Thursday, September 04, 2014

is the “Steven Salaita Case” about academic freedom?

Steven Salaita was offered a tenured professor position at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to teach American Indian Studies. He resigned from his position at Virginia Tech to accept the offer. Salaita’s provocative anti-Zionist comments on Twitter were then brought to the attention of administrators and members of the board of directors of the University of Illinois, leading to the withdrawal ofthe offer of employment. (Some have referred to this event as his having been “fired” by the university, but he never was employed by the university.) No one has denied that his comments on Twitter were the reason for withdrawing the offer.

In the heated discussion of the case taking place through media (especially social media), in communication to and from the university administration, and within other organizations, academic freedom has been evoked. The withdrawal of the employment offer has been characterized as a violation of Salaita’s academic freedom, and has been defended on the basis of protecting academic freedom from Salaita’s mode of expression and/or views.

To what does academic freedom apply? Those evoking it to protest or defend the university’s action seem to agree that academic freedom applies in the case of comments made on Twitter. Why would that be? Does academic freedom cover expressions made outside of academia? Or is Twitter use by an academic de facto academic expression? Is there a standard of judgment to rule expressions in or out of the academic field? Twitter posts, by definition 140 characters or less, do not conform to conventions of academic writing or other expression, though perhaps a series of posts would, if used as a (rather awkward) publication medium. Since academic expressions generally involve engagement in reasoned discussion under prescriptive rules for coherence, relevance, evidence, etc., a single post (and perhaps especially an inflammatory post) expressing an opinion is not a strong candidate for inclusion in this field.

If so, then it seems academic freedom is being applied outside the field of academic expression. How could this be? Two possibilities are that academic freedom applies to some not-yet-defined field of expression broader than the academic, or applies to a person rather than to expression. Some of the protesters’ phraseology (“Salaita’s academic freedom was violated,” e.g.) suggests the latter. To what persons, for what reasons, does academic freedom apply? In the case of Salaita, it would seem to apply to him because of his status as a professor. In other words, the academic or non-academic forum or substance of his expression is not relevant, because his expressions should be protected by academic freedom simply because he is.

To reiterate, Salaita’s academic freedom is in question just because he is a professor. Yet he was not a professor at the University of Illinois, and was not a professor at Virginia Tech, indeed not a professor anywhere, when the offer of employment was withdrawn. I am being precious here: he was not a professor in the narrow technical sense that he was not then employed in that capacity. Obviously, professor is a title as well as an employment status. This line of reasoning leads to a messy, vague conclusion. Salaita’s academic freedom is in question if professors have academic freedom just because they are professors, and if that applies to the person and not primarily to their expressions as professors (or to the forum or substance of their expressions).

So, let’s say that academic freedom applies to professors. Who are professors? Now I wonder just how precious I was being before, since being a professor depends on having or having had an employment status as a professor. A professor is a college faculty member who is eligible for tenure or has tenure; a professor could also be anyone who teaches at a college, but colleges and universities deny tenure eligibility to 75% of those who teach, which would make this a rather peculiar way to draw the distinction. In that case, what a college instructor says, in class or in an academic journal article, following the standards and practices of academic expression, would not be protected by academic freedom because the instructor is not a professor.

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