This might not be the most consensual topic to choose after the summer blogging hiatus, but I have been following the affair of the “unhiring” of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois and this has brought to mind a few thoughts. I want to stress from the outset (although this caveat is probably useless, as people will just read what they want in my post, depending on their own views on things), that I am not trying to justify Salaita’s dismissal by the University of Illinois, nor am I defending Salaita. I am just struck by what I perceive as an oversimplification of the situation around the catalyzing expression of “academic freedom”.
For those who haven’t followed, Steven Salaita was to be hired by the University of Illinois, until a series of tweets regarding the recent events in Gaza were invoked in order to rescind the job offer. This has led to a very heated debate online regarding “academic freedom” and its limits/violation. Some justify what can only be called a firing, while a considerable number of academics defend him under the banner of “academic freedom“, including my friend Kevin Jon Heller.
First of all, I should say that I had personally never heard of Salaita and I am not familiar with his research. I cannot therefore express an opinion on it and I have to assume that his academic research is not an issue here, if not the University of Illinois would not have hired him in the first place. Moreover, apparently Salaita is a very good professor with great student evaluations from his previous jobs. So what his the problem?
The problem seems to be a number of tweets that Salaita has put on his personal twitter feed condemning forcefully Israel’s actions in Gaza and their defense by anyone. You can get an idea of what he said here, but here are just a couple of examples:
At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) 20 Juillet 2014
The @IDFSpokesperson is a lying motherfucker.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) 15 Juillet 2014
Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) 9 Juillet 2014
The first comment I would have is that Salaita is not necessarily very subtle in his expression. But that is in itself not a problem, and it would be somewhat ironic for me, given my own bulldozer approach to argumentation, to criticize others for being unsubtle…
More importantly, I fail to see how this is an “academic freedom” issue. How is treating the IDF spokesperson of “motherfucker”, the comment on Netanyahu or the wholesale moral condemnation of anybody who supports Israel an expression of an “academic” nature? You can compare with the following tweet, which can on the other hand be considered as an academic opinion:
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) 1 Août 2014
In comparison, the examples I gave above don’t stem from any academic research, they are just insults. If they are considered to be protected by “academic freedom” it raises the question of whether everything an academic says, by the sole fact of being an academic, can be protected by “academic freedom”. I think this statement is preposterous.
Which brings me to my second point: if Salaita’s tweets are in fact merely expressions of personal opinion, can they be held against him to deny him a professional position? In that respect, I don’t think the answer is as straight forward as a number of Salaita’s defenders say it is. Take me for example, I spend my time criticizing, on this blog as on twitter, in very strong terms the practice of international criminal tribunals, often pointing out my strong views about the incompetence of the OTP or some judges. I am very grateful to my employers for allowing me this liberty, because I do believe it is part of my job to do so. But I would equally understand (despite disagreeing) if they felt that such criticism could hurt their relationship with the Courts in The Hague and asked me to tone things down. I also think they allow me to do that because I always provide detailed reasoning for my strong feelings. Now let’s imagine that I took things one step further and started calling the Prosecutor of the ICC a “motherfucker” on my twitter feed, or generally insulting people? Would my bosses really be illegitimate for firing me for simply being very rude? I don’t think so.
A third point is whether, even if one considers that Salaita did in fact express an academic opinion, this should not be taken into account by the institution aiming to hire him? Again, I’m not so sure. In every field of research, there are a number of schools of thought and tendencies which are often reflected in departmental practices at research institutions. Indeed, we often associate certain universities with certain ways of approaching and understanding a specific object of study. When I applied for a masters position in International Relations at Paris II, I was very candidly told in the interview that it would not be possible to have me because I had done Sciences Po, where the approach to IR theory is notably at odds with the traditional realist school of thought at Paris II (It never crossed the person’s mind that I might have a capacity for independent thinking, but that is a different issue). To take the example of legal theory, it is not uncommon for traditional positivists to hire other traditional positivists, while certain universities are on the other hand more open to inviting scholars with a more critical take on the issue. To be clear, I’m not saying I agree or disagree with this state of affairs. But the fact is that it is the daily bread of hiring practices in academia throughout the world. It certainly shows a narrowness of the mind, but for me is in no way an infringement on “academic freedom”. Such an infringement would be if once a person is hired, there is control over the nature and content of the research, which is not what happened here.
Again, the idea here is not to justify Salaita’s dismissal. If he was not hired for generally and simply having anti-Israeli positions, under the pressure of the University’s donors, I understand that people defend him (incidentally, when you look at Salaita’s list of publications, it raises questions about the competence of the hiring committee at the University of Illinois if they only found out that he was critical of Israel with his recent series of tweets). But I don’t find it so scandalous to entertain the idea that an institution might not want to hire someone whose mode of expression includes insulting people on twitter.
And in any case, even if one considers that Salaita’s tweets are no cause for not hiring him, I would still argue that it is a travesty of the notion of “academic freedom” to bring them under its protection.
Of course, the whole issue raises the question of the limits (if any) between activism and academia, but this post is already long enough and this debate will have to be continued at a later stage. Stay tuned…
Update: Kevin Jon Heller has pointed out to me that while interesting (thank you Kevin) my post “bears no relationship to the notion or legal protection of academic freedom in US.” This is a point well taken of course. I made no attempt to research the scope of legal and professional protection of “academic freedom” in the US. In relation to this, I would add three comments: 1) if “academic freedom” in the US does protect some of Salaita’s tweets, then I would simply disagree with that; 2) I’m perfectly happy with a freedom of opinion/expression take on things, I just don’t like the label “academic freedom” and 3) in any case, this issue has gone so global that I think the conversation about it goes beyond the question of the definition of “academic freedom” in US law.