It's Not All About Salaita…

…certainly not about the content of his tweets or of his character. Among other things, it’s about whether or not being scheduled to teach with students actually enrolled constitutes “hiring.” And that’s not a question any of us should have any disagreement on.

Questions we on the faculty need to ask certainly include concern over the impact on us–as a group and as individuals–of what happened to Steven Salaita. As a group, it has an impact on our position within a supposed “shared governance” environment and on how the faculty is viewed both on campus and in the wider community–on whether or not there is respect for the “academic freedom” we find so necessary. As individuals, it can make us pull back a bit on our public involvement and even make us a little leery of pulling up stakes and moving to another institution. It is this, if nothing else, that should concern each of us most directly.

Certainly, one focus of our concern as the faculty should be on the impact of the action by Chancellor Wise on shared governance and academic freedom. What we should be discussing is precedence. What, quite specifically, does Wise’s action mean in terms of shared governance and academic freedom today?

The answer is simple: Both shared governance and academic freedom are, if the Wise decision stands, essentially shams. It’s the emperor’s new governance when decisions made and confirmed within an institution’s standard procedures are shown to be meaningless, when a body of outsiders involved in “oversight” can step in and overturn faculty decisions. “Oversight” becomes “regulation” from above, and that’s not how shared governance is supposed to work. It contravenes of the idea of faculty expertise and sufficiency and, quite frankly, makes a statement that money and power are more important than knowledge and skill. That should be anathema to all working in university environments. Not only does it mean that shared governance exists only at the grace of the rulers (the trustees) but that academic freedom is as meaningless. These are both shown to be temporary grants, at best, revocable at any time by people whose positions rest on circumstances completely outside of the academic environment and whose understanding of the needs of such an environment is minimal, at best.

Individually, we members of the faculty should also be concerned that the impact of the Salaita case seems to be small, so far. No one at a trustee level is saying that a mistake was made, that bounds were overstepped. The top-down structure increasingly present in academic institutions is simply confirmed once more. The power of trustees to meddle in institutional affairs has been increased–just as it was with the institution of CUNY Pathways and in so many other instances this past generation as the corporatization of American higher education has continued.

No longer, if this stands, can we trust that a job offer is, in fact, a job. Each of us, on taking a new position, will have to accept that we will be living in a nebulous zone of quasi-employment until the trustees at our new institution confirm us–something that often happens weeks into the semester and that was once considered pro forma. Argument as to whether Salaita had “actually” been hired is, therefore, beside the point for our individual futures. The problem is that we now seem to have this strange period where employment can be terminated, no matter what had or had not been negotiated previously. This will be true no matter the resolution of the Salaita case–unless he is restored completely to his Illinois position. So, it doesn’t matter what the status of his contract was, whether he was “de-hired” or “fired,” not in terms of impact on the profession as a whole. That he was scheduled to teach and then was terminated, that is what should concern us. Otherwise, unless this is overturned, any of us may eventually find ourselves suddenly ousted from a new position even after the semester has begun–and for any reason whatsoever.

4 thoughts on “It's Not All About Salaita…

  1. The problem with over-generalization is that, well, it over-generalizes.

    As noted in comments elsewhere, each academic freedom case is different and subject to different analyses based on local conditions. What can happen legally at a state institution (e.g. UIUC) might not be able to happen at a private institution. Academic freedom is more a contractual issue at private institutions than at public ones, and a constitutional issue only at public ones.

    Yes, we should be learning from the Salaita case, and one of the things we should be learning is that in many ways the corporatized university horse is out of the barn in many if not most higher education institutions, including the publics — and that it was let out in part with the complicity of faculty over decades where faculty acted as individual entrepreneurs in their employment relations and did not care about university governance and did not recognize its crucial role in the make-up of traditional and legal definitions of academic freedom and tenure.

    The AAUP has not, in recent decades, devoted much energy to educating the professoriate in the principles of academic freedom and governance, from their days in graduate school on through the ranks. AAUP leaders missed the boat on understanding the supportive role of collective bargaining back in the 70s and sat back, allowing other national unions to organize faculty — and AAUP membership dwindled as a consequence. Now, the AAUP leadership is going in the opposite direction, handing over the store to collective bargaining contracts both with other unions and with educational institutions.

    Meanwhile, the professoriate has not done much to oppose the adjunctification of the university, either, in these past decades, tending instead to exploit the opportunity to “double-dip” the system in retirement by drawing a pension and teaching as an adjunct, as well. What this has meant for academic freedom and governance — the increasing contingency of faculty employment — is key to understanding the entire picture.

    Yes, these are all generalizations to be made. But even if Prof. Salaita never gets justice or loses on his day in court, that does not mean that each of our campuses has been placed in the same danger — unless, of course, the tenure-stream faculty continue to act as independent entrepreneurs, even at organized campuses. For, in many ways, the Shakespearean truism still applies, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”

    • The point is that this opens a new door, providing a new way of getting rid of unwanted faculty by people themselves not at all of the faculty (even if, like Wise, they once were). It is another crack in the foundation not only of academic freedom and shared governance but of tenure itself.

  2. Frankly, it will always be a matter of not only the wording of a specific offer but also its legal context — and further, when fighting with the state, faculty always are at a disadvantage given Eleventh Amendment immunity, etc., etc., etc. This situation isn’t new — perhaps new to AAUP leaders but almost certainly not truly new because so many collective bargaining contracts grant the state absolute control over so much of the employment context. Even so, there are always different angles to pursue, on both sides of an argument — and learning the agility of mind and legal precedent to pursue those angles is a lesson one must take from this case.

    One might enjoy reading the interrogation of Busiris in Jean Giraudoux’s “La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu” (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place): the lawyer who was asked to review the situation of Helen of Troy from both sides of the argument, in order to save his own life, as Hector sought to avoid war:

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