Salaita case being used as tool in larger battle over administrative power and faculty self-governance.
(WAJ Note: This is a GUEST POST regarding an attempt by some Syracuse University faculty to pass a faculty Senate resolution supporting Steven Salaita, who was denied a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. We are running this Guest Post because such resolutions have been or are being brought at many universities, and the Syracuse experience sheds light on the process.)
On November 5, Syracuse University’s (SU) University Senate voted for the second time to table a resolution that calls on the administration of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (UI-UC) to either honor the contract of Dr. Steven Salaita, the former Virginia Tech associate professor who posted noxious anti-Semitic rants to Twitter for months before and during this summer’s Israel-Hamas war, or “to demonstrate, via AAUP recognized procedures of academic due process, that termination is warranted”.
The resolution in question wasn’t actually written by any SU faculty.
It’s a template that’s currently circulating broadly on various American campuses, endorsed (primarily, I believe) by well-meaning and principled higher education professionals who’ve been led to think that, by denying Dr. Salaita’s job offer, UI-UC’s Chancellor Wise and its Board of Trustees “assaulted” Salaita’s academic freedom.
It turns out that SU’s resolution came by way of Louisiana State University (LSU), which as it happens just the day before defeated in a split decision vote a substantially revised pro-Salaita resolution (reports claim that LSU faculty devoted three months of meetings to revising the initial document introduced at SU).
My sense is that at SU, and on other campuses, these resolutions are being introduced not just to support Salaita but as part of a larger effort to recalibrate the relationship between the faculty and the administration. Faculty don’t much like it when university CEOs overturn the preceding reviews of faculty bodies lower down the chain, like departments and search committees. In today’s university climate, when many faculty are sick and tired of Chancellors and Trustees running roughshod over shared governance, pro-Salaita resolutions will have broad appeal precisely because they are construed as vehicles for committing administrators to “fairness and transparency in all academic procedures and practices, including faculty hires and other labor practices”.
The Backstory at Syracuse University
This resolution first came before SU’s University Senate on October 8, when it was tabled in order to provide more faculty—especially non-senators—the opportunity to consider it.
Most faculty who would have had concerns and reservations about the resolution didn’t even know such a document existed until they read about it on the day of the Senate meeting in a front-page story published in the SU student newspaper.
To their credit, the resolution’s sponsors readily agreed to postpone until the subsequent University Senate meeting. In this interval, faculty from across the campus exchanged emails and met together to compile a list of dissenting opinions, along with constructive feedback on how the resolution might be re-written. These memos were shared with the resolution’s sponsors, and with a select group of senators who were interested in learning more about the resolution’s pros and cons.
To our disappointment, despite considerable opposition to the resolution, and a friendly face-to-face dialogue on common ground and areas of disagreement, the sponsors were ultimately unwilling to either withdraw or revise the document in light of these mounting criticisms.
Consequently, the resolution presented to the Senate on November 5 was the same version introduced previously on October 8.
Three lessons can be learned from our experience.
First: keep an eye on the faculty senate agenda.
Unless they are senators, most faculty are too busy to pay much attention to what’s going on in the university’s most important deliberative body. This nonchalance is a mistake that we learned the hard way.
The sponsors of the pro-Salaita resolution on the SU campus kindly agreed to hold it up until more faculty could learn about the resolution. We got lucky. Faculty sponsors of similar resolutions on other campuses may not be as collegial.
Second: identify allies from across the campus, including non-Jewish faculty outside of the social sciences and the humanities.
Because of their expertise on anti-Semitism and Israel, faculty affiliated with Jewish Studies Programs are natural partners for a critical engagement on pro-Salaita resolutions. But combating hate and bigotry in general, and anti-Semitism in particular, on the American campus shouldn’t be a “Jewish thing”. Multiple and varied stakeholders can be invited to take part in this effort—and will be willing to do so.
At SU, it helped that the campus chaplains published a strong letter against Salaita’s hate speech a week before the Senate meeting.
We were also fortunate that among those opposed to the resolution were a number of School of Law faculty, both Jewish and non-Jewish. As one law school colleague mentioned during one of our many meetings, “I am not Jewish, but I care about ensuring that our campus is one where anti-Semitism is never tolerated; anti-Semitism is a gateway prejudice and its presence diminishes the campus for us all, Jew and non-Jew alike”. Law school faculty also helped walk us social scientists and humanities scholars through contract law, the loopholes in standard academic contracts that are meant to protect the employer, and the doctrine of promissory estoppel and its weak application to the Salaita case.
Third: recognize that much of the support for pro-Salaita resolutions is no doubt generated by a pervasive sense that faculty governance is being increasingly eroded on the American campus.
At SU, the discussion and vote on the pro-Salaita resolution has coincided with a student sit-in and a growing sense among faculty that the administration is undermining faculty input in P&T cases among other areas. In this climate, if the sponsors of pro-Salaita resolutions are successful in linking support for such initiatives to broader faculty efforts to reclaim lost control over hiring and promotion and other policies, then such measures are bound to carry the day.
Indeed, the most damaging aspect of the Salaita case is that UI-UC Chancellor Wise apparently did not consult with the Dean or the Indian Studies Program faculty before making her decision to not forward his appointment letter to the Board of Trustees. Framed as an “administrative irregularity,” a “failure to adhere to established protocols” of shared governance, and a lack of “transparency,” pro-Salaita resolutions will garner overwhelming support despite the fact that no one wants to vote ‘yes’ to something that appears to endorse abusive and obscene language.
University Senate Floor Debate
This week on the SU University Senate floor it became clear that moving the discussion away from the procedural mess at UI-UC and refocusing it on the “deeply offensive” nature of Salaita’s social media activity, his use of “invective” as opposed to reasoned argument, and the actual tweets (read them out!) increased the likelihood of the resolution being tabled yet again, if not defeated. While SU’s pro-Salaita resolution will resurface, at the very least the new document will unequivocally denounce Salaita’s words.
My address to SU’s University Senate on November 5, 2014 is copied below verbatim. It is included here in the hope that it will be useful to other faculty involved in challenging similar resolutions at their home institutions. [Citation to sources used in the address have been included as hyperlinks].
Miriam F. Elman Address to Syracuse University’s University Senate:
Thank you Professor Armstrong, and thank you members of the Senate for the opportunity to address the Senate. I very much appreciate that my colleagues, Peg Thompson and Mark Rupert, graciously agreed to postpone the vote on this resolution so that more faculty, both senators and non-senators, could engage on it. We have been doing so over the past few weeks, in multiple email exchanges and face-to-face meetings that have involved faculty from across the university. Thank you for taking the time to engage with us on these issues.
As has been voiced here, there is much to support in this resolution. It valuably reaffirms our commitment to academic freedom and its extension into social media, and reaffirms our commitment to faculty governance and the importance of adhering to established guidelines for faculty personnel decisions.
But I respectfully believe that the Senate can best endorse these fundamental norms of our university community without wading into a complex contract dispute at another university.
As someone who teaches and writes on Israel/Palestine issues, I firmly agree with the spirit in which this resolution is written: our campus must be place where students are compelled to confront their biases, to rethink their assumptions and beliefs that they may have taken for granted, and to assess those assumptions and beliefs in light of alternative views. As faculty, we should not shy away from making our students uncomfortable.
But comfort should not be confused with respect. And respect should not be confused with civility. Students should have their views challenged, but in this critical inquiry, our students should not have to tolerate hate speech—abusive language that denigrates them and their communities, whether faith-based, ethnic, or otherwise.
If I may, I would like to quote from the letter that the Syracuse University Chaplains of Hendricks Chapel recently published on this issue. They write: “Educators must be free to present a full spectrum of ideas in educational environments without fear of unfair or threatening retribution and repercussions…We [Chaplains] also stand in opposition of the use of hateful or bullying language by any higher education professional…No student, regardless of religious or political identity, deserves to be judged or labeled negatively by a professor in an academic environment.”
Members of the Senate, there is no evidence that the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign rescinded Dr. Salaita’s job offer on the basis of his political activism or his political views. Many faculty members on the Illinois campus hold similar views, and write from a similar political perspective.
As University of Illinois faculty and others have commented, what was probative in this decision to reconsider was not Dr. Salaita’s criticism of Israel, but the hateful, abusive and irresponsible quality of his online media speech—dozens and dozens of abusive tweets posted well before this summer’s hostilities, and read by some 12,000 followers. This speech is something that the present resolution would appear to condone (rather than condemn).
The resolution states that the revocation of Dr. Salaita’s contract is an assault on academic freedom. But hiring decisions are different than termination decisions. A faculty member who distributes racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Asian or anti-Semitic remarks through social media cannot be punished for doing so, but a university could decline to award tenure for that reason. A hiring decision with tenure assigns a higher level of responsibility to administrators—it is not pro forma at any stage of the process [see Cary Nelson on these points]. It should be noted that faculty, donors, students, alumni, and outside organizations all contacted UI-UC’s Wise and Easter with their concerns.
This was an appointment with lifetime tenure and thus a whole range of criteria was probative, including how the prospective candidate would contribute to the university community and to the mission of the university.
We might look at the case in this way: Dr. Salaita in effect opened a new ‘job file’ for himself due to his social media activity in the spring and summer of 2014, and the university then reconsidered based on this new information. I am struck by the fact that even Robert Warrior, the chair of the Indian Studies Program at Illinois, admitted that Dr. Salaita’s social media discourse could have led to a different recommendation (including one not to hire) if he had been engaged in such a “string of controversial tweets” back when he was being evaluated and reviewed in 2013.
It has been said that the content of Dr. Salaita’s tweets crossed a line into hate speech, language that evoked chilling anti-Semitic blood libels. Dr. Salaita tweeted about the sexual perversion of Jewish Israelis; and referred to Jewish Israelis as child-killers and ‘bloodletters’ and parasites that “burrow under the skin like scabies”.
In early September as this controversy was unfolding, I was struck by UI-UC Professor Feisal Mohamed’s remark in an exchange between him and Cary Nelson on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dr. Mohamed said: “Those who claim [Dr. Salaita’s] tweets are completely devoid of anti-Semitism are not quite right…Salaita’s tweets frequently traded in a kind of anti-Zionist rhetoric that summons and sustains millennia of anti-Jewish sentiment hardwired into Western culture…Salaita may not be an anti-Semite but he can certainly tweet like one.”
That Dr. Salaita tempers his noxious and obscene online rants with disavowals of anti-Semitism, and by claiming that he interacts well with Jewish students, doesn’t change that—anymore than does saying “some of my best friends are black” after making racist statements.
It may be useful to consider how we at Syracuse University might have reacted had a prospective hire made dozens and dozens of comments of this kind directed toward other groups–Asian Americans, gays, women, blacks, Muslims, Palestinians.
Dr. Salaita tweeted: “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948”.
Should we extend a lifetime employment contract to someone who tweeted: “African Americans: transforming ‘racism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1964” or “Palestinians: transforming ‘Islamophobia’ from something horrible into something honorable”?
Would we wish to welcome onto our campus a faculty member who would chose to present himself or herself in this way in public online forums? I suspect many of us would be writing in to, and phoning up, Chancellor Syverud urging him to reconsider the hire.
Let me end by saying that the resolution is right to point to ‘vague civility standards’ increasingly becoming a convenient and dangerous pretext for excluding certain people and their views from the academy. But this is not what is at issue here. Civility was not the basis for the decision to rescind Dr. Salaita’s appointment [see Cary Nelson on this point]. Dr. Salaita’s social media discourse raises far more serious concerns than that, and it was to these concerns that Chancellor Wise and the UI-UC Board of Trustees were directed.
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to address the University Senate.
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, where she is a research director in the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration.
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