An Open Letter Supporting Salaita's Dismissal, and a Critique

This morning, Sept. 11, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees will meet in Urbana, and the trustees show no signs of backing down from their support for the firing of Steven Salaita. But the protests continue: at noon, the Campus Faculty Association and other campus unions and students will hold a rally at UIUC.

An open letter (see full text below) supporting the administration appears today in the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, signed by several local politicians as well as some UIUC faculty, and it is quite shocking in the arguments it makes to defend the administration’s decision to dismiss Salaita.

According to the letter, “Each of us is judged by the totality of that which is known about us, including that which we freely, willingly and publicly state.” This is an astonishing claim for any professor to make. The notion that faculty should be judged according to the “totality” of everything known about them, rather than according to academic criteria, is a threat not just to academic freedom but also academic standards and basic fairness. Suppose a professor is known to have committed adultery: Should that professor be fired for adultery? Or what if a job candidate is a single parent? Should that “totality” be used to discriminate in hiring decisions? If a professor is making hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions based not upon academic criteria but instead only wants to hire candidates who share their same hobbies and political opinions, then that professor is a disgrace to the academic profession.

The letter argues, “Speech which incites others to violence or to harm (as in the 1919 Supreme Court case which led to the oft-quoted term ‘shouting fire in a crowded theater’) must not be promoted, particularly in a public institution funded with public tax dollars in a world currently torn asunder by radically differing opinions on every issue imaginable.” The correct phrase from the Supreme Court is, “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic,” and its author, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., worried that wartime repression could be extended to “intolerance of opinions and speech that could not be imagined to do harm, although opposed to our own.” Unless you believe that Salaita should be imprisoned for his tweets, absolutely nothing he wrote comes even remotely close to incitement to violence. Differing opinions don’t endanger the world; the primary danger comes from terrorists like ISIS who want to suppress differing opinions by murdering those who think differently. We must reject any notion that a public university funded by tax dollars is obliged to suppress radically differing opinions; in fact, the exact opposite is true: public universities have a particular obligation to allow and encourage different opinions.

The open letter concludes, “The classroom must not be a place for his or any other polemical rhetoric against some, many or all of those who sit in its seats. Chancellor Wise has chosen to stand up for the students, and we stand with, and for, her.” Of course, Salaita never used polemical rhetoric against any of his students. Rather, this is an assertion against “polemical rhetoric” that might criticize the views held by “some” students. And it seems to declare that tweets never uttered in a classroom can justify firing a professor to protect the classroom, which makes no sense. According to this logic, if a class includes pro-Nazi students, then any professor who has denounced the Holocaust with polemical rhetoric is guilty of abusing the rights of their students. By declaring “polemical rhetoric,” even in extramural utterances, out of bounds, this letter sets an extraordinary standard for censorship. Equally important is the fact that this censorship is not limited to professors; if “some” students must be protected from “polemical rhetoric,” then they must also be protected from their fellow students. Far from standing for students, this open letter is standing for censorship, including the censorship of polemical students and those students who wish to hear from professors who must feel free to express polemical opinions.

Here is the full letter:

An Open Letter to the Community and Campus

Since coming to Urbana-Champaign in 2011, Phyllis Wise has been deeply committed not only to the university but to the community as a whole. Her work at the university has been thoughtful and reasoned; her energy, humility, vision and inspiration have allowed her to play a major role in a community which, quite frankly, some would say is all too often hard to impress. In short, she makes the university and us much better.

It is, therefore, with grave concern that we read the escalating, often incendiary and sometimes extreme rhetoric regarding Chancellor Wise’s decision not to submit to the Board of Trustees, for its formal approval, the appointment of Steven Salaita to the faculty of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois. While we vigorously support Professor Salaita’s right to hold and express, as a private citizen, whatever views and opinions he chooses, we just as vigorously support Chancellor Wise’s duty to promote campus civility, comity and constructive discourse.

It is especially important that, as the public university which plays host to the largest population of international students of any in the nation, this university, through its chancellor, works to en- sure a positive, welcoming, fair and open environment. To suggest that the chancellor has, in any way, acted outside the parameters of her job or, equally important, to argue that she is opposed to academic freedom, is perplexing at best, and flatly disingenuous at worst. She wears many hats, and must ensure that each one fits as comfortably, fairly and well as possible.

Each of us is judged by the totality of that which is known about us, including that which we freely, willingly and publicly state. Speech which incites others to violence or to harm (as in the 1919 Supreme Court case which led to the oft-quoted term “shouting fire in a crowded theater”) must not be promoted, particularly in a public institution funded with public tax dollars in a world currently torn asunder by radically differing opinions on every issue imaginable. Again, it is, in the end, the chancellor’s primary role to ensure an environment in which each and every student feels able to show up, free to discuss and ready to learn; unfortunately, we are not convinced that is an environment which Dr. Salaita could or would offer. The classroom must not be a place for his or any other polemical rhetoric against some, many or all of those who sit in its seats. Chancellor Wise has chosen to stand up for the students, and we stand with, and for, her.

10 thoughts on “An Open Letter Supporting Salaita's Dismissal, and a Critique

  1. There is no right of academic freedom to commit adultery. Academics have no greater or lesser rights to commit adultery than do plumbers. A professor who believes that academic freedom is what protects him from consequences if he sleeps with a colleague’s wife is badly confused.

  2. How is Salaita any different from Guth at the University of Kansas? Guth spoke out against the NRA and their tirades after the Newtown killings. He never said he was with the U of K nor did he say he represented or was represented by them. And yet he was suspended and later quit because supporters of the NRA found out who he was after they had to dig a little. Here is a professor who openly stated he was from U of I and people want to support him and boycott because of him? If you can justify Guth being dismissed then you have to give Salaita the boot as well.

  3. “According to this logic, if a class includes pro-Nazi students, then any professor who has denounced the Holocaust with polemical rhetoric is guilty of abusing the rights of their students.”

    I see we have reached the point of Godwin’s Law.

    • No, you misunderstand Godwin’s Law, which refers to the practice of comparing people or their ideas to Nazis (which I hate). I am making a classic reductio ad absurdum, which is declaring that if you believe in the principle that students must be protected from polemical rhetoric, then you have to apply that to cases like the Holocaust, which everyone condemns. Not every mention of the word “Nazi” in an argument is a case of Godwin’s Law.

      • Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law

        Wilson’s use is a typical example – he implicitly compares students who support Israel to pro-Nazis in a way that provides plausible deniability.

        It’s not surprising that Wilson opines on Godwin’s Law without knowing what it is.

        • I did not compare pro-Israel students to Nazis in any way. I did not make a comparison of anyone to Nazis or Hitler; I said that if you think people should be free to make polemical remarks condemning Nazis (which I think almost everyone does), then you have to allow the freedom to make polemical remarks about other topics.

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