From a Twitter to a Scream
Thanks, but no thanks.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign board of trustees recently decided that Steven Salaita would not be joining them after all. The Native American Studies department offered Salaita a tenured position last October, which he accepted, giving up his tenured position at Virginia Tech in order to make the move. However, the next step in the process occurs when administrators send the application to the university’s board of trustees for final approval, usually considered a mere formality. In this case, the chancellor, Phyllis M. Wise, at first endorsed the appointment, then tried to rescind it, and then relented, allowing the Board to review and finally deny Salaita the position; not because Salaita is a bad teacher or scholar, but because he’s a bad tweeter. Like many, Salaita maintains his own Twitter fiefdom where he has, in angrier moments, breathed fire of 140 letters or less in the direction of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Zionists, and Jewish settlers. One such moment was during the recent Israel-Gaza conflict. Some of his sparkling bon mots:
- “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”
- “Ever wonder what it would look like if the KKK had F-16s and access to a surplus population of entrapped minorities? See #Israel and #Gaza.”
- “Let’s cut to the chase: if you’re defending Israel right now, you’re an awful human being.”
- “Israel’s relentless bombing illuminates the human capacity for evil. The people of #Gaza illuminate our relentless capacity for courage.”
- “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” And then finally:
- “Zionists: transforming “antisemitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”
The last one’s especially upset people, although I actually found it a bit confusing. The message preceding it helps a bit:
- “If it’s ‘antisemitic’ to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have?”
Admittedly, I’ve cherry-picked some of the most inflammatory posts from his Twitter feed to show what the fuss is about. There are about 100 or so to do with the Gaza conflict. The one about the West Bank settlers, referring to three teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in June, I found somewhat more cringe-inducing than the others, but most of them add more heat than light . Overall, I would note that Twitter seems a rather brutalizing medium of discourse and one wonders what a scholar, someone who has dedicated their life to slow and patient thinking, would get out of it.
Things went from a twitter to a scream when the Daily Caller ranted about the University hiring Salaita and the voices of several donors, anonymously offended bystanders, and students joined the chorus. Josh Cooper, a senior, told the trustees that “hate speech is never acceptable for those applying for a tenured position.” Students petitioned that they would not feel safe taking a course from Salaita, with or without a trigger warning (or Twitter warning). In Tablet, Liel Leibovitz asked how safe students would feel taking a course from someone whose tweets had shown him to be “systematically racist and supportive of violence.” One-upping the chancellor whose writings on “civility” Professor Hanley recently dissected here, Chancellor Wise wrote that the university “cannot and will not tolerate…personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” suggesting that the university is uncomfortable with the critical component of critical thinking. Thus, on one side, we have offended people taking part in an increasingly esteemed American tradition of insisting that those people who hold opinions that they disagree with should not be employed.
On the other side, we have Salaita and a good number of angry academics who believe the chancellor’s actions constitute a “violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech.” Scheduled visiting lecturers are backing out of appearances at the university with one writing: “In my judgment, this is a core and nonnegotiable issue of academic freedom.” At least 300 scholars have vowed not to engage with the University at all. For the professors actually employed by the university, the value is a bit more negotiable; they’re not backing out of anything, but still planning to vote no confidence in the Chancellor. Several academic blogs are calling it a major scandal threatening faculty independence and the intellectual freedom of the university itself. One does have to wonder how academics off the tenure track, who now make up the majority of instructors in American academia and who, as contingent at-will hires, have no job protection whatsoever, might feel about all of this.
I suspect they will grit their teeth and support Salaita too (if they can afford to boycott any jobs while scrambling to make minimum wage). There’s a distinct problem with making free speech contingent upon “civility” which seems to be in the eye of the offended. There’s also a host of problems with the mushy wishful thinking that expects open and free academic inquiry to lead scholars to treat all viewpoints with respect. Intellectual freedom means the right to follow ideas through wherever they lead. I didn’t find the tweets in question to be particularly insightful or intelligent; however, Americans have traditionally felt that expressing one’s own political opinions as a private citizen outside of work should not mean losing one’s job. Salaita was supposed to be hired as a teacher and scholar, which the university believed he does well, and not as a tweeter. Finally, Illinois students can petition that they think he would be a bad teacher, but since none of them have taken a course from him, their opinion matters very little.
Yet, from my own position as a relative outsider, I can’t help thinking the really big problem here is that academic freedom is a ship that seems to have already sailed for American universities. The so-called “adjunctification” of university teaching has meant the creation of an entire class of academics- grad students, adjuncts, visiting scholars, etc.- who really have very few if any of the academic protections of tenured professors. It’s not a matter of firing either; if this group of academics should happen to express an opinion that offends students or donors, they simply won’t be asked back. Most offensive to students, of course, are those disrespectful opinions expressed in bad grades and one suspects that replacing retiring tenured staff with adjuncts has been, more than anything, a backdoor way to standardize grade inflation for large state universities. But universities can conceivably let those people go for any reason they choose without any sort of due process. The problem is that tenured academics have allowed the island of those granted academic protections and freedoms to grow smaller and smaller, or at least haven’t fought any major battles over it. I suppose the hope is if a junior academic can make it to the top of the pyramid, they could then be granted the freedoms that senior academics see as fundamental to the enterprise of academic inquiry from the start. Until then, well, best keep your head down!
So, yes, perhaps tweeting is separate from teaching and tenured academics should retain the freedoms and protections that ideally should be extended to all scholars and citizens. I’m just not sure that American universities are the place to go to find those sorts of freedoms at this point.