google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: The Latest on the Salaita Case at the University of Illinois

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Latest on the Salaita Case at the University of Illinois

As you probably know, at the beginning of August University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided to rescind an offer of a tenured position to Steven Salaita formerly of Virginia Tech.   Professor Salaita had been chosen by the American Indian Studies Program last October after, as far as I can tell, passing through all of the appropriate Academic vetting processes at U of I. The offer was, as all job offers are at U of I, conditional on approval by the Board of Trustees.  For some reason, the Illinois Board does not meet to make final approval until September, after most new faculty have started their jobs.  In the interim, under conditions that remain clouded in mystery, Chancellor Wise apparently became convinced that Professor Salaita's tweets on the Israeli-Palestine conflict made him unqualified to join the faculty and she chose not to submit his name to the Board of Trustees.

Chancellor Wise's latest statement on her decision can be found here.

There have already been responses to her statement.  I list three below:

John K. Wise has posted at the Academe Blog.

Peter Kirstein has a comment here.

Timothy Burke has a commentary here.

Whatever one's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the BDS movement (which are the underlying points of political controversy here) Chancellor Wise's statement only highlights the dangers facing academic freedom from administrative intervention into faculty judgment about the appropriate scholar to fill a position. Chancellor Wise insists that her decision "was not influenced in any way by [Professor Salaita's] positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel."  This claim is then followed not by any discussion about why Professor Salaita's offer should be withdrawn but by generalized commentary about showing respect in the classroom for people holding alternative positions and for alternative positions themselves. Her statement is so vague that, as John Wilson points out (linked above) it could apply to a biology professor who was disrespectful of creationism.  Or, I would add, if you were to take a different political position, should an administration be able to prevent an appointment of an anti-abortion tweeter because some of his or her teaching might upset pro-choice students?

What appears to be at stake here is criticism of Professor Salaita's tweets.  I have already commented in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the threats to academic freedom posed by administrations and Boards seeking to control people's statements as citizens on social media.  But this case sharpens the point.  As the blog Mondoweiss points out, Professor Salaita has a long teaching record which shows no evidence of the dangers that Chancellor Wise claims to fear, i.e. whatever one's opinion on his tweets there is no evidence that students feel unwelcome in expressing their thoughts or alternative views.   And if there is no connection between tweeting and his interaction with students in his classrooms then there is no relevance to the tweets.

The Board's defense of the Chancellor's decision displays an even more disturbing confusion. The Board insists that "we" (I think they intend the University but it could just be the Board) "must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship."  They apparently believe that this entails discourse that will not make students or others feel uncomfortable.  Now it is certainly right that colleges and universities ensure that professor's don't demean or abuse their students--and there are plenty of mechanisms to do that.  But to insist on some undefined standard of "civility" in debate and to claim that it is as important as scholarship is, frankly, absurd.  Part of a student's higher education is becoming uncomfortable as your accepted ideas are challenged, defended, and rethought.  The level of confusion here is enough to justify asking the Board to stay out of these decisions.

There are other deeper issues that need to be raised.  As far as I have been able to determine Professor Salaita's appointment went, as I said above, through all the normal academic channels.  But there is no evidence that, when Chancellor Wise developed concerns, she returned the file to the appropriate faculty organs to ask for clarification or extra materials.  Nor, apparently, was there any attempt to communicate with Professor Salaita.  In other words, what we have here is an administrative override of a considered faculty judgment based on unproven concerns that there might be some relationship between social media and the classroom.  Given that, it seems unreasonable for Chancellor Wise to insist that the decision was not politically motivated.

Nor is the claim, forwarded by some, that since Salaita was not already a member of the U of I faculty there is no academic freedom issue anything more than a red herring.  If academic freedom is to mean anything it must be a system.  For it to work nationally and internationally scholars cannot be worried that if they say or publish something a board or an administrator at a position they seek will block their appointment.  It is incumbent on faculty and on colleges and universities to honor academic freedom not only of their own members but of scholars at other institutions.

Finally, although administrators have the authority to set priorities and determine how faculty lines are distributed, the decision about the individual scholar chosen is primarily a faculty one and should not be imposed or denied by upper administrations separate from the faculty review process.  At the University of Illinois under its present Chair Christopher Kennedy the Board already intervened in two previous cases of individual faculty positions.  (See here and here)  Indeed, Chancellor Wise indicated that she did not forward Professor Salaita's appointment to the Board in part because she doubted it would be approved.  It is quite possible that she has been charged with doing their work for them.

Although this case is, of course, singular it reveals a more general pattern.  Boards and upper administration are pressing against the autonomy of the actual scholarly and curricular life of universities and colleges--something for decades has been organized and overseen by faculty.  The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has recently insisted that Boards take an even greater role in university and college affairs and that shared governance "cannot and must not be an excuse for board inaction."  Instead they insist that

trustees must have the last word when it comes to guarding the central values of American higher education--academic excellence and academic freedom.  The preservation of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the integrity of scholarship and teaching rightly falls under their purview.  While the occasions should be rare, they must be prepared to intervene when internal constituencies are unable or unwilling to institute urgently needed reforms.

I want to be clear here.  Despite the calls for academic freedom and expression, the central theme of the ACTA statement is that trustees are the only group that can view the institution and its relation with society whole. Therefore, more than narrow faculty or even preoccupied administrators, they must control the relationship between the university or college and the wider world.  Central to this relationship is reputation, only this is defined by ACTA as public acceptance rather than academic autonomy.  ACTA wants to professionalize Board service so as to limit the professional claims of faculty over their own areas.  Indeed, since faculty are so focused on their professional responsibilities, ACTA suggests, they are unable to see the big picture.  It is this logic that justifies the Board of Trustees at Illinois to support the Chancellor in overriding all of the normal faculty review processes.

The approach advocated by ACTA and enacted in the Salaita case threatens to undermine the academic autonomy that faculty have struggled for since the early twentieth-century. If faculty lose their autonomy, the autonomy of colleges and universities will be lost as well.

All those who want to prevent higher education from becoming even more of a sphere of reputational fear and institutional timidity need to push back against this vision as forcefully as they can.


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