27 August 2014

Where Is the Line?

"Where do you draw the line on academic freedom?" is a question that I've been asked several times recently, with regard to the un-hiring of Stephen Salaita (the details of which are linked to here). It's asked with a tone of puzzled sympathy, by people who have an investment in academia in general and UIUC in particular, but who are baffled about how we on the humanities corner of campus do things.  They are willing to concede that there were egregious breaches of procedure, that both Salaita and the department that hired him were treated shabbily, that faculty governance and departmental autonomy have been dealt a blow.  But those tweets!  Do humanities faculty really want to line up behind them?  Is it really okay for an activist scholar to do that?  If his puerile 140-character rantings count as protected academic speech, then where would one draw the line?

It is then gently suggested to me that it would be easier for STEM faculty to support their aggrieved humanities colleagues, if those colleagues would just make it clear where the line is.  What forms of hate speech constitute fire-able, untenurable offenses?  Perhaps, I'm told, if humanities faculty stuck to the issues of procedure and governance and backed slowly away from the "academic freedom" banner, they would get more solidarity from the STEM departments, who don't quite see why an academic's right to make injudicious remarks on twitter ought to get the same protections as, say, research supporting climate change.

If we were still in a moment when that conversation could take place, about the threshold where the protections of academic freedom end, humanities faculty would be less angry.  That conversation could have started with an honest and detailed explanation of why Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees saw fit to overturn the faculty's considered judgement.  In the face of the evidence presented in his hiring and tenure documents, that Salaita's outspoken activism did not undermine his teaching, research, and service, where did they see the line being crossed?  In what ways was the whole of Salaita's public activism and twitter feed (not just soundbites selected by those unsympathetic to his views) so incompatible with his professorial position as to justify his unhiring?  Where is the line beyond which higher administrators are justified in overturning faculty decisions?

Such candor would, at least, have given the faculty invested in this case a fixed point to argue with. Some humanities faculty would have seen justice in the administration's position.  Faculty who disagreed would know what principle they were disagreeing with and be in a position to take issue with its fine points.  Faculty who just wanted to get on with their work in confidence that their departments could make future hiring decisions would be able to do so, knowing what kinds of extramural behavior would trip the wire of BoT overreach. And STEM faculty, concerned citizens, and baffled onlookers would have answers to their questions.

Instead of making that vital conversation possible, though, the Chancellor and Board of Trustees sketched out a vague and incoherent explanation of their decision, that only made it clear that academic freedom will, in future, mean whatever the Chancellor and Board of Trustees decide it means.  "Academic freedom" has become something of a rallying cry, not because faculty find it tremendously important to allow Salaita to go on goading Zionists via Twitter, but because the terms on which the Chancellor and BoT made his tweeting a fireable offense could apply just as easily to milder forms of activism, politically relevant research and writing, contentious public debate, and any teaching on sensitive subjects like race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality.  In other words: many of the things that are part of the job for humanities faculty.

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