Another Bad Argument Against Salaita's Hiring

Eric Zorn, a liberal columnist for the Chicago Tribune, argues today that Steven Salaita’s First Amendment rights “remain intact” and “academic freedom is not under assault.” He is wrong. Here’s why:

The argument that hiring decisions have no First Amendment protections is ludicrous. Zorn might wish that public employers could refuse to hire people on political grounds (it’s not clear why), but that’s not what the courts say. Zorn’s stand would justify a university during the McCarthy Era banning the hiring of all communists on the grounds that because they obey the Party, they lack the judgment to be a professor (which is what really happened then).

Zorn’s argument that Salaita’s politics had nothing to do with his dismissal makes no sense. Zorn writes, “You also can’t argue that Salaita is being swept aside because he’s highly critical of Israel. In 2011, he published a book titled ‘Israel’s Dead Soul,’ and he still got the U. of I. job offer.” The fact that he previously expressed similar political attitudes in less controversial ways without attracting attention is irrelevant. Zorn’s argument is particularly absurd because all of the people (except Chancellor Wise) who made the political decision to dismiss Salaita were different from the academics who made the job offer.

Zorn argues that faculty should be chosen based on “temperament, maturity and good judgment.” Really? So he’s saying that a professor who yells obscenities at a driver who cuts him off, or who says mean things on an online forum about a particular sports team, or who criticizes a government official harshly, should be permanently banned from any academic position? This is precisely why the AAUP, for 50 years, has declared that extramural utterances should almost never be considered in any academic decision.

In any job, your ideas expressed outside of work should not cause you to be fired, but this is especially important at a university. Professors should show maturity and good judgment in their academic work in the classroom. But we have a long record about Salaita proving that he does exactly that, even though he has strong opinions about Israel.

Zorn defends the “right” of any employer to reconsider a hiring decision before a contract is finalized. But who should make academic hiring decisions? At UIUC, the faculty search committee, dean, provost, associate chancellor, and chancellor all approved Salaita’s hiring on academic grounds. Then the trustees and chancellor, after protests from donors and political activists, reversed the academic decision on non-academic grounds, doing no consultation with the faculty who are supposed to make these evaluations and who know the most about which faculty have good judgment. If Salaita’s tweets indicated that he would be a poor teacher, researcher, and colleague, shouldn’t the experts on teaching and research and being a faculty member make that decision? The fact that the political insiders appointed by the governor to the Board of Trustees have some formal legal oversight doesn’t entitle them to make political decisions.

Perhaps realizing that he’s on shaky ground, Zorn goes off on a tangent speculating that Salaita’s supporters are hypocrites who would not defend an anti-black tweeter. Considering that I have defended at AcademeBlog the academic freedom of a white supremacist professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, I don’t think that argument can apply to me. But the fact that some hypocritical defenders and attackers of Salaita might switch positions in different circumstances has nothing to do with what the principled position ought to be.

Zorn concludes by claiming that he would not fire a professor with a contract for doing what Salaita did. But hiring and firing decisions should be made on exactly the same academic criteria. It’s bizarre to imagine that a university can only fire a professor because of academic misconduct, but can refuse to hire a professor entirely because of his non-academic tweets, without any consideration of his academic record.

Zorn seems to think that academic freedom is a contractual right given to a small elite. I believe that academic freedom is a fundamental value of a university, and it should permeate all of their decisions.

3 thoughts on “Another Bad Argument Against Salaita's Hiring

  1. Super piece, John. Note that Zorn is following Cary Nelson’s logic: that Salaita is unhireable but had he been an employee his rights to speech would be protected by academic freedom. This is reasoning backward fron the desired conclusion….

  2. Thank you for that piece. t is important to be critical of those who would support the UIUC administration in this matter while presenting themselves as supporters of progressive ideals. I would just add to the excellent points that you have raised that Zorn also quotes Salaita’s tweets out of the context of even the full tweet (given the nature of “tweeting” that’s really bordering on intellectual dishonesty) let alone the wider contexts that he admits to not investigating carefully.

    In addition he presumes that Salaita’s views are “unpopular”. Then goes ahead and analyzes the issue as one of tolerating such viewpoints. However. by any measure which reflects the views international community (including the US State Dept,,) support of the settlements and the settlers in the territories occupied after the 1967 six day war is the truly fringe position. Indeed who would dream of using tweets by American academics in support of the settlements even if it contained colorful language to deny someone academic employment.

    Lastly, Zorn cites the fact that although a formality the Board of Trustees has a right to assume the responsibility it normally delegates to others. However, in such rare cases it is incumbent upon the BoT to indeed “assume the responsibility” This would mean at the least interviewing the candidate concerning any specific concerns rather than, in the words of Robert Warrior the Head of the Department at Illinois which hired Salaita, to base their decision “on as little information as they liked”.

  3. “It’s bizarre to imagine that a university can only fire a professor because of academic misconduct, but can refuse to hire a professor entirely because of his non-academic tweets, without any consideration of his academic record.”

    The bizarreness you refer to is called tenure. Perhaps you don’t believe that tenured professors should have rights that applicants don’t have.

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