I have not been following the story of Steven Salaita and the University of Illinois closely, but the details coming out are troubling, to say the least. The basic facts are clear and I think undisputed: Salaita was offered a job by the American Indian Studies program at Illinois, which he accepted. Salaita resigned from his existing position and prepared to move to Illinois, when he was told that he would not in fact be hired because the Chancellor refused to send his appointment to the board of trustees for approval. The Chancellor’s refusal seemed connected to Salaita’s statements on Israel-Palestine on Twitter, and his criticisms of the phrase “support our troops” published in Salon.*
Today, more details have come out in the form of emails between the Chancellor and various parties including, perhaps most disturbingly, the fundraising wing of the University.
The Chancellor appears to have received around 70 messages opposing the hiring of Salaita, including those from students and alumni who claimed that they would feel uncomfortable in a class with Salaita on account of his fiercely expressed opinions on the illegitimacy of Israel’s recent military actions. One email also came from a major donor:
At least one email the chancellor received was from someone who identified himself as a major donor who said that he would stop giving if Salaita were hired. “Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses. This is doubly unfortunate for the school as we have been blessed in our careers and have accumulated quite a balance sheet over my 35 year career,” the email says.
Presumably this email – and concern about others – is what led the development office to wade in:
While many of the emails are fairly similar, some stand out. For instance, there is an email from Travis Smith, senior director of development for the University of Illinois Foundation, to Wise, with copies to Molly Tracy, who is in charge of fund-raising for engineering programs, and Dan C. Peterson, vice chancellor for institutional advancement. The email forwards a letter complaining about the Salaita hire. The email from Smith says: “Dan, Molly, and I have just discussed this and believe you need to [redacted].” (The blacked out portion suggests a phrase is missing, not just a word or two.)
As disturbing as all this is – and I’d be interested in your collective thoughts on it – what really struck me was the Chancellor’s public statement on the controversy. She writes:
What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.
I can understand a desire to promote respect for individuals, but what could it possibly mean to demean and abuse a viewpoint? How does this attitude not reduce to the ridiculous “teach the controversy”? As scholars, our existence is premised on the idea that not all ideas are equal, that some ideas about the world are, in fact, wrong, and that we can at least attempt to tease out which are correct (or at least plausible) from those which are absurd.
John K. Wilson makes the same point on the AAUP blog, linked from Inside Higher Ed:
I am puzzled as to exactly how a free university could possibly operate when no one is allowed to be disrespectful toward any viewpoint. Presumably, Wise will quickly act to fire anyone who has ever disrespected or demeaned Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since all ‘viewpoints’ are protected, then biology professors must be fired for disrespecting creationism as false, along with any other professor who is found to believe or know anything.
Now, the particular issues at hand are less cut and dry than say, creationism or the recent vaccine controversies. But perhaps research on such debates can serve as a model. Last year, I had the opportunity to read a draft of Anna Kirkland’s forthcoming book on the history of vaccine courts (part of this research was previously published as an article here). Kirkland described eloquently the problem of writing as a feminist about a group of women struggling to take care of their autistic children who also happened to be advocating a discredited position (the vaccine-autism link) which arguably harmed their own cause (research into autism). The history of science is messy, and sometimes groups of concerned lay individuals are right and the scientists are proven wrong. Remembering those times when scientists get it wrong helps us to be a bit humble, to cherish diversity in opinions, and most importantly, to respect the people that express such views – even as we work vigorously to convince them that this particular viewpoint is absolutely false.
How would this model apply to the Salaita case? Well, we could ask, did Salaita show disrespect for individuals (on Twitter, in his Salon posts, or most importantly in his classroom) or just disrespect for certain viewpoints?
According to the Chancellor’s full statement, the decision not to hire Salaita was not made because of his views on Israel, “The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.” (The Chancellor’s full statement is available at the AAUP blog post by Wilson). Rather, as quoted about, Salaita was being passed effectively fired because of his disrespect of a viewpoint, on the assumption that his disrespect for opposing viewpoints on the issue would make it impossible for him to lead a class. Again, from the Chancellor: “A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner.”
We can debate whether or not the Chancellor is being disingenuous (if Salaita had expressed strong opinions about some hot button issue, in the absence of threats of donor withdrawal, would anything have been done?); either way, I think this argument is very dangerous. It effectively disqualifies any professor who expresses a strong opinion in a public forum from teaching on that subject. It assumes that professors cannot simultaneously reject a viewpoint strongly and also respect the individuals who hold that opinions. But we do it all the time, and in fact, good teaching (in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities alike) requires engaging with students who come to our classes with deeply held views that fly in the face of the evidence our fields produce.
Tl;dr: people deserve respect, viewpoints don’t. Also, it’s kind of scary when fund-raisers make (or worse, unmake) hiring decisions.
Edit: Tenured Radical puts the issue more bluntly here, Could I Have Been Steven Salaita? Could You?
Edit: For information on an academic boycott related to the case, see Crooked Timber.
If we recognize that the troops are in fact human beings, then we simultaneously accept that they are too complex to be reduced to patriotic ephemera. Such recognition is unusual, though. People speak frequently of “our troops,” highlighting the pronoun as if it is imperative to their sense of national belonging. It is an act of possession that projects fantasies of virtue onto an idealized demographic in the absence of substantive virtuous practices that might otherwise foster national pride. Plutocracy ravages the state; we rebuild it with narratives of glory and selflessness, the troops acting as both the signifier and the signified in this nationalistic uplift.