The Debate Over Salaita and “No Means No”

The debate over the firing of Steven Salaita is not over. The criticism of the University of Illinois continues, although many defenders of the chancellor and trustees wish people would stop talking about it.

The Campus Faculty Association has started a petition calling for the U of I to follow the recommendations of the CAFT Report to appoint a committee about Salaita’s qualifications.

Susan Kruth at FIRE wrote about the University of Illinois trustees announcement that they will never reconsider the firing of Steven Salaita, “This outcome is sure to chill faculty discussions on a range of important topics.” According to Kruth, “All universities, but particularly public institutions like UIUC, should affirm that there is no right not to be offended, and that professors must remain free to explore controversial ideas even when others may find them hurtful.”

An analogous case to Salaita has occurred at Vanderbilt University, where Carol Swain sparked protest and condemnation by denouncing all Muslims. Swain wrote in a newspaper column about the Charlie Hebdo murders: “What horrendous attack would finally convince us that Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration?”

Unlike Steven Salaita (who never denounced Jews or Judaism), Swain openly condemned an entire religion. And she should be free to do so, even if her logic is deeply flawed. Obviously, if a terrorist act committed in the name of a religion means that we should condemn the entire religion as dangerous, then we would all have to condemn Christianity in the wake of the assassination of George Tiller by a Christian terrorist.

The key difference between Swain and Salaita is that, although both were condemned by their respective administrations, Swain has a job and Salaita doesn’t. But neither should be punished, even if it is understandable that Muslim students might wonder if Swain could treat them fairly in her classes. Swain’s extramural utterances deserve the very same protection as Salaita’s. (Or, to be more precise, Salaita deserves the same protection for his opinions that Swain’s far worse statement clearly have.)

Unfortunately, the crusade against Salaita has now become a crusade for everyone to shut up about it. Yesterday, the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette published an editorial calling for discussion of the Salaita case to end and concluding the editorial with this repulsive analogy: “It’s a common refrain on college campuses that ‘no means no.’ The Salaita matter may yet undermine that valid claim.” I can understand why the News-Gazette opposes academic freedom. But I can’t understand how anyone could possibly compare criticizing trustees to sexual assault. No, denouncing the trustees is not the equivalent of raping them. Comparing intellectual debate to sexual assault is an insult to victims of rape, and it’s an insult to every thinking reader of the newspaper.

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