Why Nelson Is Wrong about Salaita

Cary Nelson has an essay at InsideHigherEd today (along with Michael Rothberg) on the Salaita case. Here’s my comment on Nelson’s piece.

First, I must note that absolutely nothing in Nelson’s essay is relevant to the actual reasons given by the chancellor and the trustees for firing Salaita. They have never questioned Salaita’s academic credentials, and they have been explicit that the only reason they fired Salaita was because his controversial tweets violated their personal standards of civility. So Nelson’s suggestions have nothing to do with the Salaita case; it is only relevant to hypothetical future cases where an administration tries to conceal its actual reasons for revoking a controversial hire. That being said, Nelson’s ideas are terrible and represent an incredible threat to academic freedom.

Nelson endorses the idea that “an authority in anti-Semitism should have reviewed Salaita’s publications.” I can scarcely imagine anything more dangerous to academic freedom or more likely to lead to politically-based hiring instead of academic standards. Since there’s no unbiased way to do this review selectively, it seems logical that a “bigotry consultant” should examine all the publications (and apparently, the social media) of every proposed hire to determine if they harbor any attitudes deemed racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Islam, anti-Christian, anti-atheist, or anti-anything. Is this what Nelson imagines as the way to promote academic rather than political standards?

Nelson claims that “the program acted out of political solidarity and proposed an appointment that was more political than academic.” Nelson offers zero evidence to support this extraordinary accusation. He seems to assume that the hiring of a scholar whose views he dislikes is a “political” hire.

Nelson also seems to be smearing interdisciplinary and comparative scholarship. Nelson complains that Salaita had “only” one book focusing on Native Americans, and that therefore the rest of his academic work should be dismissed, making anyone with interdisciplinary interests effectively banned from most academic hires. Unable to offer a convincing claim that Salaita was unqualified for the position, Nelson then argues that it was illegitimate to hire for a position in “comparative indigeneity.” Even if Nelson were an expert in the field (he isn’t) and even if his attack on comparative positions was correct (it isn’t), the proper place to raise these objections is before the position is posted and a hire is approved.

Nelson concludes by asking a series of questions I would like to answer:

What kinds of criteria are appropriate to a search process, as opposed to a tenure decision?

The same criteria: academic criteria.

What role might a major presence on social media within a candidate’s research and teaching areas play in evaluating a job candidate?

None, unless they are part of their teaching or research record.

How does academic freedom bear on evaluating either a job candidate’s publications or public statements about his or her areas of research?

Academic freedom protects all extramural statements, including those on a candidate’s areas of research.

What role should political solidarity play in seeking outside reviewers for a faculty appointment?

None. But the existence of political solidarity does not disqualify outside reviewers.

What questions should college and university reviews pose for problematic proposed hires?

The same questions as any other proposed hires.

Does a Board of Trustees have any meaningful role in the awarding of tenure?

No. The Board of Trustees can ensure that universities follow the proper process, as they clearly did in the Salaita case, but the Board cannot make academic judgments or substitute their hiring preferences for those of the faculty.

Nelson’s rationalizations are, like those of the University of Illinois administration and trustees, simply camoulflage to justify a politically-motivated firing of someone he hates. But if his ideas were implemented they would pose a severe threat to academic freedom, academic standards, and faculty control of the hiring process.

2 thoughts on “Why Nelson Is Wrong about Salaita

  1. And here is the comment that I just posted on insidehighered in response to Nelson’s piece:

    Once again Nelson falsely charges that members of the AAUP national staff and its Committee A have claimed that Salaita was the victim of “Jewish donors.” At the AAUP’s annual membership meeting he went so far as to charge unnamed members of both the staff and Committee A with being motivated by “anti-Israel” bias. This is simply not the case at all and Nelson should either provide concrete evidence that it is or cease his slander of the Association. AAUP’s investigative report on the Salaita case makes no accusations at all about donor influence, Jewish or otherwise, and the organization takes no position at all on the Israel-Palestine dispute. As we have made repeatedly clear, our censure of the UIUC administration was based solely on its summary dismissal of and denial of due process to Professor Salaita and its consequent violations of AAUP principles of academic freedom and tenure.

    On another level, there is probably not a faculty member in the country who does not believe that some colleague should not have been hired or tenured. And in more than a handful of cases, those faculty members may be correct. So what? Such beliefs are inevitable in a university with a diversity of disciplinary approaches and viewpoints.

  2. If Nelson wants to apply those criteria to Salaita, what about taking a look at Chancellor Wise’s own actions — http://retractionwatch.com/2014/10/09/u-illinois-chancellor-earns-mega-correction-for-duplicate-publication/ — i.e., unhire her for actions which, for a scientist, are not merely suspect but are in fact completely unconscionable.

    Regarding AAUP and accusations of Jewish donors, I have to say that I’ve looked very very hard at the documents the AAUP has produced and, while I don’t agree in terms of extent of investigation, I’ve NEVER seen the rich donor story recounted by the AAUP. Nelson may well (correctly) believe that members of the AAUP feel that narrative about Jewish donors is correct — but admixing the official statements of the AAUP with that of its members is not appropriate.

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