Christopher Kennedy Speaks on the Salaita Firing

Here’s what Christopher Kennedy, chair of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, told the Chicago Tribune in an article in today’s newspaper:

“We create an environment appropriate for students to learn in,” Kennedy said. “In the few instances where the board has been brought into decisions regarding faculty, our position has been really consistent in terms of creating an environment that produces great citizens.”

That’s an interesting way of framing it: “where the board has been brought into decisions regarding faculty.” Of course, nobody asked the board to reverse decisions about faculty. Nobody “brought” them in; they decided to intervene exclusively in cases involving controversial faculty. So, does firing Salaita create “an environment that produces great citizens”? Is suppressing academic freedom the way to produce great citizens?

Kennedy added:

“We need to learn how to live with each other, to argue, to discuss, to arrive at truths and to move on — and that requires a lot more effort than having a shouting match or name calling,” Kennedy said, pointing to Salaita’s “manner in which he expresses himself, not the expression itself.”

But there’s plenty of reasons to suspect that Salaita’s manners were not the sole reason for his firing, including Kennedy’s next comment:

“We have to be sensitive to the community that we were founded to serve. … At the University of Illinois, we take enormous tax subsidies from people in our state. We can’t be so cavalier to think that any behavior is acceptable.”

We should be disturbed by the notion that being “sensitive to the community” is the basis of hiring and firing decisions, especially because that sensitivity could easily include political beliefs.

The Chicago Tribune article also quoted me:

“What is really dangerous about civility as a criteria is that it is so ambiguous. One person’s incivility is another person’s passion, and it becomes dangerous when you have professors judged not on their scholarship or their teaching ability, but on their politeness and particularly their politeness when they are off the job. People act very differently in their personal lives, and certainly Salaita is very different in the classroom than he is in how he tweets.”

Now, let me critique this Wilson fellow because he’s missing an important factor. Civility is indeed a flawed criterion for evaluating faculty because it’s ambiguous and it’s disconnected from academic work. But civility is also flawed because too often it becomes a cover for political discrimination.

The article concludes with an indication that Kennedy wants to end the Salaita case as soon as possible by paying him off: “Our intention isn’t to hurt him financially. We don’t like to see that. We are not trying to hurt the guy. We just don’t want him at the university.”

11 thoughts on “Christopher Kennedy Speaks on the Salaita Firing

  1. ” But civility is also flawed because too often it becomes a cover for political discrimination.”

    Policing “civility” becomes a cover for all types of discrimination, not just political discrimination. Indeed, there is more than one ground for a discrimination lawsuit in the Salaita case itself.

  2. So are are boards of trustees unintentionally following the Kansas Board of Regents’ social media policy? Will they announce a social media policy or have an adhoc one they can invoke via the language of civility.

    • (I have said elsewhere)—What about colleges’ and universities’ own use of social media these days? What sort of policies are in place, and how legit are they? (My own experience is that they are the inverse of the issue here, PR and whitening, not surprisingly.) My own university Social Media czar gleefully advised that if the univ. was denied the opportunity to video record by a visitor, but then someone does so illegally, it’s ok for us within the university to redistribute. Yay. That’s great.

  3. The Chicago Tribune went right to the point. As to Mr Kennedy’s nations, well, they just add to the huge amount of bullshit UlUC has delivered so far,

  4. John K. WIlson, thank you thank you thank you. I am tempted to paste in that last quotation just to give it more space. I have been thinking more and more that perhaps even the term “academic freedom,” as established as it is and as clear as it should be, is undermining itself. It suggests license and latitude, which is not entirely (at all?) the point. “Academic integrity” comes to mind—though of course that is used in a different way. But for myself, I have found that it is not so much freedom as duty: I cannot perform my professional obligations if I have my hands tied behind my back. So, challenges to what we call academic freedom are also obstructions to academic *responsibility*. I am not suggesting we have a summit and “rebrand,” just thinking about what the substance is. And by the way, I have the copyright on the term “academic responsibility™,” as you can see.

    • Yes, alas, in talking to the Trib reporter I was going to say “one of the criteria” and switched to the singular mid-sentence without correcting myself. And since the Trib didn’t correct my quote, I didn’t want to start correcting things in their quote marks, even if it’s me. So now we’re stuck with it. Let’s just hope it doesn’t prevent a university from hiring me.

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