asa presidents, secretary send a letter to UIUC chancellor

There is an update to some discussion in the comments about why the ASA has not sent a letter of concern regarding the UIUC’s failure to hire Steven Salaita. As I mentioned there, the ASA Council handed the matter over to the ASA presidents, who decided at that time, there was insufficient consent to warrant a letter.

Since then, as additional information has come to light, the three ASA presidents (President Paula England, Past-President Annette Lareau, and President-Elect Ruth Milkman) and ASA Secretary Mary Romero reconvened and decided to send a letter at this time. Please note that this letter is not from the ASA organization per se, but from these four prominent sociologists as they occupy these key elected and appointed positions in our professional organization. The text of the letter is here:

UPDATE: ASA Vice President Elect Barbara Risman and Council Member-At-Large Stephanie Bohon have written a letter of support for the UIUC’s decision. Both letters can be found as pdfs on the ASA website in the “What’s New” section.

We write as elected leaders of the American Sociological Association to express our concern about the possibility that academic freedom has been violated in the decision of the Chancellor not to send Dr. Steven G. Salaita’s faculty appointment to the board for approval, and the decision of the Board not to approve his offer. We ask you to reconsider your decision.

The decision appears to abrogate long-established principles of academic freedom of expression to which your university expressly adheres (see art. 10, sec. 2, at http://www.bot.uillinois.edu/statutes). It appears that the decision not to approve his appointment after the usual faculty evaluation processes was based on disapproval of some political views he expressed on electronic media or the way in which he stated them. As leaders of a scholarly association, we consider it important that decisions about whom to hire, tenure, or terminate be made based on scholarship, teaching, administration, and service, and not on whether individuals express views that administrators or board members disagree with. We believe that the right to express unpopular views on important issues in various media is critical to the health of our democratic society and to its institutions of higher education.

If Dr. Salaita’s appointment process was discontinued because of the views he expressed, then, regardless of whether or not we agree with his views, we find the discontinuation deeply disturbing and inconsistent with academic freedom. We urge you to consider whether important principles have been violated in this case, and if they have, to reconsider your decision.

Paula England also reminds us that any individual may speak out as ASA members on this issue as well.

20 thoughts on “asa presidents, secretary send a letter to UIUC chancellor”

  1. “Please note that this letter is not from the ASA organization per se…” Then why do they mention the fact that they are ASA elected officials? I find this a bit disingenuous. Either the disclaimer should have been included in the letter or the ASA affiliation should not have been mentioned. These are four distinguished scholars whose reputations stand on their own.

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    1. They may be or be influenced by the Congregationalist tradition (or other similar traditions): you can speak only for yourself and not others, but you may speak for yourself while citing your credentials as, for example, someone who has been elected to office by a bunch of other people. It sounds to me like that is what they are doing. I don’t think this is disingenuous. An academic freedom issue should be markedly less controversial than a lot of other issues.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Interesting. Aside from one brief clause that refers to the way in which Dr. Salaita stated his views, the England et al letter speaks exclusively to the content of views: “[hired on merit] not whether the individual expresses views that administrators … disagree with”; “right to express unpopular views,” “if [his] appointment process was discontinued because of the views he expressed;” etc.

    By contrast, the Chancellor and Trustees have been quite careful to say that it’s the tone and language of [some of] Salaita’s tweets that make him unfit for the position, and NOT the content of his views. From their perspective, then, the England et al argument is irrelevant. They can sleep well in the belief that if Dr. Salaita had only expressed his views using more “civil” language, they would have signed off on his offer letter, even over the objections of pro-Israel donors.

    I wonder if skirting the “civility” issue was intentional. Certainly some sociologists argue that by defining some language as acceptable and other language as unacceptable, elites can control discourse and suppress ideas. But, I’d also guess there’s more consensus, perhaps even within a group of 4 sociologists, that academic freedom covers the content of views than there is that it covers how those views are expressed.

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    1. Quoting Wikipedia:

      According to Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989), time, place, or manner restrictions must satisfy the following:
      * Be content neutral
      * Be narrowly tailored
      * Serve a significant governmental interest
      * Leave open ample alternative channels for communication

      (The University of Illinois is, of course, a government entity.)

      Do “civility” restrictions on faculty’s off-campus political communication on their own time meet these standards? Do you really think that many sociologists think that our universities should police the civility with which we conduct our lives outside of our professional duties? I can’t imagine people wanting their universities to take on that role.

      That’s without getting into the fact that I think it’s quite obvious that the content of Salaita’s tweets certainly was a factor. The donors would not have raised a fuss had the content been directed at Hamas instead of Netanyahu.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. But in the non academic world this happens all the time – people get fired for all sorts of reasons (eg teachers posting photos of drinking etc) so your broader point about consequences for actions off-campus doesn’t apply in at-will states. Not saying it’s right, just pointing it out. The main issue here IMO is the breaking of a contract in a way that restricts academic freedom, which tenure is supposed to protect. The admin seems to think a contract wasn’t broken bc the bot didn’t sign off, thus he was never hired. But conversely, if bot approval is a mere formality or technicality – which, besides that being the convention, seems to be the case when UIUC originally announced his hire and publicized his courses. What’s also at stake is the influence of donors on faculty decisions

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  3. gradstudentbyday: Not sure why you’re directing this at me, if that was intentional. I didn’t say that I agreed with the BoT, that the BoT would (or wouldn’t) have acted the same way if the tweets had been more “civil” but expressed the same content, that universities should police off-campus speech, or that “many” sociologists would agree that universities should police civility.* I was just pointing out a disconnect between arguments, much as I’m now (civilly) pointing out the disconnect between what I actually wrote and what, based on your incredulous response, you seem to think I wrote.

    A hammer can be a useful tool, but not when the job calls for a saw.

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    1. I was reacting to your closing sentence, “But, I’d also guess there’s more consensus, perhaps even within a group of 4 sociologists, that academic freedom covers the content of views than there is that it covers how those views are expressed.”, and to what I thought was the thrust of your comment.

      I thought you were saying that UIUC is on stronger ground than the ASA letter acknowledges, because the ASA letter talks about expressing unpopular views but UIUC’s position is about the civility of views’ expression, not the popularity of their content. I was explaining why I do not actually think that this puts them on stronger ground. If I misunderstood you, I apologize.

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  4. The form and content of speech are not separable. Breaking up with someone through a text message on Christmas might be bad form, but the content hurts anyway and anytime. When the Committee of Considerate Breakups decides whether to let people break up or not based on its form, they get to regulate the reasons that are acceptable for breaking up.

    Regulations on the acceptable forms of argument leads to regulation of acceptable arguments.

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  5. Confirming my last point, sort of: Barbara Risman and Stephanie Bohon, both elected officials of ASA, have written a letter in support of the UIUC-BOT’s decision. The crux of their argument is that although universities are obligated to protect academic freedom (of political views and “of expression” including uncivil speech), universities are not obligated to protect “public expressions of hatred toward an entire minority group” and “public endorsement of violence” toward that group. (Their interpretation of the tweets, not mine.)

    But, read it for yourself: http://asanet.org/documents/advocacy/pdfs/salaita_9-16-2014.pdf

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    1. The Risman/Bohon letter is an embarrassment. First, because it asserts without evidence, and contrary to fact, that Salaita directed hatred at an entire minority group (rather than at a political group). Second, because it endorses the destructive Illinois position that Salaita had not actually been hired more than nine months after he had signed his offer letter, mere weeks before his scheduled classes were to begin. Finally, because it seems willfully blind to what seems perhaps the most salient fact about the case, as far as future precedent is concerned: that donors told the university to fire someone and it agreed, with no due process and no consultation at all with the hiring department or its Dean.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. The ASA needs a formal policy on position-taking. I’m surprised there isn’t one already, as many other professional associations have one. I am uneasy with Council’s approach of handing the issue off to the Presidents League, and with the ASA website featuring the two letters. If the letters don’t represent an ASA position, why is ASA letterhead being used, and why is the association publicizing them? The prudent thing to do would be to formulate a policy, and only then start taking positions consistent with that policy. In the meantime, individual members can write letters singly or in groups, but not under the guise of representing the association.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. On Twitter, I wrote and Jeremy replied thusly:

    So here’s why I think the Risman letter is an incoherent embarrassment.

    The letter asserts without evidence or standard that Salaita’s tweets amount to “expresssions of hatred and… public endorsement of violence.” It then goes on to emphasize that “academic freedom” and, in particular “incivility” are of paramount importance. No evidence or standard is offered to distinguish between what constitutes “hatred” and what constitutes personal incivility. The implied standard is that if one likes the people to whom the speaker is being uncivil, that constitutes hatred, but if one doesn’t like those people, it’s protected incivility. This is the incoherent part–frankly, Chancellor Wise’s position, as wrong as it is, is more coherent in that she emphasizes civility above frankness. It’s incoherent to endorse the freedom to be uncivil but also to endorse punishment for incivility.

    I say all this as someone who disagrees rather vehemently with Salaita’s tweets. But ultimately I see far greater danger in letting big donors and boards of trustees vet the personal rants of faculty.

    Liked by 4 people

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