Tag Archives: Steven Salaita

Disciplining the university, the Illinois edition

My last post talked about fear in the contemporary American university, as seen in the specific case of America’s Russia experts. Apparently many of them feel jumpy about expressing non-standard views, and that startled me.   Even before we get tenure, most of us professors enjoy a fair amount of security; anyway, I’d always assumed (naively, it turns out) that full-spectrum discussions were welcome in foreign policy matters, especially those involving nuclear weapons and exotic languages. So I offered a little speculation about what’s going on and where today’s jumpiness fits into the longer history of American intellectual conformity.

Now a new case of professorial fear is in the news, and it gives a more direct look at the mechanisms that can produce it. It’s the case of Steven Salaita, who’d been offered a tenured position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, only to have the university’s Chancellor and Board of Trustees yank the offer months after it had been accepted.

I won’t go into the details, which have been widely reported on in the academic news–you can find the story explained here, and here‘s an eloquent comment on it by the historian Natalie Zemon Davis–, but the main issue centers on tweeting. In a series of tweets, Salaita expressed in strong language his feelings about Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip, and the Illinois administration decided that his harsh tone crossed a line. He’d been “disrespectful” toward others’ views, and therefore shouldn’t work in UIUC classrooms. It’s relevant to the story that these were just personal opinions– Salaita’s teaching and research have nothing to do with Israel, Islam, Judaism, or Palestine (he’s a specialist in Native American studies). It’s also relevant that big donors and the university’s fundraising office sought to influence the administration’s decision in the matter (as shown here). Whether or not their threats counted, the donors gave it their best shot.

So the minimum Illinois story is that an academic can get into serious trouble for expressing personal opinions, and that university administrators face serious pressure from donors to ensure intellectual conformity. That minimum story is bad enough, and it’s hard not to suspect that there’s worse behind it. The university administration insists it’s not pushing specific views of Israeli policy, and that its only concern is the tone in which dissenting ideas are expressed– but would they have dumped Salaita if he’d said mean things about Vladimir Putin or Urban Meyer?

You don’t need to pursue those suspicions, though, to see the real menace here, namely the civility standard itself. It’s a trap, a way for powerful institutions to enforce intellectual discipline while pretending to encourage discussion. John Stuart Mill explained it all 150 years ago. Mill pointed out that we can’t set the boundaries of “temperate” and “fair” debate; “if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate oponent.”

In other words, real disagreement is going to include harsh language and hurt feelings, and the cult of civility is a way of preventing disagreement from getting too real.

The Salaita case shows that mechanism of repression working at full steam.