personal standing and situation–Professor F  has very likely experienced considerable sexism in her time–were likely to be charged emotionally, and that a few hyperbolic, intemperate responses, made in a medium not eminently suited to reasonable discourse, and featuring many crucial limitations in its affordance of sustained intellectual engagement, should not disqualify her from an academic appointment made on the basis of her well-established scholarship and pedagogy.

I could very easily have constructed another analogy, using an accomplished professor of African American studies, Professor B, who stepping into the Ferguson debate, after engaging, dispiritingly, time and again, in his personal and academic life, with not just the bare facts of racism in American life and the depressing facts pertaining to informal, day-to-day segregation but also with a daily dose of bad news pertaining to the fate of young black men in America, might finally experience the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, and respond with a few tweets as follows:

Plantation rules still apply apparently; talk back and massa will let you know who’s boss. And keep those hands up, boy, while you talk to him.

The Black Panthers had it right; arm yourself and fight back. Dr. King might have gotten us some legislation, but cordite and gunpowder is needed now.

Malcolm X or King? Well, that debate now seems settled. By any means necessary for me.

Using these sorts of remarks–even if, or especially if, made on social media networks–as  ammunition against academics, is eminently bad policy. They can all too easily be read out of context–like the ones I have tried to provide above. (Salaita is Palestinian-American and likely knows many personally affected by the continuing tragedy of Palestine. Incidentally, as has been noted, he has tweeted widely and often on the Israel-Palestine debate, and while his pugnacious style is unmistakable in many of his productions, so is a far more temperate and conciliatory tone.)

There is a subtext to this whole business. The firestorm of reactions to Salaita, and which would be set off by Professor F and Professor B–Fox News would certainly have a field day with them, calling for their heads on a pike–is indicative of a continuing determination to police and regulate the nature of the resistance offered by those who speak up on behalf of the traditionally subjugated. Salaita, Professor F, and Professor B, are all expected to conform to certain norms of civil discourse, to channel their resistance–perhaps diffusing their passion and their energy–into channels defined and established by a system that has not worked for them.  (Yes, they are all faculty members with tenure, but that still does not make them ‘insiders.’) These transgressions on their part are just the moment those opposed to their resistance are waiting for; gone, in a flash, is their established record elsewhere; all that matters, now, is this indiscretion.

My point was not so much to construct an exact or precise analogy between the cases of Professor F and Salaita; rather, it was to provide some context, and to point to, perhaps only implicitly, a continuing pattern of willful ignorance when it came to understanding, accepting, and making room for those who, because of their backgrounds and histories, might often speak up and act in ways that those more comfortably ensconced do not have to.

Steven Salaita And The Feminist Professor Who Praised Valerie Solanas

Here is a story of a professor, whose tweets got her into trouble.

The professor in question is a feminist, Professor F–sometimes termed ‘radical’ by her friends, colleagues, and academic foes for her uncompromisingly feminist scholarship and her vigorous, no-nonsense rhetorical style, which is well-versed in the demolition of putative rebuttals to feminist theory and keenly honed by vigorous participation in political polemical debate. She has a distinguished record in scholarship, excellent teaching evaluations–from male and female students alike (though some unkind ones did call her “a typical nut-cracking feminazi”), and found, by dint of these accomplishments, a cohort of scholars and students who admire her work.

One day, after reading in the news about yet another atrocity committed on women–perhaps a gang-rape by fraternity or football team members who then broadcast their deeds on social media networks, perhaps an obnoxious radio host leading a cheerleading squad of listeners terming women who use contraceptives ‘sluts’, perhaps a story like the Rotherham child abuse case. Today she is fuming; she is tired and dispirited–all that scholarship, all that debate, and the world continues on its merry misogynistic ways; this is the worst of all possible Groundhog Days–the same abuse, the same mealy-mouthed exculpations, the same offensive, tone-deaf defenses.

She goes to her office, grabs her cup of coffee, and checks into Twitter. Her timeline is abuzz–her friends are talking about the latest case, posting links from journalists and bloggers, all weighing in with their considered opinions. Some even post links from clueless male politicians, offering their usual insensitive, sexist responses to the latest fiasco.

The outraged, intemperate tweets follow:

Days like this, I feel like re-installing Valerie Solanas as my hero. She would have known what to do. The time for just polemics is over.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to re-read the S.C.U.M manifesto all over again and take it way more seriously this time. She might have been right all along.

In case you are wondering: S.C.U.M = Society for Cutting Up Men. And geez, I could send in the subscription fees for that right about now.

“Overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex”? Yes sir, more please.

A few more tweets follow along the same lines.

Unfortunately, more is brewing than just the next cup of coffee in our professor’s office. She has applied for, and–thanks to her outstanding academic record–been accepted for a tenured professorship in the Women’s Studies department at  a prominent mid-western university .  A mere rubber-stamping of the hiring decision by the university’s trustees awaits; moving expenses and administrative details of the new appointment are already being worked out. Unfortunately, the chancellor of the university, having read these tweets, or rather having been pointed to them, and having been contacted by donors who find them ‘anti-male’, ‘demeaning’ and ‘abusive’ and thus, possibly offensive to the male students who might be in her classes (and maybe even to her colleagues), decides to rescind the job offer.  Pleas to reconsider this decision, grounded in defenses of academic freedom, and of the inappropriateness of using pronouncements on social media as being indicative of broader personal and professional commitments, fall on deaf ears.

Professor F and Steven Salaita both need our help. Only one of them is real, the latter. Read this post by Corey Robin, which details the latest developments in his case; in it you will find the email addresses of the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois to whom you should write, urging the university to rescind its ‘de-hiring.’

Not So Fast With The Private Surveillance

A revealing–no pun intended–reaction to news of Steven Salaita’s troubles at the University of Illinois was that he was only paying the price for having his social media speech monitored (or surveilled) by his employer. As the argument goes, all employers monitor social media; we should all accept the consequences–in our places and zones of employment–of our public speech being monitored by our employers in non-workspace settings; Salaita’s employer did just that; he should deal with the consequences.

In an earlier post, I noted some of the adverse implications of such a situation for academics. But it is problematic for all workers, precisely because of the not-so-benign assumptions smuggled into its premises. First, it  uncritically accepts employer surveillance, not just of work spaces but of speech zones elsewhere as well–the restriction to social media networks is a red herring. This premise suggests we have no expectations of privacy–0r vastly lowered ones–in public spaces; but we clearly do, as our reactions to rude eavesdroppers at our restaurant table or street-corner conversations would suggest. Rather than meekly rolling back the boundaries of acceptable private surveillance to include more speech zones, this debate offers us an opportunity to inspect and examine where and how–and to what end–we consent to having our communications monitored by our employers.

Second, what does it mean to allow the content of our non-work space speech used against us in work space decisions such as hiring and firing? It means introducing an element of critical control and scrutiny into a domain where we expect to speak freely, to permit a regulation of speech by an entity as powerful, if not more, than governmental ones. No legal strictures would be required for chilling effects to be produced; the mere fear of the denial of livelihood would be enough. (Unsurprisingly, political activism of all stripes becomes easier when means of livelihood are not at stake; not for nothing is the tenured radical’s freedom so often lampooned by his critics.) The paucity of First Amendment restrictions on private employers is well-known; permitting their expansion, just because the technical means enable it, is to concede defeat all too quickly. Moreover, to permit it in a zone where the technical means permit it is to open the door to more extensive surveillance provided the technical means can be made available. This is to lose the argument at precisely the wrong point. After all, why not just micro-chip all from birth so as to permit future employers make the most informed decisions regarding suitability?

This reaction–the surveillance is in place, it is inevitable–is also depressingly indicative of the acceptance of an asymmetric surveillance; there is no talk of increasing employer–or chief executive–transparency to accompany this rollback of privacy safeguards. And lastly, as always there is the most appalling suggestion of all, more indicative of a civilizational  decline than anything else: when it comes to doing business, to making money, all concerned enter a morality-free zone of sorts; no imperative larger or more grand than an increase in profits need animate anyone’s actions.