Don't Speak Out: The Message of the Salaita Affair

Online speech by faculty members is increasingly being policed by administrators anxious to avoid controversy

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August 20, 2014

Until a few weeks ago, Steven G. Salaita was on his way to join the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a tenured professor in its American Indian studies program. He had left his position at Virginia Tech and was prepared to move across the country with his family. All that was left was the usually pro-forma step in which the chancellor sends the appointment to the university’s board for approval. In this case, shockingly, Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise decided to block his appointment. The alleged reason was that he was too rude when criticizing Israel on Twitter.

This case has arrived in the wake of numerous others in which online speech has resulted in censure and, in some cases, the enactment of new policies intended to restrict public speech. The decision to void Salaita’s hiring over criticizing Israel, already a polarizing topic in American academic culture, escalates the situation.

I come to this topic not as a partisan in the specifics of Salaita’s situation but as an advocate for faculty engagement with the public. Over the last year, I have written periodic columns for The Chronicle about the ways that academics can and should write for general audiences. Recently, I even suggested that "sustained public engagement" of any sort should count for hiring, tenure, and promotion.

When I write about this topic, I often get told that the real problem is that academics are snobs. We like living in an ivory tower, goes the argument, and we look with disdain on getting our hands dirty in the public sphere. There’s plenty of snobbery to go around, it’s true, but the Salaita affair shows a different, and I think more powerful, force that keeps many academics from commenting on important contemporary issues: fear.

Salaita is a well-respected scholar in his field, but he is also the kind of public intellectual who tests limits. Last year, for example, he wrote an essay for Salon in which he attacked the rhetoric of "supporting the troops" and other compulsory acts of patriotism. Not unexpectedly, it generated considerable controversy. He is also politically active in the "boycotts, divestment, and sanctions" movement, or BDS, which is intended to pressure Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. BDS has become a particularly contested issue in academic circles, with Salaita at the forefront of that debate.

He also tweets a lot, especially since the latest Israeli offensive in Gaza began, and some of his tweets are angry. They are not, however, noticeably worse than what I routinely see in reaction to all sorts of political issues. Look for academics responding online to any issue—the recent invasion of Crimea, for example, or the controversy surrounding Stephen Colbert’s use of racist language (known as #CancelColbert)—and you will find academics spouting invective, profanity, and anger. Given all that, was the problem really that Salaita was unconscionably rude, or, as I suspect, was it that he had strong opinions about a deeply sensitive subject?

I worry that a lot of academics will decide it’s the latter, and that the only safe path for them is to stay out of the limelight. I’ve seen scholars face this question before, and retreat in order to preserve their careers—a decision I cannot fault. A few weeks ago, for example, an untenured friend of mine noted a powerful link between current events and her field of expertise. She’s a brilliant scholar and great writer, so I encouraged her to write about it. It would have been a great essay, one easily pitched to major publications. It would have helped to shape our understanding of the world in which we live. It was also political in nature.

When she ran the idea by her dean, he said that while he supported her writing about public issues in theory, he wouldn’t necessarily support an opinion piece. He said faculty members must remember that their institution will be judged by statements they make in public. My friend took this as a sign that she risked not getting tenure if she took a controversial stance in public. She didn’t write the essay.

This is bad for my friend’s institution and bad for her. Her small college loses the opportunity to demonstrate the expertise of its faculty members in a responsible way. And she not only has an idea she can’t express, she loses the chance to be read by thousands of people, an experience that most academics never get.

Most of all, though, I believe that it’s bad for society when only tenured people at famous universities get to articulate their opinions in public, and then only if they are taking "safe" positions (or don’t care about their job security or mobility). When highly talented communicators, like my friend, don’t have a chance to communicate beyond the walls of their campus, we all lose.

In my friend’s story, I was particularly struck by her dean’s positivity about writing for a general audience—so long as she wasn’t writing an "opinion" essay. Isn’t forming opinions what most of us in academia do? We do research, we collect evidence, and then we produce thesis-driven arguments about what our evidence means. Alas, for the dean, strong opinions in a public forum might endanger the institution’s reputation, so he effectively silenced my friend.

That perspective seems to be shared by Chancellor Wise in Illinois. Salaita didn’t lose the job offer for being angry and coarse, but because he was angry about a deeply controversial subject that attracted the attention of conservative bloggers, then the local papers, and finally the chancellor.

This is the wrong approach. Instead, as the Illinois AAUP Committee A said in a strongly worded defense of Salaita, "Speech that is deemed controversial should be challenged with further speech."

We need more public writing, not less. We need to open pathways for more academics to speak out in public, not punish Salaita for doing so in ways that have provoked such strong feelings. But we can’t ask scholars to embrace the risks of engagement in a system in which partisan bloggers and local papers can push timid administrators to fire, or in this case unhire, academics who leap into public debates.

Here’s a quote I’d like Chancellor Wise to consider as this issue unfolds. Last January, faced with anger on Twitter, a college administrator wrote (thanks to higher-education writer Corey Robin for the tip): "A university should be home to diverse ideas and differing perspectives, where robust—and even intense—debate and disagreement are welcomed." Now that’s an inspiring principle that ought to guide any administrator to protect public speech, on any topic, no matter how rude or controversial.

The author of this inspiring manifesto in defense of academic freedom and diversity of opinion? Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess? and he writes on occasion for The Chronicle and Vitae. Follow him on Twitter @lollardfish.