Academic Freedom

Scholars Sound Alarms About Being Judged on Their Civility

August 23, 2014

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s defense on Friday of its decision not to hire Steven G. Salaita riled some academics who have raised fears about the prospect of being subjected to tests of their civility.

Mr. Salaita was offered a tenured professorship in the university’s department of American Indian studies, but his appointment was withdrawn after he drew scrutiny over tweets that were harshly critical of Israel.

(Looking to catch up on the details of this case? Read this Chronicle article and this piece, which explains one of the dispute’s key details: Mr. Salaita’s job offer was subject to approval of the university’s Board of Trustees. This month Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for academic affairs, told Mr. Salaita that the university would not send his appointment to the board, saying that the board’s approval was unlikely.)

Those fears about civility—and debates about whether it’s really a good idea to shield students from things that might unsettle them—aren’t exactly new: For example, The Chronicle reported in May on the case of a tenured political-science professor at Purdue University-Calumet whose speech sparked “debates over where administrators should draw the line between protected speech and outright harassment.”

And the American Association of University Professors, in a statement on Mr. Salaita’s aborted job offer earlier this month, said that it has “long objected to using criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty evaluation because we view this as a threat to academic freedom.”

Still, the university’s explanation of its decision elicited renewed fears about administrators using civility as a metric when judging professors. University leaders said they had to reinforce their “expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.”

Here’s a sampling of what some scholars said about the university’s actions.

Kirstin Wilcox, a senior lecturer in English at Urbana-Champaign, wrote a post on her blog called “On Civility.” She ticked off a list of “things that college should teach students.” The final item: “That if they graduate without having felt, at some point in a class, unsettled, uncomfortable, misunderstood, confused, then they've missed an opportunity to learn.”

David Palumbo-Liu, a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, weighed in on Twitter:

Michael Meranze, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, said in a post on Remaking the University that the board’s defense of the chancellor’s decision displayed a “disturbing confusion.” He wrote, in part:

The board insists that "we" (I think they intend the university but it could just be the board) "must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship." They apparently believe that this entails discourse that will not make students or others feel comfortable. Now it is certainly right that colleges and universities ensure that professors don't demean or abuse their students—and there are plenty of mechanisms to do that. But to insist on some undefined standard of "civility" in debate and to claim that it is as important as scholarship is, frankly, absurd. Part of a student's higher education is becoming uncomfortable as your accepted ideas are challenged, defended, and rethought.

Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore College, posted a copy of a letter he had written to Urbana-Champaign’s chancellor, Phyllis M. Wise. Introducing the letter, he said Ms. Wise's defense of the decision was "actually far more troubling than the initial decision itself."

David M. Perry, a a Chronicle columnist and associate professor of history at Dominican University, took to Twitter to respond to comments on his recent piece about the message of Mr. Salaita's case:

Peter N. Kirstein, a professor of history at St. Xavier University, has also posted several items about the controversy. His posts can be found here, here, and here. Additional responses—from Urbana-Champaign’s Campus Faculty Association, and two from John K. Wilson, a co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ Academe blog—can be found here, here, and here.