Tweets raised “legitimate
concerns questions” as to fitness since Salaita’s scholarship “almost indistinguishable from a political purpose.”
The faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has issued a Report and recommendations on the refusal of the Board of Trustees to grant tenure to former Virginia Tech Professor Steven Salaita.
The Report is being spun by Salaita supporters as a victory, but the details actually should disappoint them and hearten the University Trustees. A full copy of the Report is embedded at the bottom of this post.
For one thing, the Committee did not demand “restoration” of Salaita’s position, as some of his faculty supporters had expected. Rather, the Committee, while criticizing the University’s conduct, merely recommended formation of another committee of “academic experts” to review the situation.
The failure to call for restoration of position was based, in part, on the Committee finding “legitimate
concerns questions” [see update] about whether Salaita’s anti-Israel (and some say anti-Semitic) tweets reflected on Salaita’s professional fitness, competence and care since his scholarship is “almost indistinguishable from a political purpose.” That political purpose, of course, is the destruction of Israel.
The Committee thus recognizes a reality I have pointed out repeatedly when I discuss academic BDS: The prime movers behind academic BDS have completely blurred any distinction between political advocacy and their professional work; their scholarship and classroom conduct are their political advocacy, and vice versa.
What this means, and as the Committee found, notions of academic freedom also have blurred for people like Salaita, who literally wrote the handbook about how faculty should spread academic BDS throughout universities. The result is that anti-Israel, pro-BDS faculty who merge their political advocacy and academic work may not be able to hide behind traditional notions of “academic freedom” to excuse their biased, unprofessional, incompetent and politicized scholarship and conduct.
This approach has major implications far beyond the Salaita case.
BDS, which itself is anti-academic freedom, may destroy academia before it destroys Israel.
For background on the Salaita controversy, scroll through our Steven Salaita Tag.
The short version of the controversy is that Salaita’s tweets prior to and during the 2014 Gaza conflict caused an uproar that led to the Trustees refusing to approve a contingent offer of employment and tenure. Salaita, however, already had resigned from a tenured position at Virginia Tech.
Since then, there have been protests and Salaita now is touring campuses speaking to supportive groups. Litigation over Salaita’s FOIA request to the University already has been filed, and it is likely Salaita will file suit seeking damages and/or forcing the University to grant him a tenured position.
Keep in mind that this is a faculty committee. It can only make recommendations, and it has a vested interest in protecting faculty in the never-ending battle with administrators (at almost every university) over governance.
Nonetheless, such a Committee will be taken seriously within academic circles, and its report will become part of the political and legal jockeying, including as to potential censure proceedings against UI-UC by the American Association of University Professors.
The Report touches on many issues, and eschews any claim of legal authority to resolve the dispute.
The Report has several Appendices, including a timeline and copies of complaint emails from members of the community. It also includes a section requested by the University Counsel, that lists various Salaita tweets. It’s not clear why this list was included; it might be so that the University had a right to see the Report, as the Report itself notes:
“Parties who provided evidence for the investigation are entitled to read its “Findings of Fact” (Section III) and ask for changes. The Counsel for the Trustees has asked that the following be included in the report….”
Appendix C is reprinted at the bottom of this post.
The Report asserts that whether and to what extent Salaita’s academic freedom was implicated depends on whether he was viewed as an applicant or employee, with the latter status having the most clear academic freedom protections.
One approach to the determination of the university’s obligations could be by strict application of the letter of offer: he was told that trustee approval was required; it was not granted; therefore he was not appointed. Whatever obligations the administration or trustees owed to the academic body whose recommendation was first accepted and then rejected, no further obligation was owed to Dr. Salaita.
The committee finds this approach to be incomplete. It does not fully acknowledge the expectations mutually engendered by the university’s course of dealing.
This committee is not a court, constituted by civil authority to decide questions of law. The committee is constituted by the university’s Statutes to decide the university’s responsibilities as an institution of higher learning. In this, we are guided by the norms and expectations of the academic community in which the university is situated. [Report at 11, footnotes omitted.]
The Report then goes on to address what it considers to be the “norms and expectations of the academic community,” but ends with an equivocal conclusion.
The Report acknowledges that the offer of employment was contingent, but nonetheless finds that some level of academic freedom should attach because Salaita had an “in-between status (more than an applicant and less than an employee).” [Report at 16]
From this “in-between status” the Committee concludes that Salaita should have been afforded more procedural protections than took place, and it rejects “civility” as a relevant test.
Perhaps most interesting is how the Report deals with the political aspect of the tweets. The Committee concludes that Salaita’s scholarship and political advocacy had so completely merged that the political nature of the tweets may be relevant to Salaita’s professional standards and care (emphasis added):
In the case of Dr. Salaita, this inquiry is complicated because of how he has positioned his understanding of his professional speech. He has stated that his address to the subject of his appointment, Indigenous Studies, is informed by certain critical ethical tenets, one of which is, for example, a “proactive analysis of and opposition to neoliberalism, imperialism, neocolonialism, and other socially and economically unjust policies, which not only affect Indigenous peoples most perniciously, but rely on Indigenous dispossession to fulfill their ambitions.”12 This tenet — almost indistinguishable from a political purpose — is taken by Dr. Salaita to be an intrinsic part of his work. Nonetheless, Dr. Salaita’s conception of his professional mission does not absolve him of meeting the academy’s standards of professional care.
[12 Steven Salaita, “The Ethics of Intercultural Approaches to Indigenous Studies: Conjoining Natives and Palestinians in Context,” The International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies 1:1 (2008): 2. Dr. Salaita submitted this article as part of the materials accompanying his application.]
As we have seen, the Statement on Government allows that Trustees may legitimately question the granting of tenure “in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.” Further, the 1940 Statement allows that political speech, though rarely in itself evidencing professional unfitness, can give rise to legitimate questions — for example, whether Dr. Salaita’s passionate political commitments have blinded him to critical distinctions, caused lapses in analytical rigor, or led to distortions of facts. These are questions that have arisen in the present controversy.
The Chancellor, in providing the Committee with her judgment of the Trustees’ reasons for rejecting the appointment of Dr. Salaita, conflated political speech with professional speech. The former, we have concluded, is beyond the University’s remit to regulate. But the latter raises legitimate questions. The Statement on Government and the Statutes assert that faculty status and related matters are primarily a faculty responsibility, yet no university policy provides guidance for soliciting the expertise of the faculty in the present case. We recommend that the matter be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for reconsideration by a body of qualified academic experts. Dr. Salaita should be provided the opportunity to respond to any proposed
findings of professional unfitness before the body concludes its proceedings. [Report at 28-29]
The Report concludes:
… Accordingly, we turn to the complained-of ground for that rejection, Dr. Salaita’s series of tweets. The 1970 Interpretive Comment to the 1940 Statement provides that extramural utterances – political speech – “rarely bear upon a faculty member’s fitness for office.” The Chancellor elided the distinction between the two. They should be disaggregated. We do not believe that Dr. Salaita’s political speech renders him unfit for office. Further, we find that civility does not constitute a legitimate criterion for rejecting his appointment, and we recommend that statements made by the Chancellor, President, and Trustees asserting civility as a standard of conduct be withdrawn.
We do believe, however, that the Chancellor has raised a legitimate question of whether his professional fitness adheres to professional standards. In light of these allegations, we recommend that Dr. Salaita’s candidacy be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for reconsideration by a body of qualified academic experts. Dr. Salaita should be provided the opportunity to respond to any proposed findings of professional unfitness before the body concludes its proceedings.
We further recommend that the university take responsibility for the financial consequences to Dr. Salaita of its irregular adherence to its own policies and procedures. [Report at 31-32]
The end result of the Report is that there is something in there for both sides.
On the one hand, the Report concludes that Salaita was not treated in accordance with customary norms and expectations.
On the other hand, the Report does not call for “restoration” of position, acknowledges that the offer was not firm and was contingent, leaving Salaita in some unique “in-between” status.
More globally, the Report serves as a perhaps-unintended indictment of the extent to which the academic BDS movement is damaging the academic freedom that protects us all by blurring the distinctions between political advocacy and professional academic competence.
BDS, which itself is anti-academic freedom, may destroy academia before it destroys Israel.
Update: An AP reporter tweeted out Chancellor Wise’s statement regarding the Report. It does not appear that the University is changing its position.
— David Mercer (@DavidMercerAP) December 23, 2014
Also, pro-BDS Prof. David Palumbo-Liu of Stanford sees the same point I made although from the other side:
So the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has recommended remanding the case to a College-level committee. It found that Phyllis Wise and the Trustees violated longstanding principles of faculty governance, and that the litmus test of “civility” was bogus. Well and good and what we have been arguing all along.
But wait—in place of “civility” the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure has smuggled in another buzzword—“fitness.” It is now a “fitness” hearing we are going to have. The committee assures us that this is a very narrowly-tailored, exceptional inquiry. But I think we would be naive to believe that assurance.
Here is where the report gets into issues of “fitness.” To me it is going to open up a can of worms. For if Salaita’s case warrants such examination, then just about any professor’s scholarship should be placed under scrutiny. They are basically asking “did his political (or I would say “ideological”) point of view prevent him from weighing all sides equally?” … That’s what makes the last line so troubling. They want to do a surgical strike and then throw away the scalpel. I think we all should be vigilant and be ready to mount yet another campaign.
Update 12-26-2014: Prof. Peter Kirstein, who supports Salaita in this matter (though he is against academic boycotts in general), also sees the enormous downside for Salaita along similar lines as I did, Justice Denied to Steven Salaita: A Critique of the University of Illinois Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure Report:
I had hoped along with thousands of other academicians that the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure would recommend directly and unconditionally the immediate restoration of Professor Salaita to his academic appointment. Yet the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure has conveniently created a new standard which confounds logic and vitiates the basic elements of justice. The CAFT introduces a “professional fitness” standard to determine whether Salaita’s tweets, a clear example of extramural utterances, demonstrate a lack of fitness.
Update 1-5-2015: Author Phan Nguyen at the anti-Israel Mondoweiss website points out that the correct quote from the report is “legitimate questions” not “legitimate concerns.” That misquote was inadvertent and makes no substantive difference to my analysis, but I’ve updated for the sake of accuracy.
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