When ‘liberals’ fail to defend academic freedom

The dismissal of Professor Steven Salaita is a wake up call as to the limits imposed on "diverse" debate within our commercialised universities.

Priyamvada Gopal
1 September 2014

As North American universities reopen this week, one name will be

missing controversially from the roster of fall courses at the

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Professor Steven Salaita, an

Associate Professor at Virginia Tech with a stellar research and

teaching record, had a signed contract of appointment to a tenured post

in its department of American Indian Studies.

As North American universities reopen this week, one name will be

missing controversially from the roster of fall courses at the

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Professor Steven Salaita, an

Associate Professor at Virginia Tech with a stellar research and

teaching record, had a signed contract of appointment to a tenured post

in its department of American Indian Studies. A few weeks ago, the

University suddenly dismissed Salaita who was awaiting the routine

formality of a Board of Trustees endorsement. He had resigned from his

previous job. No official reason for the ‘dehiring,’ to use its own

parlance, was given by the university for several days until a vague

statement from Chancellor Phyllis Wise referenced ‘personal and

disrespectful words or actions.’ This confirmed suspicions that the

decision— taken without any academic consultation — had indeed been

based on impassioned tweets that Salaita, a Palestinian-American, had

posted during the first half of July as terrible destruction was wrought

by the Israeli invasion of Gaza.


Significantly, only days before taking this action, the University had

explicitly defended the right of its employees to voice controversial

views as vehement pro-Israel campaigners had begun to petition it

against Salaita’s appointment, terming him an ‘anti-Semite.’ The

manufactured controversy, fuelled by the political predilections of

influential donors, hinges upon a very small selection of tweets that

Salaita had posted. They expressed anger at the massacres in Gaza and

addressed the wearisome charge that criticism of the Israeli state

equals anti-Semitism, a charge familiar to anyone who has dared venture

disquiet with Israeli state policies and practices.


One tweet (‘protected speech’ in the United States) that was singled out as

evidence of ‘anti-Semitism’ was from July 20, 2014: ‘Zionists:

transforming “anti-Semitism” from something horrible into something

honorable since 1948.’ As several commentators have since pointed out, 

the tweet in itself—and certainly in the context of Salaita’s other

tweets, many of which explicitly condemn anti-Semitism —does the

opposite of condoning anti-Semitism. Within Twitter’s 140 character

limit, it notes that Zionists who reduce all criticism of even the worst

actions of the state of Israel into ‘anti-Semitism’ also traduce

honourable opposition. Such routine misuse of a serious charge runs the

grave danger of diminishing the gravity and reality of the phenomenon of

anti-Semitism itself, doings its actual victims a real disservice.


As Michael Rothberg, Chair of the English Department Illinois and himself a

Holocaust scholar ‘sensitive to expressions of anti-Semitism,’ notes in

his excellent letter of dissent to Wise, Salaita’s tweets were

manifestly ‘not expressions of anti-semitism but criticism of how

charges of anti-semitism are used to excuse otherwise inexcusable actions.’

He notes too that while a ‘civil tone’ may generally be preferable,

certain occasions call for strong language (Salaita uses the f-word in

one tweet) and an expansion of the idea of ‘what constitutes an

acceptable tone so that it is commensurate with the events at stake.’


Even as hundreds of academics in North America and beyond, including

many who teach at Urbana-Champaign, have signed letters of protest and

pledged not to undertake any professional services at the university,

including refereeing and speaking engagements, one of the most striking

aspects of the affair has been the willingness of self-defined liberals

to either mitigate or endorse the firing of Salaita. As such, the case

has also thrown light on the limits of liberalism and its acquiescence

to the encroaching depredations of the corporate managerial culture that now

afflicts universities across the world. Apart from anything else,

this is a case of high-handed administrative behaviour, increasing

corporate influence (the Board of Trustees is composed of powerful

business people who know little about scholarship or teaching) and the

steady erosion of the vital principle of scholarly autonomy.


Before Wise—and then the Trustees—put out statements defending their patently political and partisan decision, the chief attack dog for the

anti-Salaita camp was prominent left-liberal academic, emeritus

Professor Cary Nelson, a former President of the American Association of

University Professors (whose officer-bearers have been swift to decry

the decision and to distance itself from him) and still a member,

ironically, of its important Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.

Praising Chancellor Wise for ‘doing what had to be done,’ Nelson,

denounced Salaita’s tweets with McCarthyite relish as ‘venomous’,

‘loathsome,’ ‘foul-mouthed… hate speech’ and ‘obsessively driven’ on the

matter of Israel- Palestine (hardly surprising in context given that the

area constitutes one of Salaita’s scholarly specialisms).


Nelson was among the first to articulate the peculiar notion, now given

as an official rationale for Salaita’s dismissal, that students had a

right to be protected from discomfort (slyly conflated with ‘abuse’) in

the classroom and that strong views held outside the classroom posed a

danger inside it. Academic freedom, Nelson opined, ‘does not require

you to hire someone whose views you consider despicable’ (though it

remains unclear who the ‘you’ is, given that Salaita had earned

scholarly approval after a rigorous search process). On social media,

liberals agreed that while they didn’t precisely defend the university’s

decision, Salaita had, unfortunately for him, ‘tested the limits of free

speech’ and found them - though it remains unclear who determines these

limits. While academic freedom had ‘of course’ to be defended, Salaita

was ‘the wrong case’ for such defence, having ‘crossed’ some patently

imaginary ‘line’ to do with ‘civility’ and ‘collegiality.’


The latter two are, of course, buzzwords of determinate vagueness intended

precisely to keep up, as Wise does in her statement, the banal pretence

of defending ‘diversity’ and ‘dialogue’ while wielding a wild card

intended to swiftly mark their limits as decided from on high. Speak

truth to power but power will decide when enough truth has been

spoken. Indeed, Wise’s statement itself is an exemplary exercise in

managed diversity with its exhaustive encomiums, on the one hand, to

‘principles’ of academic freedom, diversity, contentious discourse,

robust debate, critical arguments, difficult discussions, differing

perspectives, confronted viewpoints, and challenged assumptions, and on

the other, a litany of vague and confused disciplinary notions whose

content and provenance will also be decided from on high. They include

‘respect for students'’ rights as individuals,’ a ‘civil and productive

manner,’ no ‘demeaning and abusing viewpoints’, ‘valuing students as

human beings’ and dialogue which is ‘civil and thoughtful’ and ‘mutually

respectful’ - all of which seems unexceptional enough but can hardly be

specified objectively, particularly in relation to difficult emotive

issues. The Illinois trustees backed Wise’s statement, duly deeming it

as ‘thoughtful’ in its affirmation of campuses as ‘safe harbors’ for making

‘productive citizens’ and ‘valu[ing] civility as much as scholarship.’


Should British academics worry about this act of racialised institutional violence against a vulnerable colleague? We would be suicidal not to. Without

tenure, we have less protection as it is, even as the worst aspects of

business-speak and corporate rule are swiftly taking over British

universities as well. ‘Collegiality’ and ‘civility’ are routinely used

by administrators here to police politically ‘difficult’ colleagues.

Used disproportionately as a disciplinary mechanism against mouthy women

and ethnic minorities the ‘civil’ in ‘civility’ is also the ‘civil in

‘civilise.’ As managers shift disciplinary goalposts at whim, we must

not remain rooted in the comforting delusion that we are not ultimately

all, even the least outspoken among us, Steven Salaita.


You can sign a petition in support of Steven Salaita at http://www.change.org/p/phyllis-m-wise-we-demand-corrective-action-on-the-scandalous-firing-of-palestinian-american-professor-dr-steven-salaita



This article is part of the Education strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData