Does the AAUP Defend the Academic Freedom of Pro-Israel Faculty as We’ve Defended Steven Salaita?

Shortly after the AAUP’s annual membership meeting placed the administration of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) on its list of censured administration for its summary dismissal of Professor Steven Salaita in response to his anti-Israeli comments on Twitter, I received an email from an old friend from the California State University Academic Senate, who now works to build support for Israel on American college and university campuses.  The email included an appeal from an organization called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) to sign a petition condemning the behavior of a number of administrators and faculty at Connecticut College, who allegedly were complicit in “a mob attack against Andrew Pessin, a Jewish professor who openly advocates for Israel.”

“I am sending this to you in the hope that Committee A and the AAUP will be just as outraged about this as they were about Salaita,” my friend wrote.  “Based on all that you discussed at  the business meeting this is an even clearer case of abridgment of academic freedom and freedom of speech.”

Here’s what happened:  On August 11 of last year, during the Israeli military action in Gaza, Professor Pessin, who teaches philosophy, posted an entry on his Facebook page that described the situation in Gaza as one in which “a rabid pit bull is chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.” In Gaza, according to the post, the conflict is a cycle of giving the dog a chance by letting it out of its cage, only to have to put the pit bull back in the cage when it snarls and goes for the owner’s throat.  The post went largely unnoticed (at least beyond Pessin’s own circle of Facebook friends) until February when Lamiya Khandaker, a sophomore who took his intro to philosophy class without incident last Fall, sent Pessin an email complaining about the post.  Khandaker suggested that she found the post racist. Pessin clarified in response that he was not referring to Palestinians in general, but to Hamas and why its behavior provides a rationale for the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Nevertheless, he wrote, “if my analogy inadvertently invites that overly literal misunderstanding then I am truly sorry and surely need to be more careful, and I’ve taken the post down.”

Then, a few weeks later, the student newspaper published three letters accusing Pessin of racism.  The letters, published without a prior opportunity for Pessin to respond, acknowledged that he has a right to free speech. But they also called on the administration to make underrepresented students feel more comfortable by condemning Pessin’s views. How can the university support its diversity goals, the students asked, if it won’t call racist language what it is?  One letter, by Khandaker, acknowledged that she was never mistreated in any way by Pessin as his student, but denounced him as a hateful racist anyway whose speech was not “acceptable.”  The final piece, by students Michael Fratt and Katilyn Garbe, claimed that “Professor Pessin directly condoned the extermination of a people” and called for the university to discipline him.

Pessin, acting on advice from university administrators, in turn wrote a letter to the editor further apologizing for the Facebook post. The apology, rather than ending the matter, was interpreted by some campus activists as an admission of guilt.  The storm that ensued included letters of condemnation directed at Pessin by several academic departments and heated exchanges on social media between critics and defenders of Pessin.  The escalating controversy was soon the subject of an article in Inside Higher Ed and the subject of two posts sympathetic to Pessin by George Mason University Law Professor David Bernstein on the Washington Post-sponsored blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.

Although this case involves Facebook and not Twitter, the parallel with the Salaita case is clear.  Like Salaita, Pessin posted a comment on social media about the Gaza conflict that others found offensive and racist.  Condemnation and controversy followed.  But there the parallel, I think, ends.  For one thing, while university officials and some of his colleagues may have acted in less than admirable ways, nothing suggests — and certainly the petition from SPME does not even charge — that Pessin was ever subject to university discipline.  Here is some of what I wrote back to my friend:

Had the university sought to discipline Prof. Pessin for this post in any manner, and especially if it had done so without the protections of due process to which his status should entitle him, the AAUP would likely have tried to take up the case in some manner, were we asked to do so.  Whether it would have risen to the level of a formal investigation would depend on many other factors, . . . but if there were efforts to discipline him this would have been, so to speak, as much in our wheelhouse as the Salaita case.

. . . while it is no doubt unfortunate that Prof. Pessin has been subjected to the unfair sort of vilification described in what I’ve read, that is not the sort of thing in and of itself that the AAUP takes up.  By comparison, while some of Salaita’s supporters have focused on the public campaign against him waged by donors, some pro-Israel activists, and others — and I’m sure he too has been the recipient of more than a few abusive hate messages — this was barely mentioned in the AAUP report.  Our concern is not that there are people who want to attack him and who may or may not distort his views; it is with the actions of the administration against him.  Had they, for instance, simply disassociated the institution from his tweets or even just asked him to make an apology (as apparently Connecticut did with Pessin), we would likely not have been involved at all.

The point, of course, is that academic freedom should protect a faculty member’s right to what we in AAUP call “extramural expression,” that is comments and statements made by that faculty member as a citizen.  But academic freedom cannot and should not protect that faculty member from criticism, fair or unfair, of such expression.  To be sure, there are cases — too many of them, in fact — where public criticism takes the form of organized campaigns of abuse and coordinated demands on administrations to take punitive action.  These should be opposed.  And one might well believe that the students and faculty who took public umbrage at Prof. Pessin engaged in such a campaign.

However, the same can clearly be said of some of Pessin’s defenders.  The SPME email bemoans the fact that “the Administration has not publicly reprimanded the responsible students or removed any of the defamatory materials still available to the public.”  Then, in an email no doubt widely circulated, probably to thousands of recipients or more, the group identifies and condemns four students by name.  The email goes on to claim that “the campus administration has done nothing to hold these students accountable for their moral and legal transgressions, but they have PROMOTED and HONORED the offending parties.”  And of what did such promotion consist?  Sponsoring a campus forum and opening the floor to criticism of Prof. Pessin.  In other words, the SPME would have us respond to the alleged attempt to silence Pessin with a campaign to similarly silence — and discipline — his critics, mainly students.

Then there is the story of Professor Jonathan Judaken, which he recounted earlier this month on Inside Higher Ed.  Here’s some of what he wrote:

Let me tell you how I ended up on Jihad Watch. This is a tale of the new red scare wending its way across college campuses. More than an account of my own travails, this is an anatomy of how critical thought about Islam and Judaism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism is today monitored in the academy with the goal of chilling reflection.

In March, at the University of Rochester, I gave a lecture entitled “Judeophobia and Islamophobia” in which I sought to consider the links between Muslims and Jews in contemporary European and American discourse and put it into historical perspective. In attendance was an appointed watchdog for Campus Watch, A. J. Caschetta, a lecturer in English at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

In May, he published his “report” of my talk on the website of the Middle East Forum. It was a pastiche of falsehoods, innuendos and quotes out of context, entirely obfuscating what I actually said. I was accused of maintaining that Islamophobia has replaced Judeophobia, an indefensible position given the rising tide of anti-Semitism globally. It was also alleged that I deny the history of Islamic Judeophobia historically and at present. These charges stem from the fact that I sought to consider the two forms of hatred in tandem. . . .

I had a sense something had happened in the blogosphere when I began to receive anti-Islamic hate mail in my inbox, and requests for the lecture from as far away as Sydney, Australia. This happened because Campus Watch flies its flag under the auspices of the Middle East Forum, a well-financed initiative under the leadership of Daniel Pipes that monitors Middle East studies in the academy.

Campus Watch is part of a network of networks, including StandWithUs, AMCHAInitiative, the David Horowitz Freedom Center and most recently Canary Mission, linked to groups like Jihad Watch. Jihad Watch and these other fora send daily blasts to all those who sign up to receive them on their websites and use email and social media to share their message. Within this self-referential set of bubbles, each consumes the propaganda of their fellow warriors in what they describe as a war for hearts and minds. College campuses are thus key strategic territory in the battle since this is where young minds are shaped. . . .

Ideology, as [Hannah] Arendt suggested, is underpinned by an ahistorical belief in the truth of your understanding of the motor of history. Ideology critique is what some corners of the academy offer at its best. This is precisely why the new McCarthyism monitors its lecture halls with watchdogs. The Campus Watchers don’t want students to reevaluate and reframe the latest well-worn clichés. But not doing so stokes hate speech, and this can feed violence.

So what do I tell the members of my synagogue, fellow parents at the Jewish day school my kids attend, my colleagues in Jewish studies associations in America and Europe about why I ended up on Jihad Watch? I tell them the new McCarthyism has arrived.

[UPDATE: On July 2, Professor Caschetta published a response to Professor Judaken’s essay, which can be read here: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/07/02/essay-responds-charge-mccarthyism-about-treatment-lecture]

Let me be clear: I am indeed outraged at the seemingly unfair treatment of Prof. Pessin, but I am also outraged by the treatment of his critics by SPME and the treatment of Professor Judaken.  However, in none of these cases have AAUP’s principles been violated.

The conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians has gone on for decades with, sad to say, little sign of any end — good or bad — in sight.  It is a conflict that regularly erupts in terrible violence, with innocent victims on both sides to spare.  Little wonder then that it inspires passionate and impatient advocacy and that debates over its origins, its nature, and potential solutions can become heated and intolerant.  As academics we are challenged to bring the cool dispassion of reasoned argument and respectful discussion to such debates.  It is regrettable that too many on both sides of this dispute fail to take up that challenge.  But such failures must not be construed as violations of academic freedom.  Even those whose expression we may bemoan are entitled to protection.

With respect to “extramural expression” the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, declared:

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

In 1970, an interpretive comment was appended to this passage.  Quoting the 1964 Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances, the comment concluded that “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. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”  In this light, the 1940 Statement‘s call for restraint has subsequently been seen as mainly hortatory, rather than prescriptive.

Last Fall, in the wake of the Salaita dismissal and comments from a number of college and university presidents about “civility,” former AAUP President Cary Nelson published a “Civility Manifesto” on Inside Higher Ed, which prompted a response from me.  In my response I took issue with Nelson’s apparent contention that supporters of the pro-Palestinian BDS movement were largely responsible for the “corrosive effect” of the Israel-Palestine dispute on both the campus climate and the state of academic freedom.  I argued instead that

the situation is more complicated. Elements on both sides invoke the protections of academic freedom and the First Amendment when it benefits them and violate these when it doesn’t. . . .  More important, the two sides are not in equivalent positions. Although support for the Palestinian cause is greater on American campuses than in society in general, those who control the universities — administrators and trustees as well as powerful donors — are most likely to support the Israeli cause. The expressive weapons of those in power and those without power almost always differ. It is usually the powerless whose voices must be shrill, who may break rules to be heard, who, in short, may be uncivil. Civility, however, can be a privilege of the powerful, whose control over institutions often leads them to silence opponents instead of engaging them.

But on one point I did and still do agree with Nelson when he wrote:

Academic freedom does indeed protect both current faculty members and students from institutional reprisals for deplorable speech. But it was never intended to protect people from criticism for what they write and say. Uncivil students and faculty at a university should not be punished.

And such punishment, not personal vilification or campaigns of condemnation, was what led the AAUP to censure the UIUC administration for its summary dismissal of Steven Salaita and would, likely have led to the same result had that Administration or any other one taken a similar action against a pro-Israeli faculty member like Professor Pessin.

6 thoughts on “Does the AAUP Defend the Academic Freedom of Pro-Israel Faculty as We’ve Defended Steven Salaita?

  1. I’ve worked with SJP students at UIUC for years. There’s never been a hint of incivility in any of their activities or events, a lot of which I’ve attended. Yet Cary Nelson is running around the country and to Israel implying that he himself is somehow oppressed or intimidated or persecuted on this campus. Not only is this nonsense, but if anything the shoe is on the other foot. Nelson’s views have been represented by the attack dog editor Jim Dey of the News-Gazette, who denigrates and vilifies activist students of any leftist stripe. But I fully support Nelson making a complete jackass out of himself. He’s deluded regarding his expertise on the Middle East, and he’s pathetic. If anyone is being uncivil and intimidating, not to mention ignorant and racist, that’s Nelson. But let him keep it up; he only discredits himself and his “cause.” There’s going to be a lot of crashing and burning at UIUC in the coming months, and I plan to enjoy the full, unedited and unsuppressed version.

  2. @Hank

    I agree with the distinction you are making between Salaita and Pessen were I to believe that Salaita had actually been fired (the facts prove the opposite).

    The rest of your comment about shrill I couldn’t disagree more. Its been a lot of years since I taught. As mathematicians every semester we had to help students cross over from practice (the engineering based undergrad courses) to theory. Which means we had to get students to believe in their minds, in their hearts and in their intuition to believe that the intuitive ideas that they have developed as a young child, through primary and secondary school and often in the early years of college are incorrect. That’s fighting an institutional power — virtually everyone else their age and virtually everyone else in the country believes things to be not just true but so intuitively obvious that only an idiot could disagree, and yet in the face of that they need to learn to disagree with with that position. We don’t do this by being shrill. Not ever. We do it by patiently showing them counterexamples to their intuition empathizing with their state of mind and then reconstructing their intuition in line with correct thought. We tear them down and build them up, but we don’t scream at them, intimidate them, harass them, racial or religiously humiliate them or any of the other behaviors that the faculty in SJP/BDS group engages in and you are making apology for.

    There is no excuse for an academic to ever be shrill or unkind. The BDS supporters don’t have the support of the vast majority of Americans because they have a terribly weak case. They can’t engage in a calm reasoned factual debate because the facts are not on their side. When asked to answer the most basic questions about their program they can’t begin to answer. All they can do is screech insults. They don’t screech because otherwise they can’t be heard, they screech because they have nothing of substance to say. That’s not because of a power imbalance but because of the nature of the BDS/SJP ideology. At my daughter’s school there is a turf club that advocates the advantages of turf over grass, a very unpopular position. Yet those students are able to be calm and reasoned not shrill in presenting their belief in the advantages of turf.

    • 1) Neither Salaita nor Pessin have been accused of using unkind language to students. Both were criticized for personal expressions as citizens made on social media.
      2) Not only does my post not “apologize” for the “SPJ/BDS group,” it does not even mention either of those organizations.
      3) As to the Israel-Palestine debate, “shrill” or not, I will simply repeat what I wrote above: “As academics we are challenged to bring the cool dispassion of reasoned argument and respectful discussion to such debates. It is regrettable that too many on both sides of this dispute fail to take up that challenge. But such failures must not be construed as violations of academic freedom. Even those whose expression we may bemoan are entitled to protection.”

      • @Hank

        1) Salaita is a leader organizations involved in multiple anti-Jewish hate rallies on and near college campuses. He’s gone well beyond saying unkind things and repeatedly tried to incite violence against them. His books are loaded with unkind statements (blistering hatred would be more accurate) towards Jewish students. The only potential question is to what extent does he say those things directly to Jewish student’s faces in classrooms, rather then just train and direct his followers to say them everywhere else. We’ll have to hear if there are complaints of his in classroom misconduct at trial, I’m not convince the answer is no. He’s a hate group leader, of course he says unkind things to students. The only question is how often does he do so directly.

        2) Then who are you talking about needing to be shrill? What groups?

        3) I agree with you that rude and hateful speech is entitled to protection. But it is not entitled to approval. Ethnic hatred is not a political. I was critiquing your failure to bemoan ethnic hatred by pretending that was an ancillary issue to otherwise well reasoned case.

  3. Pingback: Repercussions of the Salaita Case | The Academe Blog

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