Breaking News! Wise to Forward Salaita Appointment to Trustees!

1 Sep

We are getting reports out of the University of Illinois that Chancellor Wise is going to forward the Salaita appointment to the Board of Trustees for a vote on September 11. A group of Gender and Women’s Studies students reports the following:

From GWS Undergraduate Stephanie Skora’s report back on meeting with Chancellor Wise on Monday, September 1, 2014:

The meeting with Chancellor Wise was a success, and we have gained some valuable information and commitments from the Chancellor!

We have discovered that the Chancellor HAS FORWARDED Professor Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees, and they will be voting on his appointment during the Board of Trustees Meeting on September 11th, on the UIUC campus! Our immediate future organizational efforts will focus around speaking at, and appearing at, this Board of Trustees meeting. We will be attempting to appear during the public comment section of the Board of Trustees meeting, as well as secure a longer presentation to educate them on the issues about which Professor Salaita tweeted. Additionally, we are going to attempt to ensure that the Board of Trustees consults with a cultural expert on Palestine, who can explain and educate them about the issues and the context surrounding Professor Salaita’s tweets. It has been made clear to us that the politics of the Board of Trustees is being allowed to dictate the course of the University, and that the misinformation and personal views of the members of the Board are being allowed to tell the students who is allowed to teach us, regardless of who we say that we want as our educators. We will not let this go unchallenged.

Additionally, Chancellor Wise has agreed to several parts of our demands, and has agreed upon a timeline under which she will take steps to address them. The ball is currently in her court, but we take her agreements as a gesture of good faith and of an attempt to rebuild trust between the University administration and the student body. She has not agreed unilaterally to our demands, and but we have made an important first step in our commitment to reinstating Professor Salaita. In terms of his actual reinstatement, the power to make that decision is not hers. This is why we have shifted the target of our efforts to the Board of Trustees, because they alone have the power to reinstate and approve Professor Salaita’s appointment at the University. In regards to the rest of our demands, which we have updated to reflect the town hall meeting, we have made progress on all of those, but continue to emphasize that it is unacceptable to meet any of our demands without first reinstating Professor Salaita.

We have made progress, but we all have a LOT of work left to do. We must organize, write to the Board of Trustees, and make our voices and our presences known. We will not be silent on September 11th, and we will not stop in our efforts to reinstate Professor Salaita, regardless of what the Board of Trustees decides.

Please keep organizing, please keep making your voices heard, and please‪#‎supportSalaita‬!

Also, feel free to message or comment with any questions, comments, or concerns.

Assuming the report is accurate, I can think of two interpretations of what it means.

If the UIUC is thinking politically, it would be an absolute disaster for them to open this can of worms, to act as if Salaita’s appointment is now a real possibility, to raise expectations for two weeks or so, to encourage all the organizing this will encourage (I can imagine the phone calls and emails that will now start pouring into the Board of Trustees), only to have the Board vote Salaita down. From a political perspective, this would be a disaster for the university. The strongest weapon the UIUC has always had is the sense that this is a done deal, that they will not budge, that we can raise all the ruckus we want, but they simply don’t care. Opening the decision up again calls that into question. Where does this line of reasoning lead us? To the possibility that the UIUC Trustees will vote to appoint Salaita on September 11, throw Chancellor Wise under the bus (remember, the Executive Committee that upheld her decision is only comprised of three Trustees, not the full Board)*, and say it was all a misunderstanding wrought by an incompetent chancellor. Who’ll then be pushed out within a year. The advantage of this approach is that it will effectively bring this story to a close. There will be angry donors, but everything I’ve ever read and experienced about that crew suggests that their bark is often worse than their bite. The ongoing atmosphere of crisis and ungovernability on campus is not something any university leader can bear for too long, and this threatens to go on for a very long time.

The other possibility is that the UIUC is thinking legally. One of the many weak links in their legal case was that Wise never forwarded Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees for a vote. She basically did a pocket veto. Salaita’s offer letter stated that his appointment was subject to approval by the Board of Trustees, but Wise effectively never allowed the Board to approve or disapprove. So the UIUC’s lawyers could have decided that the better thing to do would be simply to carry out the full deed.

Many questions remain. Stay tuned. Regardless of which interpretation is correct, we have to operate on the assumption that the first is a very real possibility and that we have a lot of work to do in the next ten days.

*John Wilson reminds me in this post that all the members of the Board did sign a letter supporting Wise’s position, which I had forgotten about.

Update (11:15 pm)

Just to clarify my blog post: Like all of us, I have no idea what Wise and the Board are thinking (though we can assume that they are making this decision together). But while I think we have to be as strategic and smart about this as possible (fyi: John Wilson thinks I’m wrong; he may have a point), and gather as much information as we can, there’s always a tendency in these situations to play armchair strategist, to try and read the tea leaves, to figure out the pattern of power, as if we didn’t have hand or a role in shaping that pattern of power. Particularly when questions of law get involved (in a country of lawyers, Louis Hartz reminded us, every philosophical question is turned into a legal claim.) We have to resist that tendency. We have to treat this announcement, assuming it’s true, as a golden opportunity. To use the next 10 days as a chance to shift the balance of power on the ground. Remember the Board will be meeting and voting on campus. There are students, faculty, and activists on and around that campus. That’s an opportunity. Remember these trustees are individuals who can be called and emailed round the clock. That’s an opportunity. Between now and 9/11 (they really chose that date), let’s be mindful of the constraints, but also be thinking, always, in terms of opportunities.

Labor Day Readings

1 Sep

Over the weekend, I got a really nice shout-out in the New York Times Book Review from the historian Rick Perlstein. In fact, you guys, my readers and commenters, also got a really nice shout out.

And who today are the best writers on American politics? 

There are two, and they both are bloggers. One, Corey Robin of Brooklyn College, is also a political theorist; his book “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” provides the most convincing account about what right-wing habits of mind are ultimately all about. His humane and erudite blog — and its spirited commenters — deepen that conversation. A favorite theme is the emptiness of right-wing notions of “freedom” that actually leave us less free. See, for instance, his work on “Lavatory and Liberty,” which points out that the government doesn’t even enforce the right to bathroom breaks at work. What could be a greater insult to liberty than that?

My other favorite political writer, Heather Parton, blogs under the name “Digby.” Daily for over 10 years she’s been unleashing a fire hose of brilliance on the fecklessness of the Democrats, the craziness of the Republicans and especially the way that what we now call the “culture wars” has been seared into our national DNA at least since the Civil War. In the acknowledgments to “Nixonland,” I called her the other half of my brain.

Thank you to all my commenters, to Rick, and also to Digby, who was one of this blog’s earliest champions and who is, as Rick says, a great blogger herself. I’m humbled to be in such company.

I’m mindful that, thanks to Rick, I now have many new readers; over the weekend, I’ve gotten hundreds new subscribers to this blog. And because it’s Labor Day, I’m mindful that many of you might want to read something about labor. Unfortunately, because of my involvement in the Salaita affair, the beginning of the semester, and the fact that I’m department chair, I don’t have anything new to post here on labor.

But…

I would urge all of you newbies to maybe start by reading all that I’ve written about the Salaita affair on this blog. It’s easy to forget, in all the back and forth about academic freedom, that Salaita’s situation is actually all too typical of at-will employees across the country. The only difference is that Salaita, being an academic, may have a chance in court—and has been the recipient of a certain kind of internet and now media attention that non-academics almost never get.

But readers of this blog know all too well that American employees are routinely punished by their employers for speaking out, controversially or uncontroversially, on political issues (and for a great many other things). As I’ve argued many times, this is a distinctly American mode of political punishment and repression: outsource to the private sector (or the workplace) the coercion that a liberal state is constitutionally forbidden to do, a feature of our system noticed by everyone from Tocqueville to DuBois that nevertheless continues not to get enough play.

In order to get new readers started on some of these issues, and in honor of Labor Day, I thought I’d present here a Greatest Hits of some of my posts about labor, law, and political and other kinds of repression in the United States.

This post, which I wrote with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch over at Crooked Timber, will help get you started. It provides a good overview about “unfreedom” at work.

Unfreedom in the workplace can be broken down into three categories.

1. Abridgments of freedom inside the workplace
On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). But what’s remarkable is just how many of these punishments are legal, and even when they’re illegal, how toothless the law can be. Outside the usual protections (against race and gender discrimination, for example), employees can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss (fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searched, calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. They have few rights on the job—certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers—and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment. Outside the prison or the military—which actually provide, at least on paper, some guarantee of due process—it’s difficult to conceive of a less free institution for adults than the average workplace.

2. Abridgements of freedom outside the workplace
In addition to abridging freedoms on the job, employers abridge their employees’ freedoms off the job. Employers invade employees’ privacy, demanding that they hand over passwords to their Facebook accounts, and fire them for resisting such invasions. Employers secretly film their employees at home. Workers are fired for supporting the wrong political candidates (“work for John Kerry or work for me”), failing to donate to employer-approved candidates, challenging government officials, writing critiques of religion on their personal blogs (IBM instructs employees to “show proper consideration…for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory—such as politics and religion”), carrying on extramarital affairs, participating in group sex at home, cross-dressing, and more. Workers are punished for smoking or drinking in the privacy of their own homes. (How many nanny states have tried that?) They can be fired for merely thinking about having an abortion, for reporting information that might have averted the Challenger disaster, for being raped by an estranged husband. Again, this is all legal in many states, and in the states where it is illegal, the laws are often weak.

In other words, it’s really easy to get yourself fired in this country. Even for liking My Little Pony.

The 2012 election brought to public attention a whole series of stories about employers forcing employees to attend campaign rallies of the employers’ favored candidates (almost invariably Mitt Romney; you can see why they support Romney, after you read this piece I wrote for the New York Times on the Republican war on worker rights). This is a serious issue in that it involves coercing workers to support a certain kind of political speech; indeed, if you take participation in a rally as a mode of political speech, you could say that employers were actually forcing their employees to speak with a particular opinion. What also came to light: employers trying to force workers to vote for one candidate, as employers do in some countries the US disapproves of.

One of the basic themes of this blog, and which Rick referred to in his interview, is about employers controlling the bodily functions of their employees. Sometimes employers are trying to prohibit workers from going to the bathroom; other times, they’re trying to force them to go to the bathroom. Employers are also obsessed with when workers get to eat. Goodbye to the lunch break.

Another theme, related to the bathroom, is how employers infantilize employees. Sometimes, employers are quite explicit about this, comparing their workers to children. Sometimes employees find themselves participating in this regime in the most unsavory ways.

We often think non-profits like universities and hospitals do better on this front because they’re non-profits. Think again. Universities can be terrible; hospitals, even worse. Even the ACLU seems to have trouble with liberty in its workplaces.

Ah, but can’t workers just join unions to fix all this? Turns out that a combination of US law and employer resistance makes that a very difficult thing to do.

These last posts try to put some of these the issue in broad historical perspective: showing how workplace unfreedom can be traced back to the feudal origins of the American workplace, which persisted well into the twentieth century; how minimal sometimes are the protections for workers’ freedom of contract, which is supposed to be the capitalist freedom par excellence; how the workplace functions as a private government, exercising powers that have been outsourced to it by the state; (which may be the best way to think about the whole question of birth control and Hobby Lobby); how this relates to some of the classical themes and questions of liberalism; and how one of our most famous metaphors of freedom of speech—shouting fire in a theater—has its origins in a forgotten labor struggle from 1913.

Happy Labor Day.

Salaita By the Numbers: 5 Cancelled Lectures, 3 Votes of No Confidence, 3849 Boycotters, and 1 NYT Article (Updated Thrice)

31 Aug

The New York Times has weighed in with a strong piece on the Salaita affair. This is significant for two reasons. First, while we in academia and on social media or the blogosphere have been debating and pushing this story for weeks, it hasn’t really broken into the mainstream. With a few exceptions, no major newspaper has covered it. Now that the Times has, I’m hoping Salaita’s story will get even more attention, possibly from the networks as well. Second, in addition to covering the basics of the case, the piece shows just how divisive and controversial Chancellor Wise’s decision has been, and how it has isolated the University of Illinois.

The decision, which raised questions about contractual loopholes and academic freedom, almost immediately drew pushback from the academic community. Thousands of scholars in a variety of disciplines signed petitions pledging to avoid the campus unless it reversed its decision to rescind the job offer. A number of prominent academic associations also urged the university to reconsider.

In the past few days, several people have followed through on promises to boycott the institution. Two scholars declined invitations to speak at the prestigious Center for Advanced Study/MillerComm Lecture Series this fall, and a campus-based project called off a four-day national conference that it was scheduled to host there in October.

David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy and legal studies at the University of Delaware, notified the Center for Advanced Study on Aug. 20 that he no longer wanted to participate. His lecture had been scheduled for Sept. 29.

“Instead of choosing education and more speech as the remedy for disagreeable speech,” he wrote to the committee, the University of Illinois “has apparently chosen ‘enforced silence.’ It thus violates what a university must stand for — whatever else it stands for — and therefore I join those who will not participate in the violation. In my judgment, this is a core and nonnegotiable issue of academic freedom.”

Mr. Blacker added that he “would be delighted to reschedule my talk” if the university should decide to reinstate its offer to Mr. Salaita.

The following day, Allen F. Isaacman, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, also pulled out of the series, offering a similar message. His talk had been scheduled for Oct. 30.

“The University of Illinois’s recent decision to disregard its prior commitment to appoint Professor Salaita confirms my fear of the administration’s blatant disregard for academic freedom,” Mr. Isaacman wrote in a letter to Wayne Pitard, a professor of religion and head of the lecture-series committee. “I do hope that the university administration will reverse its decision before it does irreparable harm to your great institution.”

That same day, the Education Justice Project, which is part of the department of education policy, organization, and leadership at Urbana-Champaign, announced that it was canceling the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison, which it had been scheduled to host.

“This decision has not been easy,” Rebecca Ginsburg, an associate professor in the education policy department, said in an announcement posted on the project’s webpage. The project’s leaders reached the decision only after speaking with would-be presenters and attendees, she wrote. “We concluded that for EJP to host the conference at this time would compromise our ability to come together as a national community of educators and activists.”

Ms. Ginsburg could not be reached for comment Friday; university administrators also did not respond to calls for comment.

On the campus, tensions are just as high.

That evening, however, faculty members in the American Indian studies program, a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, cast a unanimous vote of no confidence in Ms. Wise’s leadership, criticizing her handling of the last-minute withdrawal of the offer to Mr. Salaita.

“In clear disregard of basic principles of shared governance and unit autonomy, and without basic courtesy and respect for collegiality, Chancellor Wise did not consult American Indian studies nor the college before making her decision,” reads a statement posted on the program’s webpage.

“With this vote of no confidence, the faculty of UIUC’s American Indian studies program also joins the thousands of scholars and organizations in the United States and across the world in seeing the chancellor’s action as a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech,” the statement says.

The note goes on to encourage other departments to do the same, and to question whether the chancellor deserves the confidence of Illinois’s full faculty.

My only objection to the piece is that its numbers are out of date.

Cancelled Lectures

As of today, five scholars, not two, have canceled lectures or turned down an invitation to a University of Illinois campus. (And there may be more I am not aware of.)

In addition to David Blacker and Allen Isaacman, Eric Schwitzgebel has canceled a talk he was due to give on campus in December and also notified the organizers of a conference on experimental philosophy that he would not be able to deliver the keynote address, as he had been invited to do.

Jonathan Judaken, a humanities scholar, was asked to deliver the keynote address at conference at the UIUC in October; he was also scheduled to speak, while on campus, at the Program in Jewish Culture and Society. He has turned down the invitation. Despite his opposition to the idea of an academic boycott of Israel, and despite his visceral reaction to Salaita’s tweets, he believes the academic freedom issues in this case are so vital that he must boycott the UIUC.

[Chancellor Wise's] new doctrine of civility ostensibly created to foster a climate where open dialogue, discourse, and debate must be respected has actually planted the latest land mine in this academic battlefield. The result will be opposite of what she intends. Now faculty and students will feel more anxious than ever that views or viewpoints that go beyond the policed confines of what administrators — or worse, the lapdogs of the watchdog groups — define as the norm, will be able to be expressed as part of an open conversation.

It is consequently on the basis of the principles of faculty governance, academic freedom, and freedom of speech that I will not speak at Illinois until Salaita’s job offer is upheld.

This all could have been avoided if Chancellor Wise trusted faculty governance procedures. The faculty who hired Salaita were fully aware of his position on Israel and Zionism and fully equipped to determine if it would negatively impact his ability to teach his classes. There are international experts on the faculty who could have aided the administration in assessing Salaita’s tweets. It is faculty as the leaders of the communities of inquiry in universities and colleges that are best equipped to judge in such cases.

Contrary to the muddled ways it is being used today as a political cudgel, academic freedom is about the right of academics to say what they will without the interference of groups outside the academy policing their positions. Faculty governance is about giving faculty the right to make all decisions within the academy pertaining to their domains of expertise, most significantly hiring decisions. And freedom of speech is our most basic right as Americans.

Campus watchdogs who monitor the academy claim they do so to uphold what is best in higher education. But Salaita’s case shows once more that they threaten to turn campuses from refuges of critical inquiry into battlegrounds of political correctness and narrow norms.

And Julie Livingston, a Rutgers historian and MacArthur Fellow, has canceled a talk at the University of Illinois at Chicago (a UIUC sister campus, whose chancellor came out in support of Chancellor Wise). Livingston writes:

With great sadness I am writing to cancel my upcoming talk at UIC scheduled for September 17, given your chancellor’s recent statement of support for the actions of Phyllis Wise and the U of I Board of Trustees in the Steven Salaita case. While I had been looking forward to engaging with colleagues and students at UIC, I cannot in good conscience visit your campus until the Steven Salaita matter is resolved in a manner that upholds the principles of academic freedom and shared governance that are fundamental to American higher education and the necessary exchange of ideas, especially where difficult and potentially polarizing issues are concerned. I very much hope that your leadership will listen to their faculty and to the several thousand scholars (including myself) who have signed a pledge to boycott the University of Illinois, reflect on their actions, and reverse the errant course on which they have embarked in this matter. Should that happen I would welcome very much the chance to come and speak.

So five cancellations or refusals of an invitation.

No Confidence Votes

In addition, three departments at the UIUC, not one, have taken a vote of no confidence in the leadership of UIUC. In addition to the American Indian Studies department vote discussed by the Times, the Asian American Studies department and the philosophy department have voted no confidence in the chancellor. The philosophy department resolution states:

Whereas the recent words and actions of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, President Robert Easter, and the Board of Trustees in connection with the revocation of an offer of employment to Dr. Steven Salaita betray a culpable disregard not only for academic freedom and free speech generally but also for the principles of shared governance and established protocols for hiring, tenure, and promotion, the faculty of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign declares its lack of confidence in the leadership of the current Chancellor, President, and Board of Trustees.

Boycott

The philosophy vote is especially important, to my mind, because it demonstrates the power of the boycott. Of all the disciplines, philosophy has been the strongest in defending academic freedom at the UIUC. Over 530 philosophers have joined the boycott, more than any other field. Why that’s the case, I’m not sure. But the fact that philosophy is the only department at UIUC—besides Asian American and American Indian Studies (where Salaita’s  connections are strong)—to have voted no confidence is symptomatic of the power of the boycott. Seeing so many of their colleagues across the country and around the world take this strong stand, the philosophers at UIUC have now communicated to the administration that the campus is growing increasingly ungovernable. Chancellor Wise will not get any peace on campus till she and the trustees reverse their decision. As even this generally negative piece in a local paper acknowledges.

This is why I  want to press one of the newer boycott initiatives, from Alan Sokal of NYU, for natural scientists. Getting support among the natural scientists is critical, as they are often a favored constituency at big research campuses like UIUC. They draw the big money from federal grants; they have a lot of power. I want to urge any one of you who is a natural scientist to join this boycott pledge and to urge your friends and colleagues in the natural sciences to do the same. With just the right amount of pressure from all of you, we might see something similar to the philosophy vote on the natural sciences side of the UIUC campus.

For a complete list of the boycott statements, go here. While I haven’t gotten a complete update on the numbers, we have at least 3849 signed up for the boycott as of tonight.

AAUP

The American Association of University Professors has issued a strong statement on the Salaita affair. Here are some of the highlights.

The letter details the extensive dealings between Salaita and the University of Illinois subsequent to his signing of the offer letter he received in October 2013. Among other things, the AAUP reveals that Chancellor Wise invited Salaita to a welcome reception for new faculty.

Toward the end of January, Professor Salaita wrote to Professor Byrd about scheduling a visit to Urbana-Champaign in order to make arrangements for a place to live for him and his family. He states that they visited the area in March and subsequently initiated the purchase of an apartment, including payment of “earnest” money, which was subsequently forfeited when the agreement was voided following the abrupt notification regarding his appointment. During this visit, the AIS faculty hosted a dinner for him and his family to welcome him to the faculty. In early April he was notified of his fall teaching assignment, and he finalized his course book orders in mid-summer.

In the intervening months between his October 2013 acceptance of the appointment and early August 2014, when you notified him of its termination, Professor Salaita received information from various offices of the university, indicating that they had been informed of his appointment, including an invitation from your office to attend your August 19 reception “welcoming faculty and academic professionals who joined the Illinois community in 2014,” as the invitation stated. Nothing was said to Professor Salaita about board action still to come, and we are informed that it is not uncommon for board action on new appointments to take place only after the appointment has begun and the appointee is already at work.

Because the AAUP recognizes that Salaita was in fact hired by the UIUC, they reach a vastly different conclusion about what Chancellor Wise has done to him and what Wise must now do.

Aborting an appointment in this manner without having demonstrated cause has consistently been seen by the AAUP as tantamount to summary dismissal, an action categorically inimical to academic freedom and due process and one aggravated in his case by the apparent failure to provide him with any written or even oral explanation.

Until these issues have been resolved, we look upon Professor Salaita’s situation as that of a faculty member suspended from his academic responsibilities pending a hearing on his fitness to continue. Under the joint 1958 Statement on Procedural St andards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings, any such suspension is to be with pay. As detailed earlier in this letter, Professor Salaita has incurred major financial expenses since he accepted the University of Illinois offer. We urge–indeed insist–that he be paid salary as set in the terms of the appointment pending the result of the CAFT proceeding.

Brian Leiter has an interesting followup on the AAUP letter, which I urge you all to read, along with the fascinating comment thread that ensues.

The AAUP brings up the issue of Salaita’s financial standing. If you haven’t donated to the fund set up by his friends and colleagues to help him fight his case and support his family, please do so now. Click on this link and then go to the right-hand side of the page. People often urge individuals in Salaita’s situation to sue. He may have to. But lawsuits cost money. Like a lot of money. Unless you’re independently wealthy, they’re hard to paid for. Like really hard to pay for. So please help Salaita out. And while you’re over there, check out these awesome testimonials from his former students. You know, students: the very people Chancellor Wise and Salaita’s critics claim to be protecting.

Update (midnight)

Someone on Facebook just brought to my attention that there is a sixth lecture cancellation. This one by Pomona English professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who was scheduled to give a talk at UIUC in September.

Update (12:30 am)

I should have also mentioned to other cancellations. The first, which the Times discusses in that excerpt and which I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is that the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison, which was scheduled to be hosted at UIUC, was canceled. The second is that Columbia Professor Bruce Robbins canceled a screening of a film that was supposed to take place at UIUC. I should have remembered this one especially, as it was what inspired my original call for a boycott of UIUC.

So the title of this post should really be: “Salaita By the Numbers: 6 Cancelled Lectures, 1 Cancelled Screening, 1 Cancelled Conference, 3 Votes of No Confidence, 3849 Boycotters, and 1 NYT Article.”

Update (September 1, 10:30 am)

Change that headline to “Salaita By the Numbers: 7 Cancelled Lectures, 1 Cancelled Screening, 1 Cancelled Conference, 3 Votes of No Confidence, 3849 Boycotters, and 1 NYT Article.”

I was just informed that Karma Chavez, associate professor of communication arts and Chican@ and Latin@ Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, canceled her lecture at the UIUC Center for Writing Studies, which was scheduled for September 18.

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.

WHAT WOULD MARY BEARD DO?

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.

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