Committe on Academic Freedom & Tenure: The Steven Salaita Report (UIUC)

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The Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at UIUC submitted should be a mixed report about the Steven Salaita controversy. No one is looking good, not the university administration and not Salaita himself. On the one hand, it excoriates the university administration for mishandling the entire process. It puts to rest in the strongest possible way why “civility” cannot be a criterion upon which to assess political speech by faculty members. On the other hand, it raises serious, even damning questions re: Salaita’s professional “fitness” as a university researcher and teacher. The committee therefore concludes that this point be determined by a committee of academic experts. It does not call for Salaita’s reinstatement. It’s only firm conclusion is that the academic freedom of Salaita’s on-campus supporters was not violated and that Salaita be compensated for economic damages.

It’s hard to assess the actual damage to university life caused by the radicalization of the political discourse surrounding Israel and Palestine, and the confusion of political and scholarly norms as represented by this particular controversy in which all kinds of red lines have gotten crossed. The committee report tries to knock it back, by suggesting that scholarly content has to guide these kinds of decisions. I’m posting the full report here, and then my excerpts from the report. I have organized these according to [1] “on the one hand,” statements that damn the university administration and [2] “on the other hand,” statements that seriously call Salaita’s qualifications into question. Given the seriousness of the latter consideration, I have put in bold the very harsh statements re: Salaita’s profile as a university researcher and teacher in the initial assessment as presented by the committee.

ON THE ONE HAND

“[W]e believe the academic freedom and liberty of political speech afforded to members of the faculty by the University Statutes  should reasonably apply. The process by which Dr. Salaita’s proposed appointment was withdrawn and eventually rejected did not follow existing policies and procedures in several substantial respects, raising questions about the institution’s commitment to shared governance… Statements made by the Chancellor, President, and Trustees asserting that the incivility of a candidate’s utterances may constitute sufficient grounds for rejecting his appointment should be renounced.

The Chancellor’s, the President’s, and the Trustees’ disregard for the principles of shared governance and the very specific policies and procedures of the university and the campus is a serious matter. It violates the foundational arrangements designed to assure excellence as well as the trust necessary for a complex web of interdependent relationships to function well and with integrity.

[…]

In sum, although the Chancellor, the President, and the Trustees are quite correct in drawing attention to the university as an educational community, what follows from it is quite the opposite of what they would have the university do. The consequences of the vagueness of the prohibition have specific historical purchase here. Civility has served to ostracize individuals or entire social groups on the grounds that they are savage, barbarous, primitive, infantile, ill bred, or uncouth. This is surely not the intent of the Chancellor or the Board, and yet, the criterion was used, for example, to silence African Americans in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the years around 1960 by asserting, paradoxically, that their peaceful protests demanding civil rights violated standards of civility.”

ON THE OTHER HAND

“We conclude, however, that the Chancellor has raised legitimate questions about Dr. Salaita’s professional fitness that must be addressed.

[…]

We take the University’s Statutes and the understandings of the academic community with respect to academic freedom and public political utterance to provide the standards against which these stated concerns should be measured. Both draw a distinction between speech in one’s professional capacity and speech as a citizen on matters of political, economic, or ethical concern to the larger community. In other words, they are more categorical than the Chancellor was willing to recognize. But, as we will explain, this is not to assert that an impermeable wall separates one from the other.

There are circumstances where political speech can legitimately trigger inquiry into professional fitness, the question, however, being one of professional fitness, not political acceptability. Because drawing these lines is difficult and subject to the emotion of the minute, great care must be exercised when both are present. The second aspect of professional fitness — scholarship — raises questions of a different nature, pertaining to the distinction between liberty of political speech and academic freedom. Political advocacy can be and often is robust, wide open, uninhibited, unconstrained by any concern for accuracy and driven only by the speaker’s single-minded desire to advance a cause. The University

Statutes and the AAUP’s Interpretive Comment to the 1940 Statement give free reign to speech of that kind, subject only to such constraints as the law might impose.

Academic freedom, on the other hand, attaches to speech as teacher and researcher – that is, to professional speech. Unlike political speech, professional speech is held to professional standards of care. As the seminal1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure put it, the liberty of the scholar to set forth “conclusions, be they what they may” is “conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s methods and held in a scholar’s spirit.” Distortion or mischaracterization of facts, willful neglect of relevant evidence, assertions grounded in little or nothing more than the zealous advancement of a cause fall afoul of a professional standard of care.

Whence the 1940 Statement’s coupling of a robust freedom for political speech with an allowance for inquiry into professional fitness instigated by its exercise: that the speaker’s political utterances may be so devoid of fact, so obdurate in refusing to acknowledge evidence to the contrary, so single-minded in pursuit of the speaker’s personal agenda as to give rise to a legitimate question of whether his treatment of issues within the orbit of his professional writ is similarly characterized. Such an inquiry is not a sanction for political outspokenness. It is a necessary exercise of collegial responsibility.

In the case of Dr. Salaita, this inquiry is complicated because of how he has positioned his understanding of his professional speech. He has stated that his address to the subject of his appointment, Indigenous Studies, is informed by certain critical ethical tenets, one of which is, for example, a “proactive analysis of and opposition to neoliberalism, imperialism, neocolonialism, and other socially and economically unjust policies, which not only affect Indigenous peoples most perniciously, but rely on Indigenous dispossession to fulfill their ambitions.” This tenet — almost indistinguishable from a political purpose — is taken by Dr. Salaita to be an intrinsic part of his work. Nonetheless, Dr. Salaita’s conception of his professional mission does not absolve him of meeting the academy’s standards of professional care.

As we have seen, the Statement on Government allows that Trustees may legitimately question the granting of tenure “in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.” Further, the 1940 Statement allows that political speech, though rarely in itself evidencing professional unfitness, can give rise to legitimate questions — for example, whether Dr. Salaita’s passionate political commitments have blinded him to critical distinctions, caused lapses in analytical rigor, or led to distortions of facts. These are questions that have arisen in the present controversy.

Dr. Salaita’s scholarship has already been reviewed rigorously, according to all normal and appropriate procedures, so we allow only that his reviewers may not have attended to questions that have arisen from the present controversy.”

 

From the CONCLUSION

“In the matter of the complaint of Professors Robert Warrior and Vicente Diaz, we find no violation of their academic freedom nor of those who had recommended Dr. Salaita for appointment. They were not penalized for having made the recommendation. The academic freedom of those recommending an appointment is not abridged by the Board of Trustees’ rejection of it, which is allowed under university policies and national norms of institutional governance. However, as the forgoing makes clear, neither was observed.

We further recommend that the university take responsibility for the financial consequences to Dr. Salaita of its irregular adherence to its own policies and procedures.”

 

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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