I spoke on a podcast, This Week at InsideHigherEd, about the Salaita case, along with former Barnard president Judith Shapiro, who argued that the Salaita case indicated the need for more shared governance. I would argue that the Salaita case is a good reason to understand what shared governance really means. Shared governance doesn’t mean that the administration and the faculty share equal power. It means that the faculty control faculty matters, the administration controls administrative matters, and they watch over each other’s judgments and work together whenever possible. So in faculty hiring, it is a faculty matter where faculty judgment reigns supreme and the administration only intervenes when a violation of academic standards and academic processes occurs.
The involvement of the Board of Trustees in faculty matters such as hiring must be even rarer. While I would like to see Boards of Trustees intervene much more often to overrule the administration and take the side of faculty in hiring, firing, and promotion disputes when academic freedom is being threatened, I can think of only one case where I agree with a Board of Trustees decision to overrule both the faculty and the administration (the case of K.C. Johnson at Brooklyn College, when the process was corrupted by retaliation against Johnson, an otherwise well-qualified tenure candidate who had the temerity to criticize his colleagues and the offend the administration).
What’s most important (and rarely understood) about the Salaita case is that the administration didn’t overturn Salaita’s appointment. The administration endorsed it, first when approval for the job offer was made and then when the administration continued to defend his appointment and his academic freedom after the criticism of Salaita’s job went public.
The sole reason offered by Chancellor Phyllis Wise for rescinding Salaita’s job offer was that “We believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely.” So we should be clear: this is a case of the Board of Trustees overruling the shared judgment of the faculty and the administration, and I can’t fathom how Cary Nelson can endorse that, even if he thinks the faculty and the administration at UIUC were wrong.
Another critic of Nelson is Vicente Diaz, a UIUC professor in the Native American Studies department who was on the search committee that hired Salaita and then had its judgment overturned by the Board of Trustees. As Diaz points out, “the committee was fully aware of their controversial nature and regarded them appropriately: not as part of his record of academic productivity but in relation to questions of collegiality and teaching.” I strongly disagree with Diaz that Salaita’s tweets should have ever been considered in evaluating Salaita’s teaching, or that collegiality should be part of academic judgments. But it’s clear that Salaita’s extramural utterances were taken into consideration by the search committee, and did not require additional intervention.
However, UIUC faculty Nick Burbules and Joyce Tolliver defend the firing of Salaita, or at least call for “an honest debate,” in Sunday’s Champaign-Urbana News Gazette newspaper.
Burbules and Tolliver correctly note that there is “serious policy question” of what to do if “new and damaging information” about a prospective hire is revealed before final board approval. Of course, the answer to that question would be to go back to the faculty search committee to determine if extramural utterances criticizing the Israeli government have any relevance to academic qualifications. Since they obviously don’t, the Salaita hiring should have gone through. But if Burbules and Tolliver believe that the proper response to controversial comments by a new hire is to have the Board of Trustees overrule the joint decision of the faculty and the administration, then they have a serious misunderstanding of shared governance.
Burbules and Tolliver make the absurd claim about Salaita, “Of greatest concern to an academic community is that many of his comments preclude any possibility of dialogue, disagreement or reasoned examination.” What does this even mean? I don’t think it’s epistemologically possible to make a comment that prevents dialogue, disagreement or reasoned examination, and considering that Salaita often engaged in dialogue with critics on Twitter, it’s certainly not true that his intent was to prevent all disagreement. Nor is it the case that we can judge a professor’s ability to promote dialogue and disagreement in the classroom based upon their extramural utterances. Professors do not necessarily teach the way they tweet.
Burbules and Tolliver quote the AAUP’s statement of principles that faculty “should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, (and) should show respect for the opinions of others.” But these words are moral ideals for faculty, not enforceable disciplinary guides for the hiring and firing of faculty.
The AAUP’s Statement on Extramural Utterances, which quotes these same words, goes on to declare: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for continuing service. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”
No one seriously believes that the University of Illinois Board of Trustees was going to reject Salaita based on a consideration of his entire record as a teacher and a scholar. And Salaita’s tweets come nowhere close to meeting the AAUP standard of “weighty evidence of unfitness.”
If showing respect for the opinions of others is mandatory, then Burbules and Tolliver would be putting their jobs at risk by disrespectfully smearing Salaita’s tweets as “anti-Semitic.” Of course, everyone should be free to make that judgment without jeopardizing their jobs, even if the evidence for it is absent.
Burbules and Tolliver argue that “the principle of academic freedom is not an absolute, open-ended license.” Like everything else, no principle is absolute. But academic freedom is certainly a license to tweet about political controversies without losing an academic position. If academic freedom does not include the right to make extramural utterances about global affairs without losing a job, then it means very little indeed. And if shared governance means anything, it is that a Board of Trustees cannot overrule the faculty and the administration in order to punish a professor for his political expressions.