Illinois AAUP defends Salaita's academic freedom

Illinois AAUP defends Salaita's academic freedom

By Peter N. Kirstein

Professors Joyce Tolliver and Nick Burbules of the University of Illinois in their Sunday, Aug. 17, op-ed, "Salaita case calls for honest debate," support the firing of tenured Associate Professor Steven G. Salaita. However, as chair of Illinois American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, I wish to offer a different viewpoint.

They claim it is speculative to assert that Professor Steven Salaita was fired due to his comments on the Israel/Palestinian conflict: "There is, at this point, no evidence that this is the case."

Then they undermine their stunning claim by asserting that "the real issue is with the form and substance of Salaita's comments."

Academic freedom requires that both substance and form are protected speech when engaging in extramural utterances. It does not differentiate between the two. It is, in fact, impossible to separate the rhetoric style from the topic. The former gives vitality and expressive force to the latter.

The professors might consult the landmark Supreme Court case, Cohen v California (1971). Justice John Marshall Harlan in his majority opinion averred that, "words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force. We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function."

While the professors twice cite Illinois AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure report's description of Salaita's tweets as "strident and vulgar," we defended his academic freedom to express himself as bombs were flying into children, U.N. safe houses and mosques in blockaded Gaza. We do not make such a fine distinction as apparently Professors Tolliver and Burbules do between "substance" and "form" when assessing tweets as protected extramural utterances.

Professors Tolliver and Burbules refer to Professor Salaita's tweets as being characterized as "incendiary and anti-Semitic." I wonder if they are familiar with the full range of his tweets from 2014. These include:

— It's a beautiful thing to see our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world deploring #Israel's brutality in #Gaza. (July 18)

— My stand is fundamentally one of acknowledging and countering the horror of antisemitism. (July 19)

— Equal rights for everybody, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc. (July 20)

— I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs. (July 27)

If there is any ambiguity concerning why Professor Salaita's appointment was not sent to the board of trustees, the fault lies with Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre. In their egregious dismissal letter of Aug. 1, no reason is given why a contract offered nine months ago is voided. It is unconscionable that an academician would be fired in this manner. While I believe there are legal grounds for reversal from a promissory estoppel — a promise of appointment — to the suppression of First Amendment rights of free speech, the absence of an explanation is one of the worst cases of administration abuse of a faculty member I have ever witnessed

Professors Tolliver and Burbules, with a "cri de coeur," defend administrators from the "familiar frame of faculty victims being silenced by evil administrators." Certainly AAUP has not used such language. It has, however, used widely accepted documents such as the seminal 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure that affirms, "When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline."

While the sounds of silence from the University of Illinois remain deafening, only the restoration of Professor Salaita to his appointment in the American Indian Studies Program can restore academic justice to Salaita and his peers that chose him as a colleague.

Peter N. Kirstein, a history professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, is vice president of the Illinois Conference of the American Association of University Professors and is chair of the Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

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SouthSider wrote on August 19, 2014 at 8:08 am

Prof. Kirstein, like many others, quotes the first part of the AAUP statement on public speech, but not the second part, which Tolliver and Burbules draw our attention to, and which he ignores:

“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 . . .”

This principle is clearly relevant to the Salaita case.

Bruce Rosenstock wrote on August 19, 2014 at 8:08 am

SouthSider should quote the 1970 Interpretive Comments too:

"This paragraph is the subject of an interpretation adopted by the sponsors of the 1940 Statement  immediately following its endorsement which reads as follows:

If the administration of a college or university feels that a teacher has not observed the admonitions of paragraph 3 of the section on Academic Freedom and believes that the extramural utterances of the teacher have been such as to raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position, it may proceed to file charges under paragraph 4 of the section on Academic Tenure. In pressing such charges, the administration should remember that teachers are citizens and should be accorded the freedom of citizens. In such cases the administration must assume full responsibility, and the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges are free to make an investigation.

Paragraph 3 of the section on Academic Freedom in the 1940 Statement should also be interpreted in keeping with the 1964 Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances , which states inter alia: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar"

These statements are quite clear. As far as we know, Chancellor Wise's letter of August 1 to Steven Salaita did not state that, upon investigating his "entire record as a teacher and scholar," she has concluded that he is "unfit" to assume his position. Nor has she said this in public since that time. Until she does so, the decision prima facie violates the AAUP 1940 Principles when read together with the 1970 Interpretive Comments.

SouthSider wrote on August 19, 2014 at 8:08 am

Fair enough, Prof. Rosenstock. So your view is that the university should have proceeded with the hiring, then immediately filed charges to disciplne or dimsiss Prof. Salaita after his arrival.

As you know, an issue in dispute in this case is whether in fact Prof Salaita did deserve the full protections of a tenured faculty member here.

Bruce Rosenstock wrote on August 19, 2014 at 9:08 am

SouthSider correctly states that "an issue in dispute in this case is whether in fact Prof Salaita did deserve the full protections of a tenured faculty member here." In light of this unsettled legal issue, the most prudent course for the Chancellor to take if she wished to protect the University (both its exposure to a lawsuit and its reputation for upholding the principles of academic freedom) would of course have been to file charges after Prof. Salaita's arrival. Had she consulted with the faculty here with expertise in the relevant fields (both in our Law School and in LAS), I would hope that the Chancellor would have decided not to file charges at all.

spangwurfelt wrote on August 19, 2014 at 9:08 am

I wonder how much more we can speculate in an information vacuum. 

Richard Laugesen wrote on August 19, 2014 at 9:08 am

Burbules and Tolliver seem to be claiming that Salaita can say what he wants under the First Amendment, but if he does not exercise appropriate restraint and show respect for the opinions of others, then academic freedom should not protect him. Am I understanding their argument correctly?