Bérubé on Salaita

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.

Sincerely yours,

Michael Bérubé
Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature
Director, Institute for the Arts and Humanities
Pennsylvania State University

13 thoughts on “Bérubé on Salaita

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  2. A clear and compelling statement, especially appreciated as it comes from someone who disagrees with Salaita. Let’s hope that Chancellor Wise listens to it.

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  11. I’m amazed at the blindness of academics. This isn’t about criticism of Israel; it’s about anti-semitism. Resurrecting the age-old blood libel which led to the torture and murder of millions of Jews is unacceptable. Unabashed hatred is unacceptable. Supporting genocide, through Hamas, is unacceptable. That’s the problem we’re facing.

    Millions of Israelis criticize the government of Israel every day. I have plenty of criticisms myself. I also know people who support policies which I am sure would lead to the destruction of Israel and possibly a second Holocaust. I think they are horribly misguided and a danger to the Jewish people, but not anti-semitic. What’s the difference between them and Salaita?

    The non-racists discuss policies and are willing to consider, as am I, that “facts” they bring to the discussion might be wrong. What they don’t do is point at individuals and accuse them of murdering babies in order to use their infant teeth as adornments.

    Can you see the difference?

    Would you hire former KKK leader David Duke, who is a professional photographer, for a photo shoot? Most people would not, even though his racism is unrelated to his talent (or lack thereof) as a photographer, because they don’t want to support hate.

    Similarly, Salaita has shown he is not only racist, but willing to incite violence in support of his hate. Why would anyone want to hire him?

    Acts have consequences. If you spew hatred, you must accept that decent people will not want to work or socialize with you. With all the very real problems in the world, I’m astounded that so-called intelligent people would waste their time defending this.

    BWY, if you’re wondering why I haven’t signed my name to this, it’s because I’ve been stalked and my family threatened for expressing pro-Israel views. Curiously enough, the person who threatened us sounded just like Salaita.

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