The following is the text of a letter sent to University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Chancellor Phyllis Wise by Michael Bérubé regarding the university’s apparent decision to revoke a job offer to Professor Steven Salaita. Michael Bérubé is Edwin Earl Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, a former president of the Modern Language Association, and a member of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He previously taught at UIUC. The letter is posted with Professor Bérubé’s permission.
Dear Chancellor Wise,
I am writing with regard to your decision not to forward Professor Steven Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. As reported by Inside Higher Ed on August 6, this decision turned on the contents of Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed, specifically on his statements about Israel. While I do not share Professor Salaita’s sentiments with regard to content, and find them to be often intemperate expressions of opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I urge you to reconsider your decision. Indeed, I urge you to reconsider precisely because I do not share Professor Salaita’s sentiments. It is a truism that academic freedom is meaningless unless it covers unpopular (and even intemperate) speech; and that, finally, is what is at stake here– the question of whether academic freedom at the University of Illinois will be meaningless.
I serve on the national AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, though I do not speak for that committee. I mention this because I am intimately familiar with the AAUP’s recent revision of its 2004 policy on academic freedom and electronic communications– a policy that required updating precisely because of the changes in social media since 2004. 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.” The updated AAUP report states, in relevant part:
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.
Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence. The University of Illinois is therefore clearly in violation of a fundamental principle of academic freedom with regard to extramural speech; moreover, your 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.
I taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for twelve years, and have always regarded it as one of the nation’s outstanding universities. Please don’t let it become the kind of fourth-rate institution that abandons core AAUP principles under political pressure. Please reverse this decision, and let the world know that the University of Illinois is an institution strong enough to endure even the most intemperate Twitter feed.
Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature
Director, Institute for the Arts and Humanities
Pennsylvania State University