Is the Salaita situation really about “academic freedom”?

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:

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:

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.

One response to “Is the Salaita situation really about “academic freedom”?

  1. A few points Dov because I’m afraid you’re taking the notion of freedom of expression, academic or otherwise far too lightly here. First off, motherfucker/mutherfucker is one of my favourite words. It’s not merely an insult or an obscenity, though it can be used that way, but is a particularly potent and well-established manifestation of political expression, particularly in the US.

    Mark Kurlansky in ‘1968: The Year that Rocked the World’ records that “‘motherfucker’ was everybody’s word that year”. Apparently it came to prominence when police attacking students at the Democratic Convention in Chicago were heard shouting ‘Kill, kill, kill the motherfuckers’. It had earlier become a catch phrase used by Black Power style activists inspired by LeRoi Jones’s 1967 poem ‘Black People!’ which included the line “All the stores will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up”. (1)

    It’s been all over hip-hop ever since, a classic being in Public Enemy’s Fight the Power: “Elvis was a hero to most
/ But he never meant shit to me you see
/ Straight up racist that sucker was /
Simple and plain /
Mother fuck him and John Wayne”.

    I’m not surprised Kevin Heller pointed out that your comments had little to do with academic freedom as understood in the US. (There’s a few examples of education-related US cases on ‘motherfucker’ here at fn 45.) (2) But while you seem to be suggesting the tweets might fall under freedom of expression rights, I have no idea what is suggested by mentioning ‘limits (if any)’ between activism and academia. I can’t imagine that there are any, and it seems to be a totally arbitrary (academic, if you will) binary to suggest that there might be.

    In an article from 1981 on black American literature (Black interpretation, black American literature, and grey audiences, Communication Education, 30:3, 209-216), Earl Washington distinguishes between denotative and connotative meanings ascribed to particular terms and phrases as between black audiences, between white audiences, and across such audiences. He quotes the following 1971 poem by Everett Hoagland in full as an illustration:

    listen motherfucker!

    polio is a bitch
cancer is a motherfucker
    a red-neck is a bastard
an uncle tom is a motherfucker
    the ghetto is fucked
    but apartheid is a motherfucker
    hard work in hot weather
    is a motherfucker

    Siberia is as cold as a motherfucker
    and death
    is an absolute motherfucker
    John henry was definitely

    a cock-strong motherfucker

    a “Mark III” (or an “El De”)
    is a pretty motherfucker
    the moon shot
    was a bold motherfucker
    a black woman’s good lovin’

    is a sweet and thorough motherfucker
    and our music, without question,
    is a world reknown motherfucker

    in life you’re either a good motherfucker
    or a bad motherfucker

    a together brother

    is a boss motherfucker

    and sisters say

    a good man

    is a b-a-d motherfucker
    a bad motherfucker

    is never a rotten motherfucker
    because a bad motherfucker

    is basically

    a good mother fucker


    the word motherfucker
    is a mother fucker.

    What I’m getting at here that the term ‘motherfucker’ has a long and noble cultural pedigree rooted in America’s black and minority and dissenting culture. It’s a term used in a precise manner to identify and oppose the racist or violent actions of the political and social elite. I can only imagine that Salaita, himself ‘a person of color’ as they say in the States, in using the term, was following in this tradition. He could have used a multitude of obscenities c**t, b*stard, w*nker and etc etc but instead choose to criticize the spokesperson for a racist army of occupation using a relatively standard term: standard that is to particular segments of the broader community, but perhaps not for white academics.

    Earl Washington, having quoted the poem above, explains that ‘The white majority culture tends to put what the black minority culture says into its own (white) frame of reference. Consequently, whites would define “motherfucker” as a very negative and slang term—literally incest. That definition, however, is only one intended by those who use the word. As the poem indicates, the word may be an intensifier, an appelative, and even a very positive and complimenting term.’

    I’m with Washington on this one. Salaita’s calling the Israeli army spokesperson a motherfucker isn’t simply an insult (probably not an insult at all) – it’s a challenge, a political statement, an assertion that the spokesperson, in the manner by which (s)he has been defending the massacre of Palestinians, is lying.

    While we on this side of the Atlantic might not be finely tuned in to the niceties and nuances of American expressions and terminology the University of Illinois surely should have been alert to this, unless, as suggested at The Electronic Intifada (3) that the University’s managerial and elite class is underscored by institutional racism. There’s a subhead in this article on ‘Civility’ as to how white privilege plays into this sorry affair and which brings me back to a Public Enemy lyric which opens The Prophets of Rage: ‘You’re very hostile’/ ‘I got a right to be hostile man, my people being persecuted’. (4)


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