There is probably an interesting post to be written on the moral standing of the scapegoat — on whether, that is, being put in the position to take a disproportionate share of the blame for something, or even simply to shield other guilty parties from blame, entitles one to claim that one has been treated unjustly. Interesting, that is, from the point of view of the universal seminar room.
But we’re not in seminar, and this is not that post. Instead, I want to do two things that seem more timely and important in the real context of the events that are unfolding this week.
First, I want to pick up on a point that Corey Robin has been making a lot recently, and to which he devoted a whole post this morning, namely that we would be making a major mistake to allow Phyllis Wise, now a fairly obvious scapegoat, to successfully plead for some measure of our sympathy—obviously despite the fact that she played a material role in the genuinely unjust treatment to which Steven Salaita has been subjected.
Robin's argument here is one we should listen to. He's right that Wise was her own agent in all of this. And he’s right that we will likely only be able to fully and persuasively demonstrate the extent to which what happened to Salaita betrays major structural problems in academic governance, especially the role assigned to administration and bodies like boards of trustees, if we continue to press the case against Wise and all the other parties involved.
And, of course, he is right to insist that our response to this particular case must, first and foremost, be about demanding that Salaita be treated justly—that is, reinstated and appropriately compensated for what he has undergone—and that academic freedom, faculty governance over academic decisions, and the necessity for administrations to respect the rules and processes governing hiring and employment of faculty be respected.
In the second place, I want to amplify a point* that Robin and others have made recently. Wise’s play for sympathy has a great deal of the deflecting maneuver about it. By seeking to present herself as the victim, as suffering harms like damage to her reputation or unfair denial of benefits to which she is contractually entitled, she seeks to focus our attention narrowly on the plight of the administrator, to make us feel sorry only or especially for someone vested with considerable power—while turning our attention away from those who, being less powerful, are far more vulnerable, and who, if she and the trustees both had their way, would lose many of the spotty and often meagre protections they now have. This move, to humanize only or especially the powerful, is itself a structural feature of our current discursive and institutional regime. Adjuncts are faceless, for instance, while administrators are personalities. The nuances of Wise’s decisions and her position are, almost as a matter of institutional gravity, to be parsed and argued over endlessly; but there is continual pressure to forget the circumstances of Salaita’s tweets, or to neglect to attend to the fullness of his position beyond them.
Thus it seems important to emphasize that in the current rhetorical environment, insofar as Wise becomes an object of sympathy, the rest of us—not just Salaita, but all of us who are in a myriad of ways vulnerable to the kind of administrative fiat (often driven by external pressure)—will find our voices once again muted and our agency further constrained.
*See especially this paragraph: "All this concern for how the Trustees’ move against Wise may negatively affect UIUC’s ability to recruit future presidents and chancellors. Not a word about how UIUC’s actions against Steven Salaita have already—not hypothetically but demonstrably— affected its ability to recruit graduate students, speakers, and new faculty. And all reported without any hint of irony. The pains of power are registered so precisely here. And those of the not-so-powerful?"