A Response to "Shared Governance and the Salaita Case"

By Nicholas Burbules, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I want to thank Mr. Wilson for sending us his posting on “Shared Governance and the Salaita Case” and inviting us to respond.

Joyce Tolliver and I do call for an honest debate in our editorial. We fully accept that there are serious, principled positions on different sides of this issue, and that the issues are difficult and vexed. Yet the Salaita case has become a public dispute through which people seem to want to advance a number of different agendas. Many of these people have very clear ideas about what the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, should have done. But we find the issues much more complex than that.

Mr. Wilson, like others, says that this case is all about “extramural utterances criticizing the Israeli government.” Anyone who has followed this case, and anyone who has read our editorial, ought to realize that this is far too simple-minded a characterization. If any colleague of ours was dismissed simply for expressing unpopular political views, we would be on the front lines of protest. But that is not why Dr. Salaita was not hired.

Mr. Wilson says that the AAUP’s statement on professional ethics, which we cite, represents “moral ideals for faculty, not enforceable disciplinary guides for the hiring and firing of faculty.” But this admonition is an essential component of the AAUP’s Statement on Academic Freedom. It clarifies why academic freedom is not simply unrestrained license to say whatever one wants. To dismiss it as mere moral idealism is to misrepresent the overall conception of academic freedom, and its limits, as expressed in the AAUP’s own foundational statement.

It is a mystery to us how one can think that these principles of professional ethics are moral ideals for faculty but cannot be taken into consideration in hiring decisions – unless one thinks that they are just helpful suggestions for conduct from the AAUP and not in fact shared values of the academic community.

Mr. Wilson rightly notes that extramural utterances should not be considered unless they go to the question of fitness to serve. But that is just what is in dispute in this case. He thinks the answer is clear, but many people do not.

Mr. Wilson takes us to task for observing that one reason Dr. Salaita’s hiring became controversial is that many people found some of his comments to be anti-Semitic. Mr. Wilson thinks it is obvious that they are not. But we were simply stating a fact: whether you agree or not, that is the conclusion of a number of people who reviewed his public comments and his scholarship. It is open to legitimate dispute and rival interpretations, to be sure, but is a university campus simply supposed to ignore such accusations?

Finally, Mr. Wilson thinks we are traitors to the cause of shared governance. No one who knows us or has watched our battles over many years at UIUC on behalf of our senate and governance processes would take that judgment very seriously. We completely reject his characterization of shared governance as a system wherein “the faculty control faculty matters, the administration controls administrative matters, and they watch over each other’s judgments and work together whenever possible.” We see the need for a much more thoroughgoing partnership across a broad range of decisions (and we observe that this broader view is more in keeping with AAUP’s own statements on shared governance).

Nevertheless, there is a serious governance issue raised by this case, and we raise it ourselves in our article. This extraordinary set of circumstances confronted our campus with an extremely difficult decision, dealing with inherently inflamed and controversial issues, over the summer when many faculty are not on campus, under brutal time constraints, in an area where there are not clear procedural guidelines and precedents for what to do. Within those constraints, I think campus leaders tried to do the best they could, with the campus’s best interests in mind.

We are trying to learn from this situation in order to develop clearer policies for how to deal with similar cases in the future, should they ever arise. And we are trying to think, carefully and conscientiously, about the issues of academic freedom raised by this case. We welcome both the agreements and the disagreements we have received.

8 thoughts on “A Response to "Shared Governance and the Salaita Case"

  1. Obviously, I strongly disagree with Prof. Burbules, and I agree with Peter Kirstein’s critique of their editorial. There are two aspects of academic freedom: procedural and substantive. On the procedural end, Burbules claims that there were “brutal time constraints” and “many faculty are not on campus” over the summer, yet there is not the slightest evidence that the administration or the Board of Trustees ever even tried to contact the search committee to ask them whether Salaita’s tweets would affect their judgment of his qualifications for the post. This decision completely repudiated faculty judgment and was done without any consultation of the relevant faculty. To call this “the best” possible approach makes shared governance a joke.

    Nor does Burbules address the fact that the administration approved the appointment of Salaita and defended his academic freedom publicly, and that the only declared reason for firing Salaita was the refusal of the Board of Trustees to approve his appointment. Does Burbules support the Board of Trustees overruling the judgment of the faculty and the administration on faculty appointments for purely political reasons?

    Now, on the substantive issue of what academic standards should be applied, regardless of who is applying them, Burbules is also wrong. He argues that because the 1940 AAUP Statement gives moral ideals for faculty, they can be imposed in hiring decisions. Not true. The 1940 Statement declares, “When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.” Note that the “special obligations” part is in the very same sentence as “free from” censorship or discipline, which means that these “obligations” cannot be used to justify firing (or not hiring) a professor. Also, the 1940 Statement is controlled by the 1970 Interpretive Comments, which declare that this section needs to interpreted by incorporating the 1964 Statement on Extramural Utterances, which has the line that any extramural utterances, to be punishable, must demonstrate “unfitness” for the position and also take into account the professor’s “entire record as a teacher and scholar,” which is an extraordinarily high standard.

    Burbules argues that Salaita’s tweets may meet this “unfitness to serve” standard. In fact, it is clear that they don’t. First of all, Cary Nelson (perhaps Salaita’s fiercest critic), has acknowledged that they don’t meet this standard. He has stated that if Salaita had been hired, these tweets could not justify his dismissal (which is the unfitness to serve standard). Now, Nelson is wrong in thinking that Salaita hadn’t been hired, and he is particularly wrong in imagining some previously undeclared standard of “niceness” that applies solely to hiring decisions. But Nelson agrees with me and everybody else that Salaita’s tweets don’t meet the “unfitness to serve” standard needed for a firing.

    In suggesting that Salaita is anti-Semitic, Burbules is failing to consider the critical difference between opinions and actions. I disagree with the evidence offered of Salaita’s anti-Semitism, but that debate (as Steven Lubet has noted) is irrelevant to the question of academic freedom. Suppose that a faculty candidate had publicly declared, “All Jews will burn in eternal hell unless they convert,” and someone regarded this statement as anti-Semitic. Unless this candidate had engaged in discriminatory action, the mere declaration of an allegedly anti-Semitic comment does not justify punishment. Or imagine a candidate who, like many Americans, opposes gay marriage. Can such a candidate be deemed unfit for holding bigoted views, without any evidence of discriminating as a professor based on sexual orientation? The answer is, absolutely not, even though many people regard opposing gay marriage as evidence of homophobia.

    In the case of Salaita, we have clear evidence of a long teaching record that would be relevant to evaluating his “unfitness.” If Burbules believes that a relevant way to evaluate a professor’s teaching ability is by looking at a few tweets rather than examining years of actual teaching experience, then I think he is misguided.

    On one point, I do agree with Burbules. The AAUP and colleges need clearer standards to deal with unusual cases such as Salaita’s. I think the AAUP in the wake of the Salaita case should appoint a committee to produce guidelines for the procedures and substance that colleges should follow in hiring decisions to protect academic freedom and shared governance.

  2. I agree with Wilson’s final point, especially since the AAUP has already started down the road of considering social media and how to preserve academic freedom within that environment. I also think that those of us lucky enough to have tenured positions need to start teaching and talking more about these issues. My own preference would have been to hire Salaita and ask him to participate in a public forum about how he sees his participation in social media and its impact on teaching. People might not like what he had to say, but a hire and public discussion of what has transpired might be healthier than the institutional repression and censor of him at work in this “non hire” or his being “fired.” I’m not a lawyer and can’t parse the legal distinctions at work here that others have illuminated much more than I ever could. What’s wrong with a public forum debating competing definitions of anti-Semitism? What’s wrong with Palestinian viewpoints on that term?

  3. I commend Nicholas Burbules for making this post and engaging in this discussion.

    Academic freedom is meaningless if any side in an argument feels that its voice is, in effect, going unheard.

    And I think that it is very important that this blog serve as a platform for issues that provoke vigorous, heated debate because those issues are generally the most critical to our future as a profession and, not coincidentally, extend to issues nominally external to the profession.

    • I agree, Martin. It is heartening to see real debate on a critical issue like academic freedom, especially in relation to hiring and tenure, here. But it is not enough that we on the faculty participate in the debate. It needs to include members of boards of trustees–as well as administrators who do not come out of the faculty.

  4. Burbules writes:
    “If any colleague of ours was dismissed simply for expressing unpopular political views, we would be on the front lines of protest. But that is not why Dr. Salaita was not hired.”

    How does he know? The university administration has made no statement whatsoever explaining its reasoning. If Burbules is in possession of facts that are not public, he should reveal them.

  5. The defenders of UIUC’s actions in this case seem to be saying that in the final analysis it is justifiable to fire Steven Salaita because he may have made some people uneasy and unhappy. It really comes down to this. I am straining to find another, firmer argument presented, but I am not finding one. Being controversial is not an abdication of one’s academic responsibilities. And it is not a good enough reason to violate someone’s constitutional rights and due process, breach an employment contract and imperil academic freedom at a major research university.

  6. I chair the Illinois AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure that issued a statement that supported Salaita that has been covered by the national and international press. I published an op-ed in the News-Gazette that also challenged many of the assumptions of the U of I professors.See: http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/guest-commentary/2014-08-19/illinois-aaup-defends-salaitas-academic-freedom.html

    I also received some e-mail from Professor Burbules. I did not receive permission to reproduce them but he indicated considerable pleasure in how I characterized them on my blog: http://english.sxu.edu/sites/kirstein/archives/12697

  7. Burbules’s claims that because some people consider Salaita’s tweets to be “anti-semitic” this is grounds enough not to hire him is so utterly shocking one wonders if he should be considered fit to teach in a high school, never mind great university. Rule #1 of Israel’s propaganda machine for decades has been to tar anyone who criticizes Israel with the brush of anti-Semitism (and if they’re Jewish, “self-hating Jew”). It is done precisely for the reason that we now see before us. Once the charge is there, it causes terrible damage regardless of whether there is any merit to it. Does anyone seriously believe his peers would have chosen to hire him were he anti-Semitic? that he would have such good reviews from students? That he would have gotten tenure, etc etc.? there is no evidence of this at all. This is a lie, straight up. And yet it sticks exactly as planned because people in leadership position exercise incredibly unsophisticated reasoning skills. The implications are profound. Now anyone who’s tweeted angrily about hot button issues can face firing for being anti- whatever even if their actions and professional record completely belie this charge? Truly this is a travesty of justice and Prof. Burbules has aided and abetted one of the greatest assaults on academic independence and freedom in the past half century. He should be ashamed of himself and should not again be in any position to pass judgement on other colleagues.

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