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.
  14. Natural sciences [New]

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.

2700 Scholars Boycott UI; Philosopher Cancels Prestigious Lecture; Salaita Deemed Excellent Teacher; and UI Trustees Meet Again (Updated) (Updated again)

21 Aug

I’m still on vacation and mostly staying offline but I wanted to do a quick update on the Salaita affair.

1. Tomorrow, August 22, the Executive Committee of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet again. The Executive Committee met on Monday, August 18. In an email, Phan Nguyen wrote to me, “According to the listing of BOT Executive Committee meetings on the website, there haven’t been two such meetings held within four days of each other” in quite some time, if ever. But where the Monday meeting agenda explicitly stated that employment and litigation matters would be discussed, the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting specifies no specific topics for discussion. And where Monday’s meeting was listed a closed meeting, this meeting doesn’t say if it’s closed or not.

2. Going into Monday’s meeting, many of us thought something —a decision, a deal, something—was afoot. But according to this report in the local media, no decisions were made at the meeting.

“There are a number of issues being discussed,” President Bob Easter told The News-Gazette after the meeting, but trustees are “not at a place where I can say” if resolution is close. He declined to talk further because it was a closed session about personnel.

Ali Abunimah has some further news:

However two sources familiar with the case separately confirmed that there has been no discussion of a settlement and no proposal of a settlement from either the university or from Salaita.

Both sources asked not to be identified as neither is authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

3. One of the issues that comes up frequently among the University of Illinois’s defenders is that Salaita’s tweets suggest he might create a hostile environment for students, that he’s not fit for the classroom. It’s a strange claim to make under any circumstance—how I am on Twitter bears little relationship to how I am in the classroom or in my interactions with students; all of us have different relationships with different people, and we act differently in different circumstances—but in Salaita’s case it’s especially strange because he actually has a demonstrated track record as a teacher that the University of Illinois could consult.

Salaita taught for eight years at Virginia Tech, and like most professors, he was evaluated by his students every semester. According to this report, these were the results:

The student evaluations for Steven Salaita are stunning.

In Fall 2009, 29 of 30 students responding rated Salaita’s “knowledge of subject” as “Excellent”.  In the same course, 93 percent of students rated Professor Salaita’s “overall rating” as “excellent,” and 2 as “good.”

In the same term, another group of students gave Salaita nearly identical—though even better —marks: 29 of 30 rated him “excellent” for knowledge of subject, 30 of 30 graded him excellent for grading fairness, and 93 percent rated him “excellent” for overall rating, 1 good.

These numbers repeat consistently over all six of the courses Professor Salaita submitted for review.  The lowest rating he received in the “excellent” category for “overall rating” was 86 percent.  Salaita never received, in any of the six courses evaluated, a single rating of “poor” for any of ten categories of teaching reviewed.  In his lone graduate seminar, he scored a perfect 100 percent rating of “excellence” in the category of “overall rating.”

But for purposes of our argument, it is especially important to note student evaluations of Professor Salaita in the category of “concern and respect” for students.  Here is where students evaluate their professor for professional empathy, respect for diverse points of view, and sensitivity to student opinion and student lives.

In the six courses reviewed Professor Salaita scored as follows in this category:

# of Students

30 Total: 28 Excellent  2 Good

30 Total:  30 out of 30 Excellent

10 Total: 10 out of 10 Excellent

29 Total: 28 Excellent 1 Good

28 Total: 28 out of 28 excellent

28 Total: 25 out of 28 excellent, 2 good, one No Response

In addition to these metrics, Professor Salaita submitted a peer review letter of his teaching by a Virginia Tech colleague in English.   This colleague visited Salaita’s classes to provide the department an assessment of Salaita’s teaching.

The letter cites Salaita’s numerical excellence in student evaluations, but goes on to praise his teaching in terms that would be the envy of Professors everywhere:

While the numbers are impressive, the student comments bear out in detail how deserving Steven is of the high ratings.  The students are acutely aware that they are privileged to be studying with a well-regarded scholar, who draws his knowledge from years of study and experience.  Steven is perceived as being knowledgeable and accessible—he takes time to talk with students and to encourage them in preparing their writing assignments… When asked questions in class, Steve gives factual and thoughtful replies.  It is clear to all that the teacher has mastery of his field.

Salaita’s colleague goes on to say:

The classes I visited focused on several very contemporary bodies of literature, most specifically Arab-American literature.  These works are difficult to understand and appreciate fully without the help of a good guide who knows the turf.  Professor Salaita is extremely well-informed on the history and current status of the many nations, political parties and religious sects of the Middle East.  This subject matter is urgently important not only for specialists in international affairs, but for anyone seeking to better understand the violent and volatile contemporary world.

This record shows only one thing: that Steven Salaita is an outstanding classroom teacher.

4. The campaign on behalf of Salaita has gathered steam. Yesterday, philosopher David Blacker canceled his scheduled appearance at the prestigious CAS/MillerComm lecture series at the University of Illinois. In a letter to the university, he wrote:

I regret to inform you that I must cancel my CAS/MillerComm lecture at the University of Illinois scheduled for September 29….

I have decided I must honor the growing worldwide pledge of academics not to appear at U. of I. unless the Salaita matter is acceptably resolved….

…Instead of choosing education and more speech as the remedy for disagreeable speech,the U. of I. 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 non-negotiable issue of academic freedom.

My hope is that the U. of I. will relent and restore its good name.  I would be delighted to reschedule my talk if and when this happens.

5. I haven’t got complete updates on the boycott campaign, but here are some new numbers (if I don’t have new numbers, I don’t list the petitions here; for a fuller list, go here):

Anthropology: 121

Latino/a and Chicano/a Studies: 70

Communications: 73

Sociology: 242

Philosophy: 241

English: 256

Political Science: 169

Rhetoric/Composition: 32

Contingent academics: 210

Along with our other signatories on other petitions (for which I do not have updated numbers), we’ve got 2716 scholars committed to not engaging with the University of Illinois until Steven Salaita is reinstated.

A more general petition calling on the University of Illinois to reinstate Salaita has over 15,000 signatures.

Updated (9 pm)

An entire conference scheduled at the UI has now been officially canceled.

The Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been carefully observing the growing international academic boycott of our campus and weighing the potential impacts upon our Strategies for Action National Conference on Higher Education in Prison. After thoughtful deliberation, we have canceled the national conference.

This decision has not been easy.

We reached this decision after consulting with conference presenters and attendees, directors of other prison education programs, members of the higher ed in prison listserv, and with members of the Education Justice Project. 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.

Updated (10 pm)

Yet another scholar has pulled out from a distinguished lecture series at the University of Illinois. This time it’s Allen Isaacman, Regents Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.

Breaking: UI Trustees meeting, as we tweet

18 Aug

Away all weekend and offline, but came home to this breaking news: the Executive Committee of the University of Illinois Trustees is meeting, right now (Monday, 2:30 pm), to discuss the following:

In closed session, the Executive Committee will consider University employment or appointment-related matters, and pending, probable or imminent litigation against, affecting, or on behalf of the University.

I have no idea if this meeting had been previously scheduled or not. And I have no idea if this is in reference to Steven Salaita’s case. You’ll recall that Wise or some other administrator had said that the Trustees weren’t scheduled to meet until September, when they would have been expected to vote on Salaita’s appointment. This would suggest this meeting (which, it should be pointed out, is of the Executive Committee rather than the full Board) is an emergency meeting to consider the Salaita affair, but again, I can’t know for sure.

In addition, according to Michael Rothberg, who’s the chair of the English department at UI, a group of concerned faculty at UI were scheduled to meet today with the Chancellor.

I’m leaving tomorrow first thing in the morning, and will have scant access to the internet for the next few days. I’ll post any updates I get on this meeting before I go. In the meantime, here are some stats on our statement of refusal drive:

The general, non-discipline-specific, statement has 1250 signatures. The political science statement has 160 signatures. The contingent academics’ statement has 200 signatures. The women’s studies statement has 52 signatures. The philosophy statement has 153 signatures. The sociology statement has 226 signatures. The communications statement has 68 signatures.

I don’t have updates on English or rhetoric/composition, but when I do I’ll post them here. (At last count, English had 214 and rhetoric/composition had 20.)

There is now a statement for scholars of Chicano/a and Latino/a Studies to sign. At first glance, it seems as if they have 67 signatures.

There is also a statement for anthropologists to sign.

All told, as of 3 pm, we have more than 2400 scholars publicly declaring their refusal to engage with the UI until Steven Salaita is reinstated.

Update (3:30 pm)

Phan Nguyen emailed me the following link on the Executive Committee of the Board. It states:

The Executive Committee meets on call of the chair or of any two members for the transaction of business that is urgent and cannot be postponed until the next regular meeting of the full board. The Executive Committee has all the powers of the Board of Trustees.

The Board is composed of three members: Christopher Kennedy (of the Kennedy family), Edward McMillan, and Pamela Strobel. All heavy hitters from corporate America.

Update (7 pm)

Rhetoric and composition has 31 signatures on their statement.

What is an Employee?

15 Aug

One of the sillier claims defenders of the University of Illinois are making is that the University never hired Salaita because the Board of Trustees never approved of his hire. Yet, as one astute commenter points out here, when the University was first confronted with Salaita’s tweets in the local News-Gazette, on July 22, before Inside Higher Ed made the story national, the university had this to say in defense of Salaita (if you can’t read the quote from the News-Gazette, you can read it in the Inside Higher Ed piece):

“Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees,” Kaler said in response to the tweets.

The rights of all of our EMPLOYEES. You normally don’t talk about someone who is not in your employ as an employee.

Top Legal Scholars Decry “Chilling” Effect of Salaita Dehiring

15 Aug

Scholars from law schools at Columbia, Cornell, Berkeley, Georgetown, and other universities have come out with a very strong letter condemning the decision of the University of Illinois to dehire Steven Salaita. Here are some excerpts:

As scholars of free speech and constitutional law, we write to express alarm at your decision to revoke a tenured offer of appointment to Professor Steven Salaita to join the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on account of his statements on social media criticizing Israel’s conduct of military operations in Gaza.

In our view, the decision to withdraw an appointment to a prospective faculty member because of his statements on a matter of public concern raises serious concerns under established principles of academic freedom. Those principles are enshrined in Illinois law, in the U.S. Constitution, and in the written principles of the American Association of University Professors.

American universities have been the home of vigorous political debate and disagreement for many decades….In connection with these and other issues faculty, students and staff have engaged a range of tactics and strategies to express their political views including demonstrations and sit-ins, taking over university buildings, calling for divestment or boycott, and condemning public policies and laws. More recently, with the rise of social media, faculty and student expression on matters of public concern have taken place on Twitter, Facebook, and other internet fora.

What is more, the constitutional problem underlying the withdrawal of an offer of employment to Professor Salaita on account of his opinions on the Middle East affects not only him individually, but all current and prospective faculty at the University of Illinois insofar as it will have the predictable and inevitable effect of chilling speech–both inside and outside the classroom–by other academics. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s website currently lists 27 open academic searches. It is reasonable to conclude that any person considering applying for any of those positions would be very concerned about any opinions they might have expressed, either in their scholarship or in their private capacity, on the conflict in the Middle East or on other controversial questions. The University has sent a clear message to all prospective job candidates that their suitability for employment at the University of Illinois may turn on the views they have voiced on this or some other complex matter of public concern.

Tragically, the University of Illinois’s decision to rescind a job offer to Professor Salaita on account of his views on the Middle East evokes similarly unconstitutional litmus tests applied to educators in Illinois in the past when public officials sought to impose upon the academy a particular orthodoxy on a matter of public concern. As a website set up by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Student Life and Cultural Archival Program Illinois well documents, Illinois has unfortunately distinguished itself in its efforts over the years to purge from its teaching ranks faculty who held views that were deemed un-American or otherwise controversial.

The withdrawal of the offer of employment to Professor Salaita threatens to punish a colleague who has participated in a rich, and at times heated, climate of debate on the issue of justice in the Middle East, and it will surely chill debate by other scholars in the future.

 We recognize that universities may consider a wider range of factors in deciding whether to hire a potential faculty member than in deciding whether to dismiss a current faculty member. However, that principle is irrelevant here. Even as a technical legal matter, Professor Salaita was already a de facto member of the University of Illinois faculty under the principle of promissory estoppel as articulated by the Illinois Supreme Court. Moreover, the timing and manner of Professor Salaita’s dismissal strongly indicate the sort of viewpoint discrimination that would violate the First Amendment even at the hiring stage.

We urge you in the strongest of terms to submit to the University’s board of trustees the appointment of Professor Salaita to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s American Indian Studies program.

If you are a professor or scholar of law, please email Professor Katherine Franke at the Columbia Law School. Her email address is kfranke@law.columbia.edu.



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