What's Wrong (and Right) about the CAFT Report on Salaita

The Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT), part of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Academic Senate, issued a report on Dec. 23 about the Steven Salaita case. The CAFT report makes some extraordinary good points, along with a few very bad arguments. Overall, though, it is a firm repudiation of the University of Illinois administration and trustees in how they dealt with the Salaita case.

The AAUP has announced that it will use the findings of the CAFT report as the basis for its Committee A report on the Salaita case. Considering that the CAFT subcommittee apparently never tried to speak with Salaita, and was unable to get responses from the Board of Trustees, I hope that Committee A supplements the CAFT report with additional information. But more importantly, the CAFT report gets several important principles wrong with respect to AAUP policies and the University of Illinois Statutes on academic freedom.

Let’s start with the good parts: the CAFT report sharply condemns the actions and reasoning of the University of Illinois administration and trustees in the Salaita case. It says the process of dismissing Salaita violated shared governance in the failure to consult any faculty in the decision. It says there are “compelling reasons to grant Dr. Salaita the academic freedom and liberty of political speech normally afforded to a member of the faculty,” and that therefore he was denied due process.

And it declares that the reason announced for dismissing Salaita, his incivility, is “not consistent with the University’s guarantee of freedom of political speech.” The CAFT report adds, “Statements made by the Chancellor, President, and Trustees asserting that the incivility of a candidate’s utterances may constitute sufficient grounds for rejecting his appointment should be renounced.”

The CAFT report calls for the administration to submit any allegations against Salaita to a faculty committee to judge the case, and allow Salaita the opportunity to defend himself against any charges. Finally, the CAFT report concludes that the University of Illinois should pay Salaita “for the financial consequences” of its failure to follow its own policies in dealing with him.

This is all very well argued and thoughtful. And the report includes some rather shocking revelations about Chancellor Phyllis Wise and how she views academic freedom.

According to the CAFT report, “When asked by the committee to distinguish between professional and extramural speech, the Chancellor stated that in this matter she saw no clear distinction.” This is a stunning admission, that the top official at a leading university understands so little about academic freedom that she sees extramural utterances as no different from a professor’s academic work, and entitled to no special protection.

Unfortunately, there’s another part of the CAFT report that hasn’t been covered in the press, and it makes a much more disturbing argument.

The biggest mistake of the CAFT report is the hint that the administration and trustees may have made the right decision not to approve Salaita’s hiring, even if they did it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong procedure. This aspect of the CAFT report argues that Salaita’s tweets “raised legitimate questions about Dr. Salaita’s professional fitness that must be addressed.” There were no legitimate questions raised about Salaita’s fitness, as the CAFT report admits. And therefore, no one “must” address them. The CAFT report expresses a fundamental misunderstanding of academic freedom by declaring that extramural utterances, if related to a faculty member’s professional work, can be punished.

There can be no doubt that Salaita’s tweets were extramural utterances. They were obviously not part of any class he taught. And it is equally obvious that personal tweets do not constitute Salaita’s research work.

The CAFT report noted, “We do not believe that Dr. Salaita’s political speech renders him unfit for office.” Since the only standard for punishing extramural utterances under the AAUP standard is “unfitness,” the argument should have ended at that point. And the University of Illinois Statutes, as I have previously noted, are even stricter than the AAUP and don’t permit punishment even for “unfitness.” Oddly, the CAFT report fails to deal with this fact about the University of Illinois Statutes, nor does it explain why this part of the Statutes is being ignored in its report.

Instead, bizarrely, the CAFT report goes on to declare, “We do believe, however, that the Chancellor has raised a legitimate question of whether his professional fitness adheres to professional standards.” This makes no sense whatsoever. Either Salaita is unfit to be a professor, or not. There is no such thing, under AAUP guidelines or U of I Statutes, as “professional fitness adheres to professional standards.” The phrase doesn’t mean anything. Since professional standards don’t apply to extramural utterances (a fact established by the AAUP in the wake of the Leo Koch case at the University of Illinois 50 years ago), there is no need to investigate Salaita’s professional standards, as the CAFT report calls for. Salaita’s professional standards were well established when every faculty and administrative level approved his hiring with tenure, and nothing expressed in an extramural utterance can change that fact.

According to the CAFT report, “the line between the political and the professional can blur. When a professor of philosophy posts a political argument via social media, when a professor of English posts a book review on an electronic forum, is this speech held to a professional standard of care?” The correct answer, according to AAUP standards in place for a half-century, is simple: No. Unfortunately, the CAFT report seems to think that philosophy professors can be fired for tweeting political arguments. The report declares:

“The question is of the capacity in which the person speaks, which, to complicate the matter further, may actually be a dual one. Whence the 1940 Statement’s coupling of a robust freedom for political speech with an allowance for inquiry into professional fitness instigated by its exercise: that the speaker’s political utterances may be so devoid of fact, so obdurate in refusing to acknowledge evidence to the contrary, so single-minded in pursuit of the speaker’s personal agenda as to give rise to a legitimate question of whether his treatment of issues within the orbit of his professional writ is similarly characterized. Such an inquiry is not a sanction for political outspokenness. It is a necessary exercise of collegial responsibility.”

There’s only one way to describe this paragraph: Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. The report simply gets the AAUP policies utterly and completely wrong.

Let’s consider the three imaginary standards invented by the CAFT report as the basis for firing a professor (because nothing in this section is limited to hiring situations).

First, “so devoid of fact.” It’s perfectly valid to express opinions without facts in extramural utterances. Tweeting, “I think the president is wrong” is entirely legitimate even without any facts to support it. Writing a scholarly paper without any facts might indeed be bad scholarship in most fields. But you can’t assume that because a tweet has no facts that therefore a professor’s entire body of scholarly writing is devoid of facts. That makes no sense.

Second, “ so obdurate in refusing to acknowledge evidence to the contrary.” Plenty of academics are guilty of the crime of being obdurate. So many, in fact, that it’s not an academic crime at all. In general, being obdurate is bad for scholarship, but there are plenty of scientists and scholars who are very good academics despite being obdurate. Nothing in AAUP statements and University of Illinois Statutes says that being obdurate is a violation of academic responsibilities. But even if it were, extramural utterances prove absolutely nothing about a scholar’s obdurate nature. If a scholar acknowledges contrary evidence in a scholarly book, but then tweets conclusions without mentioning the contrary evidence, can you really condemn the scholar for being obdurate?

Third, the CAFT report condemns an evil seemingly identical to obdurate: “so single-minded in pursuit of the speaker’s personal agenda as to give rise to a legitimate question of whether his treatment of issues within the orbit of his professional writ is similarly characterized.” Consider the baffling implications of this statement: the CAFT report is declaring that a single-minded tweet (and I don’t know many tweets that include diverse, multiple perspectives) raises a “legitimate question” about whether the entire scholarly record of a professor is single-minded, even if it isn’t. But couldn’t you just look at the “professional writ” (which I assume is some fancy way of saying “writing”) of the professor involved? If you wanted to know whether a professor’s scholarly writing is single-minded, wouldn’t you want to read the scholarly writing rather than his tweets?

The CAFT report rightly rejected exactly this same type of argument when the administration and trustees argued that Salaita’s tweets were evidence that he would be a bad teacher. The report correctly noted, “there is no evidence that Dr. Salaita has functioned improperly as a teacher.” The report insisted that to evaluate a professor’s teaching record, you need to look at his teaching record, rather than his extramural utterances. So why does the CAFT report use the administration’s flawed logic when analyzing Salaita’s scholarly record? There is no evidence that Dr. Salaita has functioned improperly as a researcher. That fact makes all of this speculation about his tweets utterly irrelevant to an academic examination.

The CAFT report gets the AAUP standards wrong again when it claims that “the 1940 Statement allows that political speech, though rarely in itself evidencing professional unfitness, can give rise to legitimate questions — for example, whether Dr. Salaita’s passionate political commitments have blinded him to critical distinctions, caused lapses in analytical rigor, or led to distortions of facts. These are questions that have arisen in the present controversy.” This is completely wrong. The 1940 Statement says nothing like that.

The 1970 Interpretive Comments state that the 1940 Statement must follow this standard: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position.”

The AAUP standard is that the extramural utterance must, in itself, clearly demonstrate unfitness, not that it “can give rise to legitimate questions.” An extramural utterance cannot provide an excuse for a fishing expedition into everything a scholar has ever written. The utterance must, by itself, disqualify someone for an academic position. And the CAFT report finds no such evidence of that. Instead, it vaguely declares that Salaita’s tweets somehow might indicate that Salaita is blind to “critical distinctions,” has “lapses in analytical rigor,” or distorts facts. Every scholar does all of these things on occasion (as I have just noted, the CAFT report, despite much of it being well written, is guilty of all three things). None of them are evidence of “unfitness” for a scholar. None of them are proven by looking solely at the extramural utterances of a professor.

The notion that a professor’s tweets are part of the “orbit” of his professional work is contrary to everything the AAUP has stated on extramural utterances in the past half-century. To impose academic standards of substance, evidence, and fair-mindedness on a 140-character tweet is absurd. Was Salaita supposed to put footnotes in his tweets, too? That’s why the CAFT report tosses in some nonsense language like “orbit.” Tweets are not scholarly work. So how can they be in the “orbit” of scholarly work? What does a scholarly “orbit” even mean? Where, in AAUP standards or University of Illinois Statutes, is there any mention of professional “orbits”?

The CAFT report is correct that “Unlike political speech, professional speech is held to professional standards of care.” The fundamental mistake they make is imagining that political speech in one’s extramural utterances becomes “professional speech” if it is somehow related to one’s scholarly work. That standard makes no sense, it poses an enormous threat to academic freedom, and it is completely contrary to AAUP standards and practices for the past 50 years.

According to the logic of the subcommittee, if two professors together write a letter to the editor criticizing the government, the math professor cannot be punished because it’s an extramural utterance, but the political science professor can be fired for the exact same letter because it’s “within the orbit of his professional writ.” What kind of logic does that represent?

The only kinds of extramural utterances that are subject to regulation under AAUP standards are those that give evidence of other kinds of academic misconduct. Tweeting, “I falsified data in my research” or “I always give bad grades to gay students” is subject to investigation even though it’s an extramural utterance because it speaks directly to the academic fitness of the person involved. A tweet is not transformed into scholarly work simply because it has some connection to the content of a scholar’s work.

Despite the CAFT report’s fundamental misunderstanding of extramural utterances and academic freedom, it correctly analyzes how the University of Illinois failed to follow due process and shared governance, and how the decision to dismiss Steven Salaita violated academic freedom and fundamental academic values. Unfortunately, its premise that further investigation of Salaita is needed or justified under AAUP standards is completely wrong.

4 thoughts on “What's Wrong (and Right) about the CAFT Report on Salaita

  1. The most incredibly distressing thing about this whole episode, is that the man doesn’t know his own history, nor the history of the Levant, and then he is going to teach the History of a People he has nothing in common with. His statements from a number of his writings says there is, and yet, there is not. In other words, this man was not qualified to teach in the area of his expertise, but in one that he had worse than none at all. He was not offered the position because his “stuff” demonstrated that he neither had Academic Integrity, nor the professional countenance to be a Professor at a relatively good school. And as a Tribal Member, I am glad he is not going to be teaching in a Native Studies Program. All we don’t need are his people’s propaganda being spread onto mine….

  2. Pingback: The Gang of Five Supporting Salaita’s Dismissal | The Academe Blog

  3. I have just now, belatedly, read the CAFT report and agree completely with this assessment of it. I was very impressed with the CAFT analysis until the point where the report makes what can only be characterized as a “bizarre” and “disturbing” turn which obscures and undermines the logic of its previously lucid argument.

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