17 August 2014

In the Coal Mine with the Dead Canary (On L'Affaire Salaita)

(Some background, which is already known to anyone already following this story: The story of how UIUC hired Steven Salaita and then rescinded his job offer can be found here.  Some relevant documents can be found here.   Is this legal?  20 prominent scholars of law explain how this decision constitutes a violation of First Amendment principles here, and the AAUP declares it a violation of academic freedom here.  Another lawyer discusses the contractual issues here.  Outrage on the part of philosophershistorians, communications scholars, gender and women's studies scholars, sociologists, political scientists, rhetoric/composition scholars, and contingent faculty has taken the form of petitions and statements of refusal.  Corey Robin has been keeping tabs on these discipline-specific campaigns on his blog.  A general academic petition is here.  Since this story broke, both Salaita and the UIUC administration have fallen silent.  It is generally assumed that all parties are lawyered up and negotiating a resolution to the contractual dispute behind closed doors.  In this vacuum, Cary Nelson has emerged as the de facto point manjustifying the administration's decisions in Inside Higher Ed, the online publication that originally broke the story. Vincente Diaz, a member of the department that hired Salaita, explains why we should not listen to Nelson here.)

Here on campus, there is dismay.  At least, there is dismay among the departments that cluster around the main quad of the campus: historians, literary scholars, faculty in area studies and foreign languages, those who study gender, those departments with rich affiliations with the American Indian Studies Program.  These people are worrying about the effects of a boycott on upcoming conferences, efforts to bring prominent visiting scholars to campus, the required outside letters for tenure-and-promotion, the university's profile as a place for meaningful research in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. They worry about how this decision will be understood and internalized by Palestinian colleagues and students, how it will affect the climate for expressing frank opinions about conflict in the middle east. There is a lot to worry about.

The dismay is highly localized, however.  If the pressing issues of academic freedom here are of relevance beyond the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, few faculty from the STEM departments on campus have made their concerns known.

One can understand why the scientists might well prefer to treat L'Affaire Salaita as a rhetorical tempest, contained by the teapot of its own disciplinary triviality.  Steven Salaita is an unfortunate poster child for academic freedom.  For those unsympathetic to Salaita's political positions, his Twitter feed speaks for itself, particularly the inflammatory tweets that have been widely reprinted.  "Reading Salaita in Illinois (Part 1)" is Pham Nguyen's exhaustive effort to neutralize his most toxic tweets through a  contextualized close reading that, however persuasive, confirms the limitations of Twitter as a site for nuanced and meaningful public debate.

The faculty who are angered about the Salaita decision may be right, but they also may not matter enough to be heard.  After all, conflict in Gaza will rage on, regardless of how a handful of professors analyze it, and real influence is to be found elsewhere on campus, among departments that can pull grant funding to the university and generate enterpreneurial investment.   For fields that generally fall short on both those benchmarks of excellence, "academic freedom" may be another word for, well, nothing left to lose.

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