What Would Mary Beard Do? Bonnie Honig On How a Different Chancellor Might Respond to the Salaita Affair

26 Aug

One of the more difficult challenges in the midst of the Salaita affair is to hold onto the possibility that a university could handle the Israel-Palestine debate in ways that are worthy of a university. Virtually all sides of this debate seem to agree that, of course, Chancellor Wise was going to capitulate to the combination of outraged donors and potent constituencies. I myself have gotten so used to the cycle of call and response—administrators succumbing to donor and political pressure; massive counter-mobilization mounted by students, faculty, staff, and citizens; administrators reversing (if we’re lucky) their decision—that I sometimes forget that administrators need not toggle endlessly between powerful donors and mobilized publics. Political theorist Bonnie Honig, whose letter to Chancellor Wise went viral on Sunday, weighs in as a guest blogger today, meditating on the possibility of a different response from Chancellor Wise. Inspired by the luminous example of the classicist Mary Beard.

• • • • • 

This week, the New Yorker features a great article about the fabulous Mary Beard, a Cambridge Classicist who, in addition to writing many great books and training a great many students, appears on TV and radio in the UK discussing the ancient world and contemporary topics.

Beard, an “older” woman, does not toe the conventional female appearance line:

Beard does not wear makeup and she doesn’t color her abundant gray hair. She dresses casually, with minor eccentricities: purple-rimmed spectacles, gold sneakers. She looks comfortable both in her skin and in her shoes—much more preoccupied with what she is saying than with how she looks as she is saying it.

Her appearance is often the occasion (though not the cause) of rather vicious and awful tweets, emails, or postings. Beard is philosophical about it all. She sees it as a kind of silencing that is gendered:

“It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it.” Indeed, Beard goes on, “’Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain” and these often come with threats, what she refers to as a “predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder, and so forth.” She mildly reported one tweet that had been directed at her: “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it.”

Beard’s response? When one “commenter posted a doctored photograph in which an image of a woman’s genitals was superimposed over Beard’s face,” she posted the image on her blog “and suggested possible responses for her supporters to take, such as flooding the offending message board with Latin poetry. The story made international news, and the message board soon shut down.”

In another “highly publicized incident, Beard retweeted a message she had received from a twenty-year-old university student: ‘You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.’” Asked by the BBC what she would say to the student, Beard replied, “‘I’d take him out for a drink and smack his bottom.’”

In practice, though, she does something a bit different: she writes back to her detractors. and soon discovers they are somehow thwarted in their lives and taking out their frustrations on her. She listens, she may even help out with a problem, and so some sort of relationship takes the place of the prior antagonism; “often, she receives not only an apology from them but also a poignant explanation.”

For example:

The university student, after apologizing online, came to Cambridge and took Beard out to lunch; she has remained in touch with him, and is even writing letters of reference for him. “He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” she said. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”

In the context of recent events at the University of Illinois, in which Professor Steven Salaita was “de-hired” because of things he tweeted this summer, commenting on Israel’s bombing of Gaza, you might think that what I am drawn to here is Mary Beard’s charitable attitude toward tweets. But that is not it. That is just icing on the cake.

Instead, I find myself thinking about what life would be like if Mary Beard was chancellor of the University of Illinois. What I am enjoying right now is the idea of Mary Beard, or anyone with HALF her character, in university administration receiving an email from, say, a donor expressing concern about the likely unfairness of a faculty member with strong views about a political matter.


I do not think she would defer to said donor, nor meet with university fundraisers, nor telephone the Board of Trustees. Instead, if the New Yorker article is any indication, I imagine she would listen and then invite the protesting or concerned donor or alum to come in for a lunch or a coffee with the faculty member whose views are so disturbing to him.

I imagine she would arrange the lunch, have it paid for, and perhaps have a word with the faculty member in advance, specially requesting s/he be patient and respond to concerns expressed with care (as s/he likely would do anyway). (We know, for example, that Steven Salaita sometimes responded to tweets of disagreement with offers to meet in person to discuss).

I imagine she might tell the donor—after lunch, with a nice wine, provided courtesy of the University of Illinois’ fundraising arm—that this lunch is a model of what universities are supposed to do: bring people together from diverse backgrounds and put them in challenging positions where their assumptions are in question and they can talk and learn from each other or respectfully disagree.

If she were American, she might then suggest that the donor could, with a nice donation, make such lunches a regular feature of student life at UIUC. They could be called something like, I don’t know… Salaita Salons, perhaps, and they could be featured monthly at the university.

WHAT WOULD MARY BEARD DO? It would not be a bad idea to have THAT emblazoned on some chancellors’ desks…

(with apologies in advance to Professor Beard, whom I have not met, if this post is too familiar, and with thanks for the inspiring example)

Follow the Money at the University of Illinois

25 Aug

Inside Higher Ed has gotten some of the preliminary documents on the back and forth between Chancellor Wise, officials at the University of Illinois (including a top person in charge of fundraising), and a high-level donor, before Wise made her initial decision to dehire Steven Salaita. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the external and internal pressure that went into this decision (though from my own experience with this issue I can only assume that that fear of external financial pressure was very very high), and as the article notes, none of these emails tells us what ultimately prompted Wise to make the decision she did. Still, it’s telling that in the days leading up to her decision, she received 70 communiques (in one instance from a very high-level donor), regarding the Salaita hire, only one of which was urging her to keep him on board.

The communications show that Wise was lobbied on the decision not only by pro-Israel students, parents and alumni, but also by the fund-raising arm of the university.

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.)

Later emails show Wise and her development team trying to set up a time to discuss the matter, although there is no indication of what was decided.

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.

A Letter from Bonnie Honig to Phyllis Wise

24 Aug

In the midst of a conflict like the Salaita affair, it’s easy for individual voices to get lost. The persons involved, and their fates, get forgotten. Particulars are submerged into principles, the din in the head crowds out the distinctive sights and sounds of the case. That’s why, when I read this letter from political theorist Bonnie Honig to Chancellor Wise and the UIUC community, I knew I was hearing and seeing something different. No one that I know of has written a letter like this, which insists on remembering the specificity of not only Steven Salaita but also Phyllis Wise. Professor Honig has kindly allowed me to reprint it here.

• • • • • 

August 24, 2014

Dear Chancellor Wise, (and Members of the Board of Trustees, and the UIUC community of faculty, staff, and students),

I wrote to you when I heard about the Steven Salaita case a couple of weeks ago and hoped you would reconsider. As I told you then, I am Jewish and was raised as a Zionist, and I was moved by the case. I write now in the hope that you might find some measure of empathy for this man. Please bear with me for 2 pages….

I do not know Prof. Salaita, but I must say that as I read about the case I was struck by what I can only describe as a certain smug and uncivil tone in his critics, who seemed very assured about what sort of speech is within the bounds of propriety, and what is not. To be clear: I do not grant that speech that lacks propriety justifies the treatment Prof Salaita has received. I leave that point aside since others — John Stuart Mill, Brian Leiter, others – have ably addressed it.

I want to draw your attention to the issue of “empathy.”

This is what I thought at the time this story first broke: Here is a man of Palestinian descent watching people he may know, perhaps friends, colleagues, or relatives, bombed to bits while a seemingly uncaring or powerless world watched. He was touched by violence and responded in a way that showed it. In one of the tweets that was most objected to (Netanyahu, necklace, children’s teeth), Salaita commented on a public figure who is fair game and who was promoting acts of terrible violence against a mostly civilian population. I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel. Perhaps tweets like Prof. Salaita’s, along with images of violence from Gaza and our innate sense of fair play, could wake us from our uncritical slumbers. It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way – awakened to thinking.

That is what I thought. I also, though, felt something. I felt that whoever wrote that tweet was tweeting his own pain. And I felt there was something very amiss when he was chided for his tone, by people who were safely distant from all of it, while he was watching people he maybe knew or felt connected to die as a result of military aggression. This, frankly, seemed evil. And then to have the major charge against him in the UIUC case be that he lacked empathy: now that seemed cruelly ironic. The real charge, it seems to me, is that he suffers from too much empathy.

What kind of a person would Prof Salaita be if he did not respond more or less as he did!? What kind of a teacher? What kind of community member?

Meantime, even under duress, he is careful about a key thing: His published tweets distinguish Zionism from Jews and others. In the one tweet about anti-Semitism, he puts that term in scare quotes. I don’t know if I would be as nuanced were I in the same situation. Certainly many of my Zionist or Netanyahu-supporting friends and relatives are not: they do not take the trouble to make the analogous distinctions in their commentaries on the situation.

Anyone involved in this case who is incapable of empathy for Salaita at the moment could themselves perhaps learn something about empathy from the very person who has been charged with lacking it. May I ask you: Surely you are not incapable of empathy for his plight, both now (stranded between institutions) and in July (watching from afar as people to whom he presumably feels connected die or are wounded)?

May I add, further, that, as befits the picture I have here painted, there is no actual evidence in the teaching record that Prof Salaita lacks the empathy and tolerance expected of teachers in the classroom. The repeatedly stated ‘concern’ that he is lacking in this way is not only unpersuasive. It is also painful because it may well stick: based on nothing but ignorant or self-serving fears, it may well have a lasting impact on a blameless person’s career and fortunes.

Can you not find a way to resolve the situation to the advantage of both UIUC AND Prof. Salaita? Decisions like this one are the sort that haunt the people who make them for years to come, so I hope you will indeed be able to open your heart in your consideration of the matter. It is not too late. At the very least I urge you and UIUC to stop charging Prof. Salaita with being wanting in vague and either irrelevant or personal ways. That just adds insult and injury to injury. Another irony there: your stated position is that words matter, so much so that other commitments must fall before them. So the responsibility to choose them carefully seems to me to land especially heavily on you and your institution. I do not see you rising to that challenge. This too, I want to suggest, should be hard to live with.

In the meantime, I stand in solidarity with the thousands of academics worldwide who, regrettably, cannot accept invitations henceforth to speak at UIUC or to do any other sort of support work (tenure or promotion letters etc) for your institution. I say regrettably because I have been happy to visit in the past, as a keynote speaker and lecturer. I hope you can understand my position. Simply put, to act in any other way would be wrong.

Thank you for your consideration.

Bonnie Honig, Nancy Duke Lewis Professor, Brown University, Providence, RI

Sneaking Out the Back Door to Hang Out With Those Hoodlum Friends of Mine

24 Aug

On Friday, during that meeting of the Trustees and Chancellor Not-So-Wise, a group of UI students did a sit-in outside the meeting. After the meeting, the trustees and chancellor crept out through a different exit in order to avoid talking with the students. So in Chancellor Not-So-Wise’s abacus of civility, hotly worded tweets are a sign of a fundamental incapacity for dialogue, but sneaking out the back door in order to avoid a conversation with students reflects a healthy sense of civic engagement.

A Modest Proposal

24 Aug

I had always thought that it was a sacred canon of our profession that the classroom requires certain and very specific rules of engagement from us as teachers. I would never, for example, respond to libertarians in my classroom the way I respond to some libertarians on Twitter. That some people are so quick to believe that how someone acts on Twitter—or Facebook or the comments section of a blog—inevitably bleeds into how she acts in the classroom suggests that the problem lies less with Salaita and his defenders than with his critics, who seem to have a rather more precarious and shrunken sense of what it is that we do when we teach. Assuming of course that these critics are being sincere when they raise concerns about Salaita’s teaching. But since Salaita’s critics are so convinced that how someone acts outside the classroom is a good measure of how they will act inside the classroom, I suggest we investigate how every professor with college-age children treats her children at home in order to assess how she will treat her students in class.

Cary Nelson Was For Fairness Before He Was Against It

23 Aug

In a 2007 debate with David Horowitz (h/t Alan Koenig):

What most upset me about the 101 Professors volume and still does — I don’t know everyone covered in that book, but a number of the people I’ve known for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, a long period of time and I am familiar with a whole range of work that they’ve produced as scholars.

When I attempt to evaluate their careers, when I attempt to evaluate their contributions to higher education, I’m concerned with the whole range of things that they’ve done. What’s their life work?  Where does the main weight of their intellectual professional and moral commitments lie?  What’s the full range of things that they’ve done?

That’s largely a book in which for many of those people their primary works of scholarship are simply set aside and ignored. Occasional political comments are taken out of context sometimes, letters to the editor, you know, occasional political interventions and their entire lives — and their meaning and their presence in American culture is evaluated on the basis of those occasional statements. That to me, as a scholar, was a fundamental violation of fairness.

I expect to look at the full range of someone’s work and to evaluate their careers in their entirety.

More than 3000 Scholars Boycott the University of Illinois!

23 Aug

Yesterday, Phyllis Wise, Chancellor of the UIUC, and the UI Board of Trustees reaffirmed the chancellor’s decision to dehire Steven Salaita. The basis of this decision, at least rhetorically, is this statement from Wise:

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. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.

It’s a strange and strained position, as many have noted. Particularly that tender and solicitous concern for protecting the feelings of “viewpoints themselves.” In the words of University of Chicago professor Brian Leiter:

As a matter of well-settled American constitutional law, the University of Illinois must tolerate “words… that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” The University has no choice, both as a matter of constitutional law and as a matter of its contractual commitment with its faculty to academic freedom. Scathing critiques of both viewpoints and authors abound in almost all scholarly fields; it would be the end of serious scholarly inquiry and debate were administrators to become the arbiters of “good manners.” More simply, it would be illegal for the University to start punishing its faculty for failure to live up to the Chancellor’s expectations for “civil” speech and disagreement.

In many of my courses, I teach Nietzsche, who heaped abuse on viewpoints and the individuals who expressed them. So did Marx and Hobbes, for that matter. On the chancellor’s standard, I or one of my counterparts at the University of Illinois should not be allowed teach Nietzsche, Marx, or Hobbes at the University of Illinois: too disrespectful of other viewpoints, too demeaning of those who hold them. And “what we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are….words…that….”

Or consider this: Anti-Semitism is a viewpoint; anti-Semites hold it. Wise’s rules would mean that no one can carry a sign around on the UIUC campus saying, “Anti-Semitism sucks.” Disrespectful toward anti-Semitism. And anti-Semites. Like I said: strange and strained.

In any event, what’s most important about this decision is not the Chancellor’s or the Trustees’ words (sorry, does that mean I’m demeaning their words?) but the decision itself. The University has doubled down on its error, hoping that all of us will be so demoralized by this assertion of raw power—what else would you call so intellectually addled (there I go again: demeaning and abusive) a move?— that we sink into despondency and despair. So let’s not.

There is a boycott on: individual scholars have canceled their lectures, entire groups have canceled their conferences, and we now have 3094 scholars (not all my numbers are updated) who have publicly declared that they are officially boycotting the UI. The university is banking on the notion that more than 3000 scholars boycotting it are the end of the story; we have to make it the beginning of the story.

If you want to join a specific pledge from a discipline or wish to sign the general statement, here are the critical links:

  1. General, non-discipline-specific, boycott statement: 1402 and counting!
  2. Philosophy: 340. Email John Protevi at protevi@lsu.edu or add your name in a comment at this link.
  3. Political Science: 174. Email Joe Lowndes at jelowndes@gmail.com.
  4. Sociology: 248.
  5. History: 66.
  6. Chicano/a and Latino/a Studies: 74
  7. Communications: 94
  8. Rhetoric/Composition: 32.
  9. English: 266. Email Elaine Freedgood at ef38@nyu.edu.
  10. Contingent academic workers: 210.
  11. Anthropology: 134
  12. Women’s/Gender/Feminist Studies: 54. Email Barbara Winslow at bwpurplewins@gmail.com.
  13. Library and Information Science: 94.

If you’ve already joined the boycott, get someone else to join. If each one of you did that, we’d double our numbers in no time.

And if you’re not an academic but want to tell the UI to reinstate Salaita, you can sign this petition. More than 15,000 have.

Most important, it looks like Salaita is now going to have file a lawsuit against the UI. The university has time and money. Salaita has neither. As his friends and colleagues who are organizing a campaign to raise money on his behalf note:

Salaita now has no job nor does his wife who quit her job in Virginia to support the family’s move, no personal home to live in, and no health insurance for their family, including their two year-old son.

So Salaita needs our financial support; we can give it to him. Even a little bit. His friends and colleagues have organized a page where you can donate money to his legal campaign. Please click on the Paypal link on the right-hand side of the page. I’ve made a donation; please make one, too.


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