Both the Time Lords and the Board of Trustees failed at decision-making

The movement to reinstate Dr. Steven Salaita’s contract with the University of Illinois has largely—though not exclusively—been spearheaded and joined by students and faculty who are affiliated with departments that are located “south of Green Street.” This is campus shorthand for the humanities, for fine arts and education, for the social sciences and cultural studies. This has led to the popular perception that the issues that the rescinding of Dr. Salaita’s contract raise impact only a small portion of the campus’s population. This has certainly become the dominant rhetoric on Reddit, where the topic has been met with ad hominem attacks on the organizers and assertions that Salaita should not be teaching at the University of Illinois. More than anything else, however, I have seen the affair dismissed as something only of concern to “academia”, and not to the majority of the campus community. Aside from being alarmingly narrow-viewed, this stance is dangerous to the University’s continued excellence and ongoing reputation across all departments.

Strong Opinions Are Not Limited to the Humanities

In my letter to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, I made the argument that developing strong opinions on controversial topics was an occupational hazard for those who are paid to critically examine the world. This is true across disciplines; however, the nature of those topics can change based upon the field of study that an individual has chosen to follow. Members of the computer science department, or of GSLIS, or of the communications department, may take heavy exception to the abolition of net neutrality. Members of the science and engineering departments may take exception to anti-scientific creationist material being taught in schools. Either group may use strong language within a non-academic setting in order to express their opinions on this matter.

Imagine if a potential biology professor hire had tweeted about creationists affecting the science curriculum. Imagine that she used strong language, had called their actions in altering textbooks anti-scientific and moronic. Imagine then that she had further gone on to state that she wished those people who were changing the scientific curriculum would disappear. Imagine, as well, that she had an exemplary teaching record, with no complaints from students in her classes regarding her tone. Now imagine that a number of wealthy donors had written in, concerned about that professor’s tone towards students who believed in Creationism. Imagine that they had threatened to pull their money. Then imagine that the university had decided to stop that professor’s hiring, ostensibly on the basis that the professor would not be able to maintain a civil tone towards students in class. That would be ridiculous to the point of absurdity. It is, however, essentially what happened here.

Admittedly, these opinions do not deal with the same questions of oppression, war, and violence that the Palestine/Israel conflict raises. It is unfortunate that I feel as though I have to strip the question of these contexts in order to make the question of academic freedom more poignant to my intended audience. However, stripped of this context, taking a position on net neutrality or creationist thought has one inherent similarity with taking a position on the Palestine/Israel conflict: all three of those issues are associated with strong, vocal lobbies and, in some cases, an influx of money. This leads us to the second point:

Donor Pressure Should Not Override Shared Governance

The letter to the Board of Trustees that Dr. Safiya Noble recently posted made the excellent point that donor gifts are not always tied to things that make sense. Donors can make requests that are racist, sexist, or downright offensive. That they wield money, however, does not mean that they get to influence the university’s path according to their ideological beliefs. This idea—that money donated to the university should be used not to promote or suppress a specific viewpoint, but rather to promote the advancement of the university in general—lies at the heart of debates about academic freedom. Though neither the Chancellor nor the Board of Trustees will confirm that donor pressure was a factor in their decision, evidence in the form of emails exists that several large donors complained about his impending appointment, and that at least one large donor met with the Chancellor in the days leading up to her decision to rescind Dr. Salaita’s contract.

Part of what is most disturbing about this is the utter lack of consideration that the Department of American Indian Studies and the Collage of Liberal Arts and Sciences were given in making this decision. Keep in mind that, on a departmental level, making a hiring decision is not an easy process. Candidates and their worth must be vetted by the department heads in great depth. Their expertise must be determined to not only be outstanding, but also valuable for the department’s ongoing development and needs. In Tuesday’s press conference, Dr. Robert Warrior, the head of the Department of American Indian Studies, stated that Dr. Salaita was an excellent fit for the department not only based on his scholarship, but also because of his expertise and willingness to participate in curriculum development. In further evaluation by the University, the uniqueness of his scholarship was cited as being of “obvious intellectual value.”

That these determinations were made moot by a handful of angry letters and the threat of disappearing funds is a stark warning to all departments. Donors can threaten to remove funds for any and all reasons. They could do it for ideological reasons, for idiotic reasons, for reasons of business and reasons of personal conviction. It does not behoove the University to follow these whims. If, for instance, a number of donors wanted to endow the computer science department, but wanted as a contingency that all university software development by both faculty and students use only the .NET framework, we would find that to be untenable. If campus administration were then to object to the hiring of any professor who disliked, decried, or otherwise slammed .NET or Microsoft on the grounds of those donors’ objections, we would be up in arms. After all, the administration aren’t experts in the field; they probably don’t even know how to program. Who would they be to dictate what is and isn’t acceptable and relevant and useful in the field of computer science?

The subjective nature of the humanities does not make these demands somehow acceptable. It seems, however, as though much of the campus is willing to accept that it does. We’re willing to accept this kind of interference and pressure because it keeps us from an unpleasant truth.

Of Course It’s About Racism

This is not the first time that the University of Illinois, Chancellor Wise, racism, and social media have intersected. Earlier this year, a number of racist and sexist comments regarding Chancellor Wise were posted by students on Twitter, attracting national media attention. The students who did this were not punished. The general consensus that I saw on Reddit’s /r/uiuc subforum  at that time was that these tweets—as offensive as they were—should not be punished. Now, less than a year later, we’re judging that a different set of far less offensive tweets should be grounds for excluding a professor who is well-regarded in his field from the University’s academic community.

Dr. Salaita’s remarks were strong, yes. They were undoubtedly born from anger at the death of children and at the plight of the Palestinian people. They also deconstructed the way in which accusations of anti-Semitism were used by strongly pro-Israeli voices in order to discredit those who question Israel’s expansion, military actions, or treatment of the Palestinian people. He objected to the use of the term in ways that cheapened its impact. He particularly objected to the use of the term in ways that forced critics to either silently condone hundreds of Palestinian deaths or accept the label of anti-Semite. While they were extremely critical of Israeli policy, of Israeli expansion in the West Bank, and of Israeli military action, they were explicitly not a condemnation of all Jews, or even all Israelis. The full context of his tweets makes this apparent.

This puts the denizens of /r/uiuc in a delicate position. If the loss of a potential snow day is adequate cause for UIUC students to exercise their free speech in ways that are racist and sexist without the administration exacting retribution, then the Palestine/Israel conflict is certainly cause for UIUC faculty to harshly—and, yes, even vulgarly—attack and deconstruct that conflict’s tragedies and rhetoric. We need to ask ourselves why it is that we consider one of these things more forgivable than the other. This requires a great deal of introspection, an action that will likely result in some less-than-pleasant revelations about ourselves and the community that we live in.

These revelations are hard to swallow; after all, it’s always difficult to admit our own weaknesses, to own up to our own biases and flaws. It’s easy to stand by speech when it agrees with you; it is far more difficult to stand by that with which you disagree, or—more to the point—that to which you are indifferent. Yet that is what the current situation with the administration demands. We need to stand together—engineers and media scholars, computer scientists and historians—in order to prevent the university administration from riding roughshod over our departments.

Thanks to Evan Biller for the cartoon.