The new issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom was released yesterday, including Cary Nelson’s much-anticipated essay. As an argument for firing Salaita, Nelson’s essay is a complete failure. Robert Warrior writes a response, but it’s unnecessary because nothing Nelson writes provides any evidence to justify Salaita’s dismissal. The bulk of the essay is devoted to Nelson’s unconvincing argument that Salaita as a scholar deserved a position at a lower-tier university, but not the University of Illinois. Who cares what Nelson thinks? I’m sure there are many scholars hired whom Nelson might regard as underqualified upon deep analysis, and many academic positions he feels should not exist. But none of those scholars are being dismissed for their political opinions, and Salaita was. The record is absolutely clear that Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees never read a word in Salaita’s books before deciding to fire him. So all of Nelson’s musings about Salaita’s books have nothing to do with the academic freedom case.
Instead, I want to focus on one deeply misguided aspect of academic freedom found in both Nelson’s essay and the essay by Don Eron. Eron and Nelson separately argue that expression related to one’s academic expertise is excluded from the AAUP’s protection of extramural utterances. This is very, very wrong.
Nelson writes, “I differ with the current leadership over the definition of extramural speech.” According to Nelson, “If he were tweeting about global warming, given his areas of research, the tweets would be extramural, effectively just public opinion. But Salaita’s tweets about Israel, says Nelson, are not extramural utterances because his academic work is about Israel.
Nelson claims, “The AAUP has also long made an exception where public statements are clearly related to a faculty member’s areas of teaching, research, and disciplinary expertise.” Nelson adds, “In jettisoning the long tradition of recognizing public statements based on academic expertise as part of a faculty member’s profile, AAUP’s current leaders are breaking with AAUP precedent.”
But Nelson doesn’t cite any examples of “AAUP precedent” or how it’s “long made an exception” for extramural utterances related to academic work. His only evidence is this: “As the quotation from Matthew Finkin and Robert Post that opens this essay argues, such statements are not properly considered extramural. And they are not protected from academic consequences because they are part of a faculty member’s professional profile. In hiring and promotion decisions, activity in social media related to a candidate’s teaching and research can be a component in decision making.” Even if Finkin and Post agree with Nelson, their personal views have nothing to do with AAUP policies.
According to Eron, “Whether Salaita’s speech is extramural is also significant because if he is making his statements outside the parameters of his job, he has the legal protections of the First Amendment.” That’s not true. He has legal protections of the First Amendment within the parameters of his job as well. Eron’s assertion that “First Amendment protections do not generally apply to the workplace” is not quite right. According to Eron, “That’s the main reason why academic freedom is so important—it provides teachers and scholars with protections for speech within the workplace that do not exist elsewhere.” Eron is simply assuming that academic freedom is not a right under the First Amendment, which the Supreme Court rejected in Keyishian and continues to reject.
Eron quotes the AAUP’s 2004 statement On Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications, which was revised in 2013 and had this line added to it: “the fundamental meaning of extramural speech, as a shorthand for speech in the public sphere and not in one’s area of academic expertise, fully applies to the realm of electronic communications, including social media.”
The context of this line is a defense of extramural utterances. The report rejects a literal distinction between “extramural” and “intramural,” in the sense that it argues for extramural utterances to be protected even if they occur on campus grounds.
But, yes, the segment of one sentence that says “not in one’s area of academic expertise,” is just wrong. I don’t know who tossed in that line, but it’s contrary to all AAUP doctrines, albeit not glaringly apparent in this context. However, it cannot be viewed as a meaningful amendment to AAUP doctrines. The line clearly refers to this idea as “shorthand” (meaning, an informal summary), and in that sense it’s not completely wrong. Typically, extramural utterances are indeed in the public sphere and not related to one’s academic expertise. However, this statement nowhere asserts that extramural utterances related to a professor’s academic expertise are not protected as extramural utterances.
Eron argues that another statement endorses this view of “intramural”:
Similarly, the most significant recent AAUP document that addresses extramural speech, the 2011 statement Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions argues that academic freedom, particularly when exercised through social media, must extend beyond intramural utterance, which “directly relates to an academic’s particular area of study.”
This is an inaccurate reading of that statement’s meaning. The full quote from the document is, “Nor would it make sense to permit on-campus freedom of expression only to the extent that it directly relates to an academic’s particular area of study.” The argument here is that colleges must allow full freedom of speech on and off campus, with the assumption that speech directly related to academic work is already protected on campus. This is an argument for fully protecting extramural speech, not an assertion that extramural speech related to an academic’s area of study should be limited.
It is simply wrong to claim that the AAUP has historically excluded extramural utterances related to academic work. In my essay for the Journal of Academic Freedom, I write about the case of Leo Koch, a biology instructor fired in 1960 by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for writing a letter to the student newspaper about student sexuality. The Koch case deeply divided traditionalists who believed that academic standards should be applied to extramural utterances, and free speech advocates who believed in total freedom for those utterances (whose views soon prevailed in the AAUP). But nobody ever doubted that Koch’s letter was an extramural utterance, even though human sexuality is arguably part of the academic work of a biology professor. I argue that the Koch case led to one of the greatest advances in academic freedom in the history of the AAUP, by declaring that extramural utterances don’t need to meet professional standards for excellent teaching or research. This freed professors to publicly express their opinions without fear of retribution. Eron and Nelson want to turn back the clock and make professors scared to open their mouths on anything they’re knowledgeable about.
Eron is notably the lead author of the important Colorado AAUP report on the firing of Ward Churchill. But if Eron’s theory of extramural utterances was accepted, then Churchill could have been fired solely for his idiotic blog post about 9/11 victims, since the issues of economic imperialism in that post were clearly related to Churchill’s academic work.
Historically, Eron and Nelson are dead wrong. The 1915 AAUP Declaration of Principles rejected the idea that for extramural utterances, “their freedom of speech, outside the university, should be limited to questions falling within their own specialties.” The AAUP took it for granted that ideas related to one’s academic work were protected under extramural utterances; they were arguing to expand it to all extramural utterances, even without academic expertise.
Most of the leading early academic freedom cases dealt with extramural utterances, and virtually all of them involved speech directly related to a professor’s academic expertise. Economist Edward Ross was fired by Stanford because of his extramural views about economics, and the same happened to Edward Bemis at the University of Chicago. Scott Nearing was fired by the University of Pennsylvania’s business school because of his extramural utterances about railroad interests, which were directly related to his academic field of economics.
The 1916 AAUP report on the Nearing case declared,
The committee is accordingly compelled to conclude that at least a contributory cause of Dr. Nearing’s removal was the opposition of certain persons outside the University to the views, upon questions within his own field of study, expressed by him in his extra-mural addresses.
I think this is definitive in proving that the original intent of the AAUP in protecting extramural utterances was to include utterances within the professor’s area of expertise. “Extramural” for the AAUP refers to utterances outside of one’s teaching and research work, not to the content of those utterances.
One aim of the AAUP was to make the professoriate more influential in public policy debates by protecting them from punishment for expressing their views on legislation and social issues. Although the AAUP wanted to protect all extramural utterances by professors, their primary concern was to defend the right of faculty to speak publicly on matters related to their academic expertise. Nelson and Eron’s theory, if adopted, would be the worst disaster for academic freedom in the AAUP’s history because so many cases where professors are fired involve extramural utterances related to their academic area, and it would have a terrible chilling effort on faculty speech.