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.