Disavow the "Sacred" 1940 Statement Civility Test: Remember Steven Salaita!

It is time for a direct and specific disavowal of a key component of the sacred text of the AAUP: the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Most genuflect before its presence as either the Magna Carta of higher ed, the common law of the profession, the great classic document of academic freedom and praise its endorsement by some 250 different organisations and societies. To criticise the 1940 Statement is almost akin to apostasy, and defaming a holy text. I have never seen a statement on an AAUP-sponsored platform criticise the statement. I am sure, since you are reading this, it is not due to censorship but perhaps due to self-love and self-censorship.

The 1940 Statement, while certainly commendable in many areas, requires when engaging in extramural utterances (public advocacy), that professors “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.” This paternalistic, civility standard arrogantly defines how professors should behave when engaging in extramural utterances. This is an existential threat to academic freedom which I encountered directly on my campus, and have seen it invoked on other campuses in Illinois.

Oh, remember, on your next 142-character tweet, make sure you also incorporate a disclaimer that you are not speaking for your institution. If you are interviewed by the media, make sure you bow your head and say, “I am not speaking for my university. I am not the president, provost, academic vice president, nor am I a member of the governing board. Before we begin, may I reiterate I am not speaking for my university.” Yes I have seen AAUP disavowal of the impracticality of disclaimers, but not the overall civility test that hovers over the academy.

For all I know, this gratuitous, civility test first appeared in the 1925 Conference Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure. When the solons met in 1940 to formalise finally the Coolidge Era document, they must have reaffirmed that paternalism in commanding adults with advanced degrees, to behave as gentlemen and gentlewomen. Repeatedly for seventy-five years, AAUP has tried to distance itself from its self-inflicted wound of an ex cathedra civility test before academic freedom is tolerated.

Before the ink was dry on the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP knew something was amiss. The sponsors of the 1940 Statement issued an oops, follow-up “interpretation” that meekly stated, if an administration believed “extramural utterances …raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness,” it should “assume full responsibility,” and that the AAUP is “free” to investigate. That’s hardly an assertion of faculty rights, or an effective modification of the civility test.

Then a quarter century later, the AAUP, for the second time, tried to plug this lacuna in the protection of academic freedom. In 1964, the mercifully short and concise, Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances appeared. It repeats the vague “fitness” standard, and is minimally effective in challenging the capacity to dismiss professors on the basis of comportment. One may presumably make a mistake, evoke emotion and display passion as long as an academician is not construed as psychotic, incompetent and unable to discharge the duties of teaching, service and scholarship. The so-called fitness standard is reactive to the civility test. It does not remove it. It is hopelessly vague, and administrations have gleefully cited the AAUP good-manners test to destroy academic freedom, and persecute professors as if Senator Joe McCarthy were alive, living and well on campus.

Has anyone heard of Steven G. Salaita? Has anyone heard of the AAUP censure of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that took place last June? Steven Salaita was fired for a perceived lack of civility. His academic executioners, in a display of raw arbitrary diktat, concluded his passion and emotion demonstrated a lack of fitness to teach in an impartial manner. They alleged he was so harshly critical of Israel during the Gaza war last year, that he would treat Jewish students in a prejudicial manner. That is why Chancellor Phyllis Wise fired him, and, although, the fired chancellor tried to backpedal from imposing a civility standard, Dr Salaita has not been rehired or reinstated. Did the 1940 Statement contribute to his summary dismissal? Maybe, but I do know in Illinois, administrations have used a civility test to dismiss tenured and non-tenured faculty from Norman Finkelstein’s alleged violation of Vincentian values to Dr. Salaita. Why give DePaul, U. of I. and other academic-freedom deniers even more fodder to engage in viewpoint cleansing?

For the third time in 1970, the AAUP tried to distance itself from the absolutism of the civility test. The 1940 Statement was revised with nine so-called “interpretive comments.” The fourth interpretive comment includes the 1964 Statement on Extramural Utterances, and attempts to repair once again the damage of the 1940 Statement by stating public advocacy “rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness.”

What is needed, if the AAUP is serious about its opposition to civility tests, is to produce, but make it brief, another Redbook statement that directly eliminates a civility test. Having a fitness standard is an honourable but ineffectual rejoinder to this problem. Trying to harness the civility test to fitness is no longer adequate. The only solution is to remove altogether the civility test. If folks like civility, as I do, fine, but not as an authoritarian standard in the AAUP’s most sacred, “biblical” text. For those who believe the civility-test specifics are unexceptionable, here is a direct critique:

“[A]t all times be accurate.” Errors are frequent in human expression, and beware of the “fact checkers.” It is one thing to mislead intentionally and engage in libel, which academic freedom would not protect. It is another to be human and to err. To state that a mistake, in an extramural utterance, whether incidental or major, could be grounds for dismissal, and the destruction of an academic career, is unacceptable with or without the fitness loophole.

“Should exercise appropriate restraint.” Risible nonsense. The battle for critical thinking, and the pursuit of the truth is hardball. This is not a pillow fight in protecting professors who rabidly and emotionally denounce war, a foreign country, their own country, administrative incompetence or lack of shared governance, homophobia and the like. Folks may lose their temper in an email or on Twitter and Facebook. Requiring “appropriate restraint” is demeaning and insulting. Academic freedom fighters can ignore it, but it is there, staring us in the face…and Dr Salaita is teaching in Beirut!

“Should show respect for the opinions of others.” This is as absurd as the previous behavioural mandate. Some opinions do not merit respect, but mocking, sarcastic, mordant and scathing criticism. Some opinions and actions are so antithetical to human rights and dignity, that neither the opinion nor the individual uttering them deserves respect or civility. Example: Dr Ben Carson proclaiming that a Muslim should not be president.

While the United States Constitution was a pro-slavery document that reaffirmed the institution of slavery in three distinct areas, it was later amended or by-passed by subsequent events. The actual words supporting slavery are literally still in the document. While one cannot actually cleanse the civility test from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP can begin the conversation, and the actions necessary to render it moot and no longer in effect. A specific suggestion is to revise the 1964 Statement on Extramural Utterances. Strengthen the well-meaning but defenciveness of a fitness standard, by disavowing a civility test in the first place.

10 thoughts on “Disavow the "Sacred" 1940 Statement Civility Test: Remember Steven Salaita!

  1. While I am largely ignorant of the statement made by the AAUP in 1940, your narrative suggests (and there seem to be many instances as you suggest) that the civil rights of faculty have been trampled upon when this codified language of the AAUP is applied in a seemingly less than appropriate fashion.

    And while I am by no means a scholar of the law, my lay understanding is that any principle applied in a manner that violates our civil rights becomes unlawful at the point it infringes on those rights, even if that principle also happens to be a state or federal statute.

    For faculty encountering this circumstance, it may therefore be appropriate to pursue protection of ones civil rights via appropriate judicial processes. My thinking is that were even one faculty member successful in that endeavor, then subsequent litigation could force the AAUP to redact this statement- no matter its intent. Obviously this sort of litigation would be prohibitively costly, but organizations such as the ACLU might consider providing pro bono services under a civil rights action.

  2. You make some good points. Some have said the civility-test is merely a suggested code of conduct. Others have said administrations cannot invoke it in an arbitrary manner. Some have said, don’t worry, a demonstrable unfitness to be an academician sets a very high standard of academic freedom protection. Why create a standard to mitigate the injurious impact of an unnecessary standard in the first place?

  3. “They alleged he was so harshly critical of Israel during the Gaza war last year, that he would treat Jewish students in a prejudicial manner.”

    Well! We can’t have professors being treated badly simply because they are likely to treat Jewish students badly!

      • Isn’t the story that people did not even consider Salaita’s views about Jews? The tweets and what he wrote say he would treat Jews who don’t tow the JVP line poorly which is in fact what happens at many campuses where tenured professors do that.

        I have no clue what you mean by false unsubstantiated allegations. There has been no one denying he wrote the tweets and wrote what he has about Israel and Jews who support Israel. If he had thus twee
        ted and written about a different minority, people would not be circling the wagons to defend him.

      • What effective record? He was being pushed out of Virginia Tech at the time he got the job at UIUC. Salaita is effective as an activist with a leadership position in a hate group. His academic record doesn’t show anything outstanding.

        As Cary Nelson has pointed out in his purely academic writings he was either willfully lied about history or shown remarkable ignorance about history. At Virginia he either lied or did a truly shoddy job in his literary analysis of Rebirth and Destiny.

  4. I agree that the 1940 language is deeply flawed and badly abused. The problem is that it was enacted with the AAC&U and quoted in many college documents. So the AAUP can’t unilaterally change it and still affect those words. But the 1970 Interpretive Comments were brilliant because they reinterpreted the 1940 words to provide much greater protection of academic freedom. It would be good for the AAUP to issue a statement about civility and clarify the fact that the 1970 Interpretive Comments effectively overturn the 1940’s civility restrictions.

  5. Peter it is not even possible for Universities to offer the sort of blanket protection you are asking for. Just to pick a recent example from a film based on a true story. In 1982 there was a conversation about a guy who wouldn’t sell a sporting goods store to an associate of a mobster. The mobster asked “would his widow sell?” The associate said “yes” the mobster nodded to another gangster and 4 days later the owner of the sporting good store was found dead in the trunk of his car. Even though the mobster had no other involvement beyond the comment and nod the mobster was easily convicted of 2nd degree murder.

    Now if that had Professor Bulger and not Longshoreman and bar owner Bulger that had made the “would his widow sell” comment the result would be the same. Were the University employing Professor Bulger institutionally support such an activity that would still be racketeering.

    The AAUP exists in America. American law has civility standards on speech.


    And just to point out your blindness here on this case. The one example of unworthy comments you gave is Ben Carson’s about Muslims. Ben Carson asserted Islam was fundamentally in conflict with USA values and thus a religious muslim would be unfit for cabinet level position (and at a later date when further questioned he included the office of President). We don’t disagree that’s a bigoted statement.

    However it is worth noting that Ben Carson never even hinted that Muslims should be allowed to rule in Saudi Arabia or Malaysia. Steven Salaita by way of contrast went much further. Salaita’s belief is essentially that Jews are so intrinsically pernicious that any political body they form is inherently illegitimate and thus should be opposed anywhere in the world. That’s a level of religious bigotry far in excess of anything Ben Carson said or hinted at. Ben Carson’s comment while incorrect is situational, Salaita’s is not situational at all. Moreover Carson’s comments were just an aside. A not very carefully thought through opinion. Salaita has made anti-Jewish activism his life’s calling. His hatred does not arise out of ignorance.

    If Ben Carson doesn’t win higher office, which seems likely and takes a professorship a Professor Ben Carson isn’t likely to be empowered to decide if Muslims are going to be in the cabinet or not. Professor Salaita would have been in the position to harm Jewish students due to his belief in their inherent evil nature.

    I cannot understand how you can think Carson’s comments are unworthy of even polite refutation while Salaita’s much worse comments about Jews should not just be respected but rewarded with lifetime employment.

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