Jim Dey: Pro-Salaita protest rates multiple F's
They call that a protest?
Student supporters of Professor Steven Salaita gave it the old college try Tuesday, holding a campus gathering to demand that Chancellor Phyllis Wise wise up. Next time, they need to try harder.
Jim Dey was on the radio Thursday morning. Listen here:
The protest earned multiple Fs — for falling flat. SDS'ers from days of yore must have been turning over in their graves.
The event featured the usual tired chants — "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Chancellor Wise has got to go." There was a symbolic burning of a University of Illinois diploma by a 1993 graduate who couldn't get his lighter (that better not be a cigarette lighter on our smoke-free campus) to work. He ripped up the diploma instead.
There also was a spiritless parody of "Hail to the Orange" — "Hail to the dollar. Hail conformity ... Hail civil discourse, never express your thoughts." Organizers should have brought Chief Illiniwek out of retirement to fire up the crowd.
So it goes in the continuing battle of the oppressed professoriate, where expressions have ranged from high-toned discussion of constitutional issues to pointless calls for the mass resignations/firings of the chancellor and trustees to academic boycotts.
Moral outrage, of course, always runs its course. How long can a segment of the academic community remain aghast over the non-hiring of former Virginia Tech professor Salaita, who tweeted obscenity-laden rants about Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza because, in his words, "I am deeply sad when children are killed. I get angry when people justify their murder."
Actually, who isn't? Well, Salaita isn't, at least not when the children are Israelis. He celebrated the murder of three Israeli youths kidnapped by Hamas, one of the events that led to Israel's attack in Gaza, and called for more of the same.
But is that kind of talk really disqualifying for UI faculty status?
Well, it depends. There's no dispute that faculty members are free to think, speak and write as they please, no matter what the forum is. It's a great gig that invites abuse.
Salaita's problem is that he was a prospective UI employee. Like the record-sized fish mounted on the tavern wall, he should have kept his mouth shut.
That, of course, doesn't mean that he can't challenge Wise's decision that prospective employees who tweet like Salaita did should look elsewhere for employment. Supporters insist his constitutional right to free speech was violated when the UI didn't hire him. Further, they suggest the legal principle of "promissory estoppel," relying on promises of employment to his detriment, offers another avenue of vindication in the courts.
But the tweet speech issue is complicated.
Is it a case of viewpoint discrimination, something the law frowns on? In a sign that lawyers vetted Wise's statement, she went out of her way to say "the decision. ... was not influenced in any way by (Salaita's) positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel." Instead, she said, the UI "cannot and will not tolerate" the kind of demeaning language Salaita used.
University of Chicago Professor Brian Leiter characterized Wise's stance on insulting language as a declaration of war on the First Amendment rights of UI faculty members (see Tuesday's column). If she actually followed through on her statement, Leiter would be correct. But Wise knows better — faculty members are more sacred than cows in India.
Leiter, however, took issue with the column's suggestion that he views Salaita as the equivalent of a faculty member whose rights are inviolate. In a lengthy, amicable email exchange, he argued Salaita's free speech rights were violated by his non-hiring.
"Does the university really have a hiring standard that (it) will not approve candidates who use cuss words? Not to my knowledge, and it's not credible that this is what this is about. In any case, the use of vulgarity is constitutionally protected. ... Only when it came to light that he had vulgar things to say about Israel, and people started lobbying" did Wise take action, said Leiter.
But is it really illegal for a university's responsible officials to decide they would rather not be associated with a would-be professor whose idea of rational discourse is obscenity-laden, arguably anti-Semitic rants on Twitter?
"Illinois' problem is that no one at any level objected to his hiring until his viewpoint became known to (trustees). ... But more generally, it really is incompatible with the ideal of a university as a place where unconventional ideas are explored — to suggest the board of trustees should veto the appointment of anyone that might bring bad press," Leiter said.
What's constitutionally impermissible and incompatible with a great university are, of course, two different issues subject to conflicting interpretations. But Leiter's point is so well-taken, there might be litigation resulting from it or an out-of-court settlement to avoid it. Until a court rules, this is just another academic debate.
Speaking of which, there will be less discussion on the UI campus as a result of the Salaita food fight. Salaita's supporters, including some from the UI, have called for outside academics to boycott campus.
So far, at least two lectures have been canceled as a consequence.
University of Delaware Professor David J. Blacker was scheduled to speak Sept. 29 on "The Race to Nowhere: Abandoning the Promise of Universal Education." University of Minnesota historian Allen Isaacman has canceled his scheduled Oct. 30 address, "Extending South Africa's Tentacles of Empire: Cahora Bassa Dam, 1965-2014."
Given the limited appeal those subjects have, it doesn't sound like an unendurable loss. What would you rather do? Attend those events or pound a nail through your foot? Be honest. It's a pretty close call.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 217-351-5369.