Salaita case calls for honest debate
By Joyce Tolliver and Nick Burbules
The sides are lining up over the University of Illinois' decision not to seek board of trustees approval for Dr. Steven Salaita's tenured faculty position. Since neither the university nor Salaita has spoken publicly about the issue, there is much we do not know. The national American Association of University Professors has rightly decided not to take a final position until all the facts are known.
However, the Illinois branch of the AAUP did weigh in, releasing a statement asserting that Salaita's recent comments, "while strident and vulgar," were protected by academic freedom and hence that it was not defensible for the university to withhold Salaita's appointment. The Campus Faculty Association was quick to attack the campus administration's decision. The faculty union up at UI Chicago has also jumped into the fray, criticizing our campus and calling for a national investigation.
There are two aspects of this public debate that are based on questionable assumptions. The first is the frequent assertion that Salaita's position offer was terminated because of his stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There is, at this point, no evidence that this is the case: Many faculty hold similar views on the Middle East, and no one has suggested that they are not entitled to engage in open debate over this controversy.
The real issue is with the form and substance of Salaita's comments. He has made numerous public statements over the summer that are not just "strident and vulgar," but are, in the view of many people, incendiary and anti-Semitic.
Of greatest concern to an academic community is that many of his comments preclude any possibility of dialogue, disagreement or reasoned examination. This is not what one would expect from a thoughtful, reflective teacher and scholar.
The question is not whether Salaita has a First Amendment right to make such comments — of course he does. It is whether, in light of this new information, the university has the right to choose not to proceed with hiring someone who speaks and writes that way in public.
There is a serious policy question here of how to manage a situation in which new and damaging information comes to light about a prospective hire after an initial letter of offer is sent, but before the beginning of the appointment period and before final board approval.
At Virginia Tech, his previous institution, the university chose to publicly disavow some of his extreme comments, in order to protect its own reputation. And apparently they have made no effort to retain Salaita after he received word that board approval would not be sought for his appointment at Illinois.
The other questionable assumption of the current debate is that the university's action violates Salaita's academic freedom. But the principle of academic freedom is not an absolute, open-ended license; the AAUP's own statement on principles of academic freedom emphasizes that faculty are also bound by the standards of professional ethics: "As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, (and) should show respect for the opinions of others ...." Salaita's comments raise legitimate questions about the limits of academic freedom.
An honest debate about this case would engage these serious and difficult questions, instead of invoking the familiar frame of faculty victims being silenced by evil administrators. That framing might serve other political agendas, but it does not serve the campus or the wider academic profession well — and it does not fit the facts of this case as we know them, so far.
Nick Burbules and Joyce Tolliver, current members of the UI faculty, are past leaders of the campus academic senate.