For those of us occupying the airless niche that is American academia, the Steven Salaita case has been the equivalent of a celebrity scandal, a salacious little tale that somehow, if viewed from just the right angle and at an appropriate distance, tells us something about society at large. It began earlier this month, when the former Virginia Tech professor accepted an offer of a tenure-track position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Such offers, like the institutions that extend them, are a thicket of needless bureaucracy ossified into ritual and require the university’s chancellor to submit the nomination for the board of trustees’ approval, a process largely viewed as ceremonial. But reviewing Salaita’s nomination, the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, refused to usher it along. The university, she argued in a later statement explaining her decision, cannot tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”
The demeaning and abusing Chancellor Wise had in mind had to do with Salaita’s habit of using Twitter to express his opinions about Israel. Because what he said, what it means, and what measures of protection he ought to enjoy are at the heart of the controversy, it’s best to ease into any discussion of Salaita’s case by reviewing a handful of the professor of American Indian Studies’ online musings.
“You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not,” Salaita wrote shortly after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists, “I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” Another tweet applied just as much nuance in declaring, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” Subject that last utterance to a close reading—an exercise that passes for rigid and original thinking in most American universities these days—and you learn that the author approaches anti-Semitism with the one-two punch of unreality: It doesn’t exist—hence the quotation marks—and if it does exist then it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
There’s much more where that came from: fantasies about Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a necklace made of Palestinian children’s teeth or about Israel resurfacing Atlantis only to colonize it, categorical refusals to condemn Hamas, and the ever-nuanced statement that anyone supporting Israel during the war in Gaza was “an awful human being.”
Almost immediately after the offer to Salaita was rescinded, his supporters mounted a defense, best expressed in this letter from Urbana-Champaign’s English professor Michael Rothberg, that went something like this: Salaita’s tweets were protected not only by the first amendment but also by that age-old tenet of academic freedom that holds extramural speech as outside the realm of institutional discipline; even if this weren’t the case, there was nothing really offensive about Salaita’s tweets; even if Salaita’s tweets were offensive, they were still entirely justified, given the outrage the passionate professor felt watching the carnage in Gaza unfurl; and really, ultimately, we should be focusing our opprobrium on Israel. Those of Salaita’s defenders going for extra credit also hinted at the involvement of a cabal of unknown but deep-pocketed donors thwarting the hiring process with threats of defunding the school.
It’s easy enough to see the Salaita case as a morality play, mildly amusing because, as a wise man once quipped, the politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low. And it’s tempting, in analyzing this situation, to focus on its minor irritants and point out, for example, how deliciously ironic it is that the champions of academic freedom riding to Salaita’s defense did it by boycotting his university, a blunt tactic that, in this case, causes much more harm to the principle of academic freedom than the incident it wishes to protest. But the core argument made by so many in the academic community in defense of Salaita suggests that something is amiss that’s far more troubling than the misguided and hateful opinions of one minor scholar. Put crudely, too many of those on whom we depend to help us think and argue the world have come to understand their pursuit as priestly, a one-way exchange by which they sermonize and the masses huddled beneath them listen.
Reading the responses to the Salaita case in recent weeks, and dismissing the frothy missives of fellow Israel-haters who leaped to their man’s defense on purely ideological grounds, it was clear that the central anxiety at play among the academic community—demonstrated eloquently in this widely shared article in The Chronicle of Higher Education—had to do with assessing the degree to which scholars ought to speak out in public settings like social media outlets, blogs, or newspapers. Almost universally, the lesson American professors seem to have taken from the Salaita affair is that the outside world is a hostile environment, highly contentious and intolerant and best avoided by anyone wishing to land on the increasingly rarer perch of a tenured faculty position.
Sadly, at no point was the much simpler alternative, the one expressed so eloquently in Chancellor Wise’s letter, seriously entertained, namely that universities are communities dedicated to the pursuit of learning, an undertaking that is hardly possible when those entrusted with its duties have proven themselves to be systemically racist and supportive of violence. Anyone still wondering whether Salaita ought to have a teaching job should play the parlor game of reading his tweets and replacing references to Jews and Israelis with blacks, gays, or women. Should an American institution of higher learning employ someone who tweeted, say, that black Americans were “transforming ‘racism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1964”?
Some, of course, may argue that the answer is still yes, and that subject-matter expertise ought to be the single and sacred standard by which we hire, reward, and promote our professors. But many more believe, like Chancellor Wise, that while we ought to fiercely insist on protecting our scholars’ freedom to say whatever they please, we should also insist that speech, like action, have consequences. In some cases, we may listen to scholars speak out on unpopular subjects and reward them for their insight and their courage; in others, we may hear things so vile that we decide the speaker, no matter how well-versed in his or her discipline, has no place in an institution that depends on the unfettered exchange of ideas, and that scholars who cannot translate their passions into well-reasoned arguments are better off opining on Twitter rather than in the classroom.
Until academics live up to this obvious condition, until they realize that, like the rest of us, they operate in a community and enjoy no special license to speak and act with utter impunity, until they understand that public engagement is not a privilege but a responsibility, they will continue to find themselves marginalized. It’s a price that neither they nor we can afford to pay.
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