By now, readers are likely aware of the case of Steven Salaita, who was hired away from Virginia Tech by the University of Illinois, as a tenured associate professor of American Indian Studies, only to see his position terminated weeks before he was supposed to begin teaching on account of his remarks on Twitter regarding current events in Gaza. If you need to catch up on the details, a good place to start would be this story in the Chronicle. Also, Corey Robin, who has been a leading advocate for Salaita, has written a number of posts tracking the conversation as it unfolds (see his blog here).
While this sentiment is not universal, many, many people—including the AAUP—are treating this case as a serious breach of key principles of academic freedom. How that is so has, perhaps, been best summarized in this piece by John K. Wilson over at Inside Higher Ed.
Without trying to reproduce a rich set of discussions, it seems important to take note here of several points that have been made in recent days,* and which connect to discussions we've had here previously: 1) that this firing** constitutes a case where statements on social media are being treated as exempt from the principles of academic freedom; 2) that this firing constitutes an example of the way that civility standards (or, shall we say, matters of 'tone') are worrying not only from the point of view of their differential impact on variously positioned members of the profession, but also from the point of view of academic freedom; and 3) that terminating Salaita's appointment at this stage in the hiring process effectively means that the basis on which many people accept new academic jobs (and leave their old ones) has become unreliable.
More on each of these points below.
1) The first point bears upon the relationship between this case and the case of the University of Kansas' social media policies, which I discussed here last December. Michael Bérubé, writing on The Academe Blog, drew this connection explicitly several days ago:
I am sure you are aware that in 2013, in response to a similar controversy involving Twitter, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted new regulations under which faculty members or other employees can be dismissed or suspended for “improper use of social media.” In response, the AAUP emphatically condemned the policy as “a gross violation of the fundamental principles of academic freedom that have been a cornerstone of American higher education for nearly a century.”
Bérubé goes on to quote the following passage from the AAUP's report:
As Committee A previously noted regarding extramural utterances, ‘Professors should also have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence.’
Obviously, the literal distinction between ‘extramural’ and ‘intramural’ speech— speech outside or inside the university’s walls— has little meaning in the world of cyberspace. But the fundamental meaning of extramural speech, as a shorthand for speech in the public sphere and not in one’s area of academic expertise, fully applies in the realm of electronic communications, including social media.
He then adds another claim, "Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence." Which, in turn, leads him to conclude that:
The University of Illinois is therefore clearly in violation of a fundamental principle of academic freedom with regard to extramural speech; moreover, [the] decision effectively overrides legitimate faculty decisionmaking and peer review in a way that is inconsistent with AAUP guidelines regarding governance. Those faculty members who engaged in the process of peer review for Professor Salaita cannot be said to have been unaware that he has strong opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict– as do many millions of people. To overturn faculty peer review on the basis of a Twitter feed, therefore, is to take a page straight from the Kansas playbook.
Bérubé's argument clearly depends on the claim that Salaita's statements do not violate professional ethics; but if we accept this as following almost of necessity from the AAUP defintion of speech in the public sphere as 'extramural' with regard to one's professional duties,*** then Bérubé's last paragraph shows with admirable clarity how social media policies such as KUs and the attempt by the UI administration to treat public statements in an analogous fashion turn out to be problematic both from the point of view of academic freedom and from the point of view of faculty governance.
If Salaita's firing stands, there will be precedent for treating public statements and statements via social media (as well as, as Robin has pointed out, protest activity, etc.) as grounds for firing tenured faculty.
2) We've also had some discussion here about the dangers of policing civility or tone. In his essay justifying the firing, Cary Nelson made much of the fact that Salaita's tweets were "extremest" and "uncivil." That has provoked a range of responses, from the list of analogous cases that Robin has produced from the canon to Wilson's appeal to AAUP guidelines and (once again) faculty governance.
The AAUP has never endorsed the firing of faculty members on grounds of “incivility.” The only AAUP statement I can find that mentions civility is “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes” (1992), which declares, “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden.”
Academic decisions, including job offers, must be based upon academic criteria, and not a judgment about an individual’s tweeting decorum. It is also essential that academic decisions are made by qualified academics. Even if civility were a valid consideration in hiring (and it isn’t), the people who would have to consider it are the faculty experts examining the full academic record and qualifications of a professor, not an administrator who chooses to fire a professor based solely upon public disapproval of extramural utterances.
From the point of view of the issues that Leigh and I were discussing in our earlier post, Salaita's appears to be a rather good case in point: 'civility' is being used here against someone who arguably occupies a non-privileged position and whose academic and non-academic work has centered to a very considerable extent around the situation of groups of people who have been marginalized, displaced, and colonized. Indeed, 'civility' is being used as an excuse for circumventing anything like due process in hiring or firing of a tenured faculty member.
If Salaita's firing stands, there will be precedent for using wholly vague, and almost surely biased 'cilvility' standards as grounds for firing even tenured faculty members.
3) The third systematic problem is that this decision sets a precedent that should make many folks in the process of switching tenure-line jobs—or contemplating doing so—deeply nervous. A friend on Facebook mentioned that every time they have switched jobs, they have resigned their previous position before their new position was approved by the board of trustees at their new institution. Indeed, to the extent that such approvals are often granted after people have started teaching at their new institutions—as Salaita's would have been—this decision exposes a gap in the process that means even someone taking up a position 'with tenure,' would, in fact, not have any such protections for a considerable period of time. That, in turn, would mean that said faculty member may not be entitled to the protections of ordinary due process that would apply in case a university sought to fire a tenured professor (or to terminate the contract of a tenure-track professor).
If Salaita's firing stands, there would be a precedent that would make it genuinely risky to accept a job on a basis that would require one to resign one's current position before the trustees of the hiring institution had approved one's new appointment.
*For the record: this discussion does not constitute an endorsement on my part, or on the part of the blog, of any of the positions taken by Salaita or of his framing of any of those positions.
** I'm using the language of 'firing' because, while the process of Salaita's appointment was not technically complete, in that the Board of Trustees had not approved his appointment, such approvals have been viewed as entirely pro-forma, and it is quite common for faculty to begin working before they are completed. Since Salaita had recieved and offer, accepted it, signed a contract and was indeed about to begin teaching in a few weeks, he was well past the point in the process where it would be appropriate to describe events in terms of an 'offer' being withdrawn—despite the fact that the university has used precisely this language. Wilson (here) and Scott Lemieux (here) have both argued this position.
*** The Illinois AAUP statement on the case also spells out a clear rationale for concluding that these statements are not a matter of professional conduct:
Furthermore, there is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach. These statements were not made in front of students, are not related to a course that is being taught, and do not reflect in any manner his quality of teaching. What one says out of class rarely, in the absence of peer review of teaching, confirms how one teaches. Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment.