The Salaita Case and the "Two Cultures" of Academia

Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed published a provocative article, “A House Divided,” suggesting that attitudes toward the summary dismissal of controversial professor Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois may reflect the “enduring power” of C.P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” thesis.  Snow’s argument was that the academic world contains two distinctive and often conflicting cultures, that of the physical and natural sciences (today encompassed by the popular acronym STEM) and that of the humanities and social sciences.  “A majority of those who publicly support Salaita are in the humanities, while most of those who support [UIUC Chancellor Phyllis] Wise are scientists,” the article notes. “So the trend raises an interesting question to add to the conversation: What role does discipline play in how one interprets the Salaita case and others like it?”

“A significant one,” concludes IHE reporter Colleen Flaherty, whose customarily thorough and evenhanded approach makes the article important reading.  For example, Flaherty points out that an open letter supporting Wise’s decision to terminate Salaita’s contract was signed by 400 faculty members, the overwhelming number of them from STEM disciplines, while an opposing letter backing Salaita was signed by 330 faculty members, mostly from the humanities and social sciences.  A list of faculty members nationwide who have agreed to boycott UIUC to protest the Salaita decision includes 567 philosophers, but just 34 scientists.

According to some, the division is more apparent than real.  Cary Nelson, who supports the chancellor’s decision, claims that “an atmosphere of intimidation has left some humanists unwilling to support the university’s decision.”  A Salaita supporter, however, makes a similar argument from the other side, suggesting “that many professors, including those in STEM and the professional schools, have said they oppose the university’s decision but are unwilling to go public.”

Be that as it may, it is certainly clear that at least publicly the divide is real.  Flaherty’s article provides no single explanation, however.  She cites David Hollinger, a UC Berkeley history professor and former chair of AAUP’s Committee A, who tells her that

the Salaita split isn’t surprising, given that the history of American academe is full of disciplinary divides — although he noted that fault lines have shifted over time. In the McCarthy era, for example, he said, it was chemists and physicists who were accused of being leftists, while today’s notion of “liberal” humanists stem from the “culture wars” of the late 20th century.

Hollinger said the divide is mostly “epistemic.” While scientists work to uncover evidence in a relatively straightforward manner, he said, social scientists and humanists often work at the periphery of their fields to “advance” that evidence. He called the human sciences the “borderlands” of academe, outside the more quantitative, methodologically narrower STEM fields.

Neil Gross, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and a visiting professor at Princeton University, argues that

the two “cultures” or “families” phenomenon stems from different understandings of the academic role, and of where to draw the “boundaries” around academic freedom.

“At some points in the history of our country, natural scientists in the university have been outspoken, publicly engaged intellectuals, but more often they have seen their job to be that of impartially discovering and disseminating scientific fact,” Gross added via email. “Few natural scientists would want to impose such a vision of the academic enterprise on the humanities, where it wouldn’t make sense.”

These and other explanations offered in the article are, of course, not necessarily contradictory, and there can be little doubt that multiple factors are at work here.  But I think such “cultural” and methodological distinctions tell only part of the story and at least one highly consequential element is missing from Flaherty’s report — money!

While surely a simple economic determinism would be distorting, it should still be clear that the epistemic and cultural divide between the “hard” sciences and the humanities cannot be easily disentangled from a noticeable financial divide, one which sometimes approaches a veritable chasm.  Money, I think, may impact the division between the “two cultures” in two interconnected ways.  First, the largely higher salaries paid to most STEM faculty compared to the much lower remuneration earned by those in the humanities, especially at research institutions, may tend to lead those in the former group to become more satisfied with (or be more invested in) the status quo and established “leadership.”  Surely this factor plays a role in another instance in which scientists and humanists may frequently differ: efforts to organize faculty unions often gain significantly greater support among humanists and social scientists than among STEM faculty, although this is hardly guaranteed.

Second, over the past few decades STEM faculty have grown significantly more dependent on outside research grants and donations than have faculty in the humanities and social sciences, again especially at research institutions.  Indeed, the practice of compelling faculty members to raise significant portions of their own salaries through grants, a practice previously confined to medical schools, has now begun to spread to other STEM fields.  I don’t think it denigrates these faculty members to suggest that such arrangements may tend to make them more accommodating to administrators who actively support their research and more wary of offending potential granting sources and university donors.  That grants and donations in the sciences are most often significantly larger than those offered to humanists is another factor.  It is hardly a coincidence that at UIUC Chancellor Wise is a biologist and that, as Flaherty notes, there is a widespread perception that in recent years university resources have been flowing disproportionately to STEM fields, a common perception at many other institutions as well.

[A similar phenomenon was observed at the University of California, Davis, when three years ago campus police used pepper spray in an attempt to disperse peaceful student protesters.  The Davis Chancellor, Linda Katehi — who was previously provost at UIUC — came under extensive criticism for the incident, but because she is a scientist herself who was perceived as having successfully brought considerable outside funding to STEM departments, Katehi was also defended by many STEM faculty, although those faculty most often also condemned the use of pepper spray.]

Yet it would be a terrible mistake to conclude from such examples that STEM faculty are less likely to support the struggle for academic freedom and professional autonomy.  Economics is not destiny, for one thing, and as several of those quoted by Flaherty stress, personal values and beliefs are very often more determinative of faculty views.  A petition signed by several dozen scientists and engineers, initiated by NYU physicist Alan Sokal, states:

More disturbingly yet, [Wise] attempted to justify her position by saying [in a statement] that ‘What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.’ Putting aside the bizarre notion that an idea can feel ‘demeaned’ or ‘abused,’ the chancellor’s position implies that the University of Illinois will not tolerate biologists or physicists who are ‘disrespectful’ (in her sole judgment) of creationists or even of creationism.

Indeed, the creationism example suggests that just as there exist politically controversial positions in the humanities and social sciences, the sciences themselves are hardly immune to similar politically motivated disputes.  And it is also important to stress that the very expansion of externally funded scientific research that may make some scientists more reluctant to question institutional authority may simultaneously also threaten their freedom to research.  It is not only that government, foundations, and other sources of research funding have gained greater power to shape (and sometimes misshape) the research agenda, but that frequently these sources — and more important increasingly as well university administrations themselves — now seek to seize for their own potential gain the faculty’s rightful intellectual property.

Threats to the intellectual property of faculty, especially in those fields, like the STEM disciplines, in which research may yield patentable (and even profitable) results, have become a growing concern for the AAUP.  This year we issued both a lengthy report, Defending the Freedom to Innovate: Faculty Intellectual Property Rights After Stanford v. Roche, and a briefer Statement on Intellectual Property that address this concern.  In addition, in January AAUP published a 368-page report on Recommended Principles to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships.  Links to these and other AAUP policy statements on intellectual property rights may be found on our website here:

In three recent cases at Stanford University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of Chicago the AAUP wrote to the administration on behalf of individual STEM faculty members whose intellectual property rights — and hence their academic freedom to research — had been violated.  At Santa Cruz, a tenured psychology professor refused on principle to sign a so-called Patent Amendment to her contract that would convey to the university all rights to any patentable research results that might be produced by the professor while in the employ of the University of California.  The amendment could legally be imposed on new hires — although it is no less a violation of academic freedom in such cases  — but the university could not legally impose such a unilateral change in employment on current faculty members.  But what they could do — and did in this case — was deny to the faculty member any university support for outside grant applications until the agreement was signed.  The AAUP’s letter to the Santa Cruz administration on behalf of this faculty member concluded:

The fundamental principle of a professor’s independent right freely to choose his or her own research agenda has been recognized throughout the history of the modern university. The AAUP asserted that right in its 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, the first policy document issued by the Association.  We have consistently supported the right of faculty members to seek the funding necessary to support the research they choose to do. The actions that the UCSC administration has taken can cause long-term damage to Professor [ ] career, can  make it impossible for her to do sponsored research that not merely contributes to her own professional advancement but also serves the common good, and can have a potentially chilling effect on all UCSC faculty members and on the UC system as a whole.

In addition to the foregoing, we believe that the present assignment of patent rights to the results of research not yet even conducted eliminates a basic distinction between faculty members and corporate employees and is thus at odds with the definition of faculty independence established in the 1915  Declaration and reiterated many times since. . . .

In short, the “two cultures” notwithstanding, humanists and scientists share a common interest in the defense of each other’s academic freedom.  Just as STEM faculty need to stand up for the right of their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences to advocate for controversial ideas and causes, including in what those in authority arbitrarily deem an “uncivil” manner, so too do we humanists need to come to the defense of our scientific colleagues’ right to control the direction and results of their own research.

As Hollinger told Flaherty,

The academy can’t exist without both “families,” which share a “broad cognitive ideal” — that truths are “discovered, not divined.”

“This ideal is the common heritage and chief ideological resource of the entire modern professoriate,” he said. “There is one academic culture, not two, and it is based on this shared epistemic commitment.”

11 thoughts on “The Salaita Case and the "Two Cultures" of Academia

  1. I come to this from a slightly different perspective. For one thing, I teach at the high school level, where the notion of academic freedom is much more limited. For another, for better or worse, I bridged the divide between Snow’s two world, at least last year, where I was teaching both AP US Government and three different STEM courses – STEM Policy, Environmental Media, and Research/Data Analysis. I would also note I had a 20 year career in computers, of which roughly 9 years were in government and the rest in the private sector, before I became a teacher.

    I have changed schools (hired by the same principal each of the past two years – he moved), and now teach two different preps of Government (including AP) and three sections of AP Economics.

    Now my somewhat different perspective, as somewhat of an outside to the university setting despite having taking courses in 8 different degree programs in 11 different institutions over the past half century (don’t worry, I only have 3 degrees, none of them a doctorate).

    First, despite the economic issues that Hank Reichman addresses that exist between the humanities and the STEM programs, I actually think the real divide is somewhat different

    on the one hand is engineering and business and on the other hand is everyone else.

    Engineering tends to be much more concrete, and the business world is driven by very different motivations.

    Yes it is true that policies on research in the hard sciences push SOME academics in those fields more towards the engineering and business side of the divide. But not all.

    That’s my first observation.

    The second is this – insofar as the academic freedom of those of us who teach K-12 is restricted, we are sending you a stream of student unprepared to deal with the real intellectual vigor that should be a precondition for participating in the academic environment that exists – or is supposed to exist – at an institution of higher education.

    I warned in early 2013, in a piece commissioned by Aaron Barlow that for some reason went viral, that what we were seeing in high school of students arriving in our classrooms unprepared to think outside predetermined boxes was not the only problem with which you would have to deal. The same strictures being imposed upon those of us teaching K-12 were going to make their appearances in higher education as well.

    I would suggest that what we have seen in the Salaita case is just part of the problem. I am surprised that no one has made a connection which the previous example I think needs to be connected with this – anyone remember what happened when Juan Cole of Michigan was going to move to Yale?

    Yes the issue is money, and it is distorting higher education.

    We saw it with Cole.

    We see it with Salaita.

    And please note in my making these remarks although I no longer attend a synagogue, choosing instead to go to Quaker Meeting, my last name is Bernstein and I object to both of these cases.

    We see it in other ways with university departments (I will be kind and not directly name the Southern University whose athletic teams are named after a local groups of Native Americans) accepting funds contingent upon teaching a major discipline according to the interpretation of the big donor.

    We have seen this in K-12 for some time, where the driving force in education policy is first Bill Gates, and then Eli Broad and the Waltons, what Diane Ravitch has called “the Billionaire Boys Club).

    Yes university presidents have a responsibility for the financial well being of their institutions. And yet somehow I am reminded of a New Testament expression (one of my degrees being from a Catholic Seminary with a concentration in scripture) about what does it benefit a man should he gain the whole world but lose his soul?

    It is bad enough in public institutions that administrators and faculty have to look over their shoulders to what might be imposed by intellectually dense (I am being generous) state legislators and governors – and that is what we have lived with in K-12. It is very sad when private universities begin to bow to the whims of major donors or to quake in fear about what elected public officials might have to say.

    These are important issues.

    While as a K-12 educator (who unretired when hired by someone who will give me the room I need to function effectively and with integrity) I am not and will not ever be a member of AAUP, I view these issues as critical, particularly as I write letters of recommendation to accompany the applications of current and former students.

    Thanks to all at AAUP who are pursuing these issues.


    • Thank you, Ken, for these insightful and helpful comments. I will only add that the reason your previous piece went viral is simple: it was excellent and deserved to be widely read! So, thank you for that too.

  2. I think there are three reasons why STEM faculty have been less willing to support academic freedom in the Salaita case and other examples. 1) ideological, STEM faculty are more conservative and less willing to support a left-wing scholar. 2) pedagogical. STEM faculty, in their teaching and research, are far less likely to engage in debates about controversial political issues than faculty in the humanities and social sciences. They are more likely to regard controversial opinions as unprofessional, and less likely to see restrictions on such opinions as a threat to the way they teach and research. 3) Personal. Many faculty at UIUC genuinely like Chancellor Wise. Partly, that’s about money. STEM faculty are paid more, and they are more likely to benefit from new facilities and programs, so they’re more satisfied with the administration. But sometimes, the personal is political. One UIUC science professor wrote to me, “Wise is so well respected and Salaita is not.” Wise, as a scientist, gets the trust of many STEM faculty.

    I don’t think it’s a mistake to say that STEM faculty are less likely to support academic freedom, I think it’s a fact, and one that requires strong effort. Yes, the AAUP does good work on faculty property rights, but that won’t make academic freedom more popular. I believe that the key issue that scientists respond to is creationism. A huge number of students are creationists, and if you tell scientists that a “right to be comfortable” and a ban on controversial public comments might also extend to evolution and the students who oppose it, that will do a great deal to strengthen support for academic freedom.

    • With respect to your second paragraph, it perhaps would have been more precise had I written that it’s a mistake to conclude that STEM faculty are NECESSARILY less likely to support academic freedom. Obviously, in certain kinds of cases, they currently are less likely. But I think my main point remains valid: academic freedom may be threatened in multiple ways and these do not impact faculty equally across the disciplines. Hence it is in our interest to support each other. I wonder how many humanists would respond so tepidly to intellectual property concerns if universities were claiming that copyright to anything we write (or any film or artwork we produce) while in the employ of the university is the property of the university, which is therefore free to determine not only where it is published but whether it is published at all. Yet that in effect is what many research universities are doing to STEM faculty whose research yields patentable results. In fact, the law does not distinguish between patent and copyright; both give the owner comparable intellectual property rights and both, I might add, as products of scholarship are protected by academic freedom, which provides for control by faculty authors over dissemination of their works.

  3. Thanks for discussing this topic in this different frame. One thing though to start with is the number of people who supported Wise is 400 but many of them are not faculty and not from UIUC, and the 350 plus who voted no confidence in Wise were all faculty from UIUC. This is in addition to thousands of faculty from outside the university who supported Salaita and are boycotting UIUC until its decision of firing changes, and in addition to over 18000 endorsers of the petition on his behalf.

    While there might be a relation to disciplines, I think it is better to think of pro-Zionist faculty, and those who are critical of Zionism and Israeli policies, in addition to those who think firing Salaita will open the door for all kinds of repression on campuses beyond the question of Israeli policies, and also those who believe, as they should, that signing an offer is a contract , and retracting from a contract by UIUC if it is not reversed, will put many academics in jeopardy as it is the custom to sign and offer and resign from one’w own current position is the norm.
    Salaita’s case attracted so much support, and will have huge impact on UIUC and other campuses because it connects too many questions and issues that are dear to many academics including the freedom to speak outside the classroom about one’s political views.

    • Thanks, Prof. Reichman, for posting this and for your comment, Magid. Just want to clarify, because there has been some confusion among readers, that the pro-university petition I reference in my piece is well over 90 percent faculty members. There is another pro-university petition out there signed by alumni, etc., but that is not the one I consulted to write “A House Divided.”

  4. In my university, the department that committed the largest number of people to the eventually successful fight for shared governance–whether general turn-out at rallies or very serious fighting in the political trenches–was Mathematics and Computer Science. Mathematicians and computer scientists worked right beside the political scientists, the sociologists, the literature specialists, and the theologians.

    If there was a marked division, it was between the professional schools–largely staying out of the fray–and the rest of the campus. But even that division is belied by hugely important exceptions (particularly two successive Faculty Senate presidents from medicine).

    “All politics is local” is probably a far more important conclusion than Snovian attributions.

  5. I think your view of STEM faculty is too restrictive. Thank you, Steve Harris, for your comment on the role of mathematicians, which I am. From antiquity to the modern era, mathematics has repeatedly encountered issues of censorship and intellectual property and has arguably become a prime source of test cases. Right now it is illegal to broadcast the factorisation of selected numbers, i.e. specific entries in multiplication tables, either for reasons of DRM protection or national security.

    Your post assumes that scientists are not able to apply their minds to “impartially discover and disseminate scientific facts” about the issues discussed here: money, academic freedom, intellectual property, etc. Some are, but indeed it is an uphill road for them: because of the issues you mention, they are unlikely to get support through their usual STEM professional networks, and it’s harder for them to attract the attention of humanities fields when the going gets rough.

    In some ways, the reference to Sokal is extremely interesting, since he made a name for himself to a wider audience by intentionally publishing nonsense. This, one can argue, is the scientific method applied to study a separate area of scholarship. It was an unorthodox move, but the only one offered to him (short of spending a long time changing the field from the inside), and one that had an impact.

    Your post is particularly relevant to me: I am very aware of the issues you describe, and share many of your concerns, particularly in the MOOC space (an area where most definitely there are issues of academic freedom, intellectual property, branding, administration power, faculty autonomy, etc). Over the past year I have been repeatedly confronted with the fact that _reportedly_ non-STEM scholars did not have enough understanding of technology to make informed decisions about MOOCs. In some ways I felt a responsibility to act, knew the road was uphill, but was ready to take it because I thought the issue was important. With limited options, I have tried to scientifically assert facts, basically by living them so I would be able to reshare this experience later. This meant teaching a MOOC about MOOC platforms and contracts on Coursera, that would intentionally test many of the limits imposed by Coursera on the MOOC format itself and its content.

    Back in June/July (before Salaita), very aware of Sokal, a succession of events has led me to intentionally tweet nonsense (while hiding targeted sensical tweets to expected allies among this otherwise intentionally confusing stream). I never made a reference to Sokal, and that aspect seems to have been lost by everyone in the bubble of people who have looked at the debacle around my course.

    This is a pity since at some point I did have to keep my bravado in check, faced with serious personal legal risks (i.e. I had to shut up). In retrospect, I chickened out too soon: while initially there was some promising support, without any concrete mean to defend myself the tide quickly turned into uninformed speculation.

    Still, I had two options to move forward on the issue:
    – delete the nonsensical tweets, which I did, hoping that this would help others make sense of what happened and ease pressure on me (a nice affordance of Twitter);
    – start a blog, with obscure references to my current situation, hoping that others could make sense of it later (my first post explains precisely how a mathematician would go about challenging institutions, which is part of the duties that I would ascribe to some humanities scholars: )

    Neither technique has worked very effectively so far, short of one sympathetic blog post, which I guess is my preferred entry point for anyone new to the issues around my MOOC:

    This academic summer has been so impressively aligned with the issues I wanted to raise (Salaita is just one example) that my best ally so far has simply been time: just accept legally imposed silence and wait.

    There are two separate reasons for my comment here (I have certainly learned the value of transparency this summer when it is possible):
    – reaffirm that broad generalisations based on a cultural divide within academia can be counterproductive, particularly if it is not highlighed that _both_ sides can contribute and potentially be blind to each other on issues of academic freedom. If it is asserted by a non-expert that STEM fields only face issues of academic freedom when it concerns evolution, well, it beats the purpose and feels very much like being put in a box;
    – since I feel a bit of the legal pressure easing off, point people who are still following the hashtag #massiveteaching to this post.

    • Steve and Paul-Olivier: Thank you for these interesting comments. I am aware that mathematicians have often been in the forefront of not only the defense of academic freedom but sometimes other progressive causes as well. As an undergraduate student activist at Columbia in the 1960s I remember well that the Math Department was famously left-wing and one of the few islands of faculty support for our then-famous 1968 student rebellion, which sought to end the university’s support for secret military research as well as its callous treatment of the surrounding, largely minority, community. Among the progressive mathematicians were such renowned figures as, if I recall correctly, Serge Lang and Lipman Bers.

      I also think that Steve and others hit on something in noting an even greater divide between both the humanities and sciences on one side and the professional programs on the other. Whether that’s an emerging third academic “culture” or not I’ll leave to others to debate. In any event, I think we can all agree with the conclusion that “broad generalisations based on a cultural divide within academia can be counterproductive, particularly if it is not highlighed that _both_ sides can contribute and potentially be blind to each other on issues of academic freedom.”

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