Academic Freedom at UIUC: Freedom to Pursue Viewpoints and Positions That Reflect the Values of the State

John K. Wilson has examined all of the emails that were released this past Friday: not merely the emails regarding the Salaita case, but also the emails dealing with two other cases, which Wilson makes a strong argument are related to the UIUC’s handling of the Salaita case.

Wilson’s piece is long and well worth reading, but lest readers overlook three astonishing quotes that Wilson has uncovered, which together comprise a rough definition of what academic freedom at UIUC might mean, I thought I’d highlight them here.

First, education professor Nicholas Burbules, a real piece of work as far as I can see, has emerged in the last few days as one of Chancellor Wise’s close confidants on the faculty. He seems to fancy himself, in these writings at least, as a kind of Machiavellian consigliere. But where Machiavelli’s counselor knew how to mould the prince to his own purposes, Burbules reminds one of nothing so much as those hapless Cold War intellectuals who thought they were taming and influencing the American state—only to discover, after it was too late, that it was it that was taming and influencing them. Christopher Lasch aptly characterized the farce of these buffoons more than a half-century ago:

In our time intellectuals are fascinated by conspiracy and intrigue, even as they celebrate the “free marketplace of ideas”…They long to be on the inside of things; they want to share the secrets ordinary people are not permitted to hear.

What drives these courtiers of knowledge “into the service of the men in power,” Lasch concluded, is “a haunting suspicion that history belongs to men of action and that men of ideas are powerless in a world that has no use for philosophy.”

Enter Professor Burbules. On February 14, 2014, Burbules advises Wise:

A related policy might address the question of “controversial” hires—this is murkier, because people’s ideas of what is controversial will differ. But a crude rule of thumb is, if you think someone’s name is going to end up on the front page of the newspaper as a U of I employee, you can’t make that decision on your own say so. You need to get some higher level review and approval.

Notice that Burbules doesn’t say that the university should exclude positions that have been proven to be fraudulent or false (e.g., the earth is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, etc.) No, what Burbules thinks is excludable are viewpoints and positions “that are not consistent with our values.” Now, you might instantly get suspicious here: one would have thought that if what marks a university is the freedom to pursue multiple and conflicting viewpoints and positions, it would be tough to get a more than thin consensus on what “our values” are.  What are those values? Who gets to define them? Burbules doesn’t say. So we’re left with that “kick it upstairs” standard: the higher-ups get to define our values.

But, as if aware of what a craven standard this in fact is, Burbules decides to look for “a more principled statement of what the U of I stands for.” Here we come to our second astonishing statement:

We welcome the widest possible range of viewpoints and positions, but not all positions. And that there are some things that are not consistent with our values.

And who gets to define those values? Burbules doesn’t say. So we’re left with that “kick it upstairs” standard: the higher-ups get to define our values.

So let’s now go to the higher ups. And here we come to our third and final astonishing statement. From about as higher up as it gets: Chris Kennedy, chairman of the UIUC Board of Trustees.

The University, as the state’s public university, needs to, in many ways, reflect the values of the state.

So that’s it: at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, academic freedom is the freedom to pursue the widest possible range of viewpoints and positions, except for those that are not consistent with our values, which must reflect the values of the state.

This the marketplace of ideas from which Chancellor Wise was buying her wares.


  1. An American Anthropologist in Germany August 10, 2015 at 2:15 pm | #

    I wonder* whether Cary Nelson figures in any of these exchanges. His big mouth was certainly moving a lot in public, but maybe he is not one of those behind-the-scenes influence peddlers. If so, he has moved up a small notch in my esteem. A friend of mine was a PhD student at UIUC, and worked closely with people who were close to Nelson. My friend reports that s/he “had to listen to him say some outright disgusting things about Palestinians when drunk…” Making polite over dinner, having to bite one’s tongue in the presence of powerful senior scholars—the life of a PhD student. My friend describes him as a complete “asshole.”

  2. An American Anthropologist in Germany August 10, 2015 at 2:16 pm | #

    * And by “I wonder” I mean: I’m not going to read all these emails to find out. But I’ve downloaded them and will run them through an OCR program to make them searchable tomorrow.

    • Corey Robin August 10, 2015 at 2:26 pm | #

      He’s mentioned toward the end of the cache of Salaita-related emails. And in one instance, he proves to be very important as he serves as a kind of behind-the-scenes adviser, representing the AAUP, to Wise.

  3. xenon2 August 10, 2015 at 3:11 pm | #

    How dumb it is to write anything in plain text,
    that you wouldn’t want the world to see.

    How naive is the adm and BoT?

    • TBPlayer August 11, 2015 at 9:09 am | #

      As I have said elsewhere, perhaps the most astonishing (although certainly not the most appalling) thing about this whole mess is that people entrusted with running a huge, diverse, major university, with a multi-billion dollar annual budget, haven’t figured out that just switching your emails to a private account doesn’t really do anything except delay their discovery by a nanosecond or two.

      • Snarki, child of Loki August 11, 2015 at 3:22 pm | #

        I’m surprised they didn’t encode it all in ROT13 too. FURRFU!

  4. Tim Shortell August 10, 2015 at 4:10 pm | #

    I think it is worse than just the need to reflect the values of the state. Kennedy is explicitly trading academic freedom for the privilege of spending money unsupervised: controversy on campus would “hinder our ability to free ourselves of unwanted procurement rules”.

  5. geoffreyskoll August 10, 2015 at 5:05 pm | #

    Christopher Kennedy is correct, because as Louis Althusser pointed out some time ago schools, are the premier state ideological apparatuses. That goes for public and private schools. What else would Harvard be? Instead of self righteous high dudgeon when (gasp) school bureaucrats carry out their main function, everyone should recognize that schools’ faculty and staff are taking the king’s shilling for working in the ideological factory. BUT, those so inclined can use their cog-like position to subvert the prime function, and even turn it against itself. Teachers get semi-captive audiences. They can either do their jobs or use their jobs to introduce counter-ideology. If the latter course is chosen, they should have the common sense to not call attention to what they are doing. So, don’t tweet or put on Facebook, or other such venues the stuff to get one fired. Should it be necessary? Of course not, but unless one wants to continue to live in Fantasy Land (always my own favorite of the Disney worlds), then we have to recognize that we live in occupied territory and work toward its liberation, but carefully.

  6. Rich Horton August 10, 2015 at 6:22 pm | #

    “Burbules reminds one of nothing so much as those hapless Cold War intellectuals who thought they were taming and influencing the American state—only to discover, after it was too late, that it was it that was taming and influencing them.”

    Do you mean this in the Gramsci’s “Theory of Hegemony” way? If so, you do realize that is one of the most insidious ideas AGAINST academic freedom ever written? You simply define any idea you don’t like as being “a construct of the hegemonic state” and you need never deal with an contrary opinion again. How easy that makes life! You simply banish “reactionary” thoughts from polite academic company. In effect you become no better than the people you are criticizing here.

  7. Roqeuntin August 10, 2015 at 7:02 pm | #

    There is always, always, always an ideology in place. Even the idea of the university as place where one can have the freedom to pursue conflicting and controversial opinions is a form of ideology unto itself. They don’t want to admit this, or to go even further, these are the theoretical contradictions baked into the cake of liberalism. So they prefer to use the language of states of exception. “Everyone is free to pursue ideas, except for ______.” This contradiction is ubiquitous within liberal ideology. It’s the same way people talk about torture and detention. The argument typically goes “Of course I support the Geneva Convention, the right to a fair trial, and the US constitution….except in the case of ______.” This is because liberalism is in itself this contradiction, and the idea of a universal, impartial set of procedural standards which are singular and universal is in itself untenable.

    And so it goes. “We always believe in the freedom of ideas at U of I, except when professor says nasty things about Israel on Twitter.” Actually, that’s not even it. The real, ground-level ideology in place is more like: “We always believe in the freedom of ideas at U of I, except when it gets in the way of wealthy donors sending us lots of cash or gets our name in the papers in such away to scare off prospective students and their tuition dollars.” The Israel aspect is secondary to that.

  8. Glenn August 10, 2015 at 10:07 pm | #

    Kennedy is happy to ban people from working at the U of I: “there are plenty of other institutions in our state.” He adds, “I think we need to be sensitive to tax payers.”

    Where he euphemistically uses sensitivity to “tax payers” as a surrogate for the donors he dare not speak of.

  9. vrrm00 August 10, 2015 at 10:18 pm | #

    Big dose of Meh on my part for referring to Lasch in his the-agony-of-the-american-left phase as anything more than than an example of the anti-intellectual, anti-democratic, anti-liberal New Left theorist trying to prove his relevance by providing a theoretical foundation for the nihlist radicals of the 60s with a set of arguments conspicuous in their confusion and intellectual dishonesty.

    Let’s discredit liberalism by holding positions so extreme that we’re ejected from polite company and use that to show their ideals of democracies and free speech are a sham! Of course we ourselves are immune from such hypocrisy because we know that democracy and free speech are tools of the Petite Bourgeois are fraudulent concepts devoid of meaning and therefore dismiss them out of hand.

  10. Glenn August 11, 2015 at 11:06 pm | #

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