I’m hoping this is my last post about Steven Salaita, but I wanted to admit that a lot if not most of my closest academic friends and colleagues are certain that the case about him represents a clear-cut violation of academic freedom. As readers of this blog know, this is not my position, or rather it’s one about which I have expressed many doubts. In this spirit, I’d like to post a quick comment about the letter about him circulated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). You can find the letter here, about which I’ll say that it’s actually a strange letter. The letter writers understate the nature of the offense given, they misconstrue the importance of social media as a professional platform, while, at the same time leaving caveats to actually turn the argument against Salaita. The letter writers then settle on a very minimum standard of procedural justice. I don’t think it is a ringing endorsement of Salaita as representing a free speech case.
First, the letter writers understate the offense and anger caused by Salaita’s tweets. It calls the tweets “condemnatory of Israel” when in fact people are more concerned about perceived anti-semitism, or, if not anti-Semtism, then a kind of Jew-baiting bordering on if not constituting hate speech. At issue is not so much civility as it is abusive language.
Regarding social media, the letter writers see “online statements as extramural activity as a citizen rather than as faculty performance.” Not to be settled lightly, this is an important bone of the contention. What is, in fact, the status of online activity, especially when it relates directly to a university professor’s research interest (as opposed to jokes, gossip, snark, or political opinion not directly related to research and teaching). Online platforms like Twitter and blogs are sometimes simply that, extramural, but often they are professional, or if not professional per se, then para-professional in nature.
In support of Salaita, there are caveats written into the letter, which are important to note. The letter writers cite the 1940 Statement of Principles that states that faculty members who “speak or write as citizens…should be free from institutional censorship or discipline. . . .” But the letter writers then add, “The document goes on to explain that faculty members should nonetheless act responsibly as citizens and (in its 1940 Interpretation No. 3) states that an administration may bring charges if it believes that these admonitions have not been observed “such as to raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position.” While the letter writers’ final caveat is that in doing so it should remember that teachers are citizens and should be accorded the freedom of citizens,” this penultimate caveat actually opens the door to deciding in the end that, yes, Salaia has not acted responsibly as a citizen to such a degree as to raise grave doubts about his fitness as a tenured professor.
For Salaita, the best that the letter actually concludes is that “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 Standards 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.”
As I read it, the letter offers conditional support, while notifying the reader that the letter writers reached their conclusion solely on the basis of information provided to them by Salaita himself. It leaves either un-addressed or open the various questions raised by the case re: abusive speech, social media presence, and the balance between “responsible” speech and “free” speech in the American university.