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The Salaita Affair

Many of you already know about the Steven Salaita affair at the University of Illinois. Here’s an excellent summary of what has happened so far, with an important update on external pressures that may have influenced Chancellor Wise’s decision.

My question here is straightforward and brief: What’s the relevance of this case to the current state of Catholic higher ed?

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Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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This is from Wikipedia's article on academic freedom:

Academic freedom is a contested issue and, therefore, has limitations in practice. In the United States, for example, according to the widely recognized "1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure", teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matter that is unrelated to the subject. When they speak or write in public, they are free to express their opinions without fear from institutional censorship or discipline, but they should show restraint and clearly indicate that they are not speaking for their institution.

Arguably, Salaita's tweets are related to the subject, as he's done academic work exploring parallels between Palestinians and Native Americans.  But it could be argued that he falls afoul of the "show restraint" guideline.  

I guess my overall take is that it's okay for a university to have standards of behavior for its professors.  It's not inconceivable that a professor could make public statements that are so inflammatory and offensive that the standard is breached.

Certainly, the U of I should have figure this all out before Salaita resigned his old job.

Also: the examples of tweets reported in the linked article are sort of attention-grabbing, and they have colorful language, but by the standards of contemporary discourse, I'm not sure they're spectacularly out of bounds.  We usually manage to avoid f-bombs in this forum, but not always.  As a general rule, I don't think discourse is improved by larding it with the f-word, but the issue may be worth thinking about.

I have to say, I'm troubled, too, by the suggestion that Salaita's speech rights are given extra protections because the position is tenured.  The implication seems to be that a mere adjunct who teaches identical courses could be fired for tweets, no questions asked, but a tenured professor shouldn't be.  It seems to be yet another privileged-class distinction.  That's an injustice in which Salaita, the guild of tenured professors, and the universities that employ them all seem to be complicit.  Sorry if that's too much of a digression from the topic at hand, but it did strike me.


 - ps: Robert, I realize my lengthy previous comment is not relevant at all to the question you posed.  Hope you don't mind.

Wouldn a university blanche at offering a job to someone publically known to be, for instance, a racist?  I would think so.  Maybe this instance is like that?

Tenured university jobs are like rent-regulated apartments, once someone has one it seems pretty tough to take it away, so I completely understand being more careful than usual about giving a controversial person the job in the first place.

The comments quoted were out there, but I imagine he's not the first academician to express his views in extreme language.

I guess I'm not getting why the University leadership should be expected to hire him if they don't like his public comments. Could someone explain why he should be hired?


The short answer is that Salaita's case is not immediately relevant to Catholic Universities at all. This is because any recourse Salaita has will be based on his first amendment rights and not the (constitutionally unrecognized) right of academic freedom. State universities, but not private universities, are affected by first amendment questions. See the full explanation here:

However, there is broader relevance of Salaita for Catholic universities. As everybody knows, in recent decades university administrations have in concert with their boards of trustees attempted to wrest more and more power away from faculty, consolidating it in themselves. The immediate aim of doing so is the aim of all corporate capitalism: to lower the cost of (faculty) labor for the institution. An added benefit, though, is that the disempowerment of faculty makes it easier to appease wealthy donors (or potential donors) who don't like a particular faculty member for some reason. This is the function of "civility" claims. The appeal to "civility" is designed to enable administrations to fire even a tenured faculty member on the grounds that she has already voided her contract by showing herself unable to fulfill its requirements. If I tweet, for example, "Fuck the oligarchy," then (so the argument goes) I am personally attacking my wealthy students, making them feel unsafe to participate in my classroom. I have thereby proven myself unable to educate, and can thereby be removed.

This describes a very dangerous movement across academia--private, public, religious, secular--that will get much much worse before it gets any better.


WJ, to push back just a bit.  I understand what you are saying regarding free speech and the modern university, and I agree with it, but why would you ever tweet such a sentiment?  

I don't follow anyone on twitter.  I hate twitter posts. They are attention grabbing in a way that rarely contributes to informed discourse on any subject by any person.  Of all the social media out there, the willingness to risk wrecking one's life and career in order to gain a following by launching spur of the moment quips into the world at large puzzles me every time I think about it. The use of such media in my view is nearly the opposite of what an academic viewpoint could or should lend to any issue. 

Yes, I think viewpoint trumps tone in the decision to fire him, so no sympathy for U of I, but I don't really see this as an "academic freedom" issue because the referenced statements were inflammatory without in any sense being informed by what I might think of as scholarship or specialized knowledge.  They were also ad hominem, which in my view is the opposite of a reasoned argument or position.  "THIS IS WHAT I THINK AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU ARE AN EVIL MORON!" just about encapsulates the tenor of his posts.

I am not sure I know what the "current state of Catholic higher ed" is, or at least what you had in mind when you wrote that.  But there are two matters (quite apart from "academic freedom" and where that attaches to tweets) that I think relate to this case that deserve some thought.

 1.  According to the Executve Summary of the UIUC budget report (sorry, i is 145 pages long so all I could manae was the ES) the total operating budget for FY 2014 is US$ 5.6 Billion  Yes, with a B.

2.  The linked article points out that there is a very widespread trend for Boards of Trusees to try to recapture  authority over the operations (incuding academic) of the universities from what they see to have become expansion of appropriate athority by the faculty.  Viewed slightly differenty, they seek authority that matches their responsibility.

Both are probaby related to a a view of what is the proper business of a university.   This is a matter debated since univerisities were invented, which debate will probably extend to the end of human time.  Because cannot achieve unanimity on the purpose, or even much of a consensus across stakeholder groups, it is little wonder that we cannot routinely understand the implications of multi-billion-dollar annual budgets, conflict between Trustees and faculty, or even aparently simple hiring decisions.

I will leave it to the acadmics here to speak to the role of the Trustees.   However, we should not pretend that the budget does't matter.  To address the business to which it is committed, largely contractually, the University system needs to find $6B/year.  How the activities of the university, from its football team to its microbiology labs to the political profiles of its professors affect funding is an entirely relevant matter.  So the views from the State Legislature, major donors, an Federal agencies who have policies matter a great dea.  Not the only thing that matters, of curse, but entirely a propos.

Mark L

Could someone explain why he should be hired?

The university made him an offer that he reasonably construed as a solid job offer, so much so that he quit his job to accept it.  In reality, the offer was contingent on trustee approval, but the author of the summary to which Robert Geroux linked in his original post notes that that's usually a rubber-stamp approval.  Only in this case it wasn't.

So I guess the moral case for hiring him is that the university put him in a financially precarious (or worse) position by extending him an offer and then, in effect, subsequently rescinding the offer.   It would seem the decent thing to do would be to let him take the job, given those circumstances, but as you note, it may be considerably more difficult to get rid of him after he's officially hired and onboarded.

I suppose the academic-freedom variation of the above argument would be: he was offered a job; he accepted; and then he was un-offered it for reasons that may (or may not) represent a violation of the principles of academic freedom.  So conceivably there might be any number of valid reasons for un-offering someone a job like that (e.g. conviction of a serious crime?  naked pictures on the Internet?), but disapproving of his public speech isn't one of those valid reasons.


 How the activities of the university, from its football team to its microbiology labs to the political profiles of its professors affect funding is an entirely relevant matter. 

I'm pretty sure Illinois football is a loss leader.



Jim P,

I had Penn State in mind when I wrote that. 

I am old enough to remember Dick Butkus  playing not only at Illinois, but at Chicago Vocational.

As far as Catholic universities go, do they not now disallow certain people teaching based on their beliefs ... thinking of those  like Roger Haight SJ, who was barred from teaching at Catholic universities.

A google of the phrase "the current stateof Catholic higher ed" generates a sizeable number of hits ranging over a fair number of years often including the word "crisis".  In as much as any useful university aligned with a particular religion will inescapably find itself attempting to defend both fact and belief with equal depth and devotion it seems to me it must in fact seek out debates with the Salaitas of this world.  Certainly this is true when the topic at core of the debate is the justification of killing.

I feel certain we all can agree quite a few not fortunate and/or persistant enough to have participated in college and beyond find what can understandably be perceived as largely "academic" debates of a process based nearly exclusively on brutality to be naive if not arrogant.  That is particularly likely in as much as they are the ones who so often are required to either execute the "battle" plans and/or be on there receiving end.  

I am not trying to defend vulgarity, however, I am convinced it pales in comparison to watching ones home and loved ones turned to putty.

"I guess I'm not getting why the University leadership should be expected to hire him if they don't like his public comments. Could someone explain why he should be hired?"

Administrators now call themselves Leaders. In this particular case they seem to have given leadership in racial prejudice against an American Palestinian on the alleged basis of his tweets against Israel's oppression of his people but really on the basis of his books and public profile.

Academic freedom in the US seems to mean freedom to speak on your own subject within the ghetto and then only if you've got tenure. Otherwise an academic seems to be expected to sacrifice freedom of thought, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of publication, freedom of conscience and other human rights.


Catholic universities are probably to the fore in this kind of academic Leadership.

"Could someone explain why he should be hired?"

Because it is very illegal for state institutions to base hiring decisions on the views he expressed in the tweets.

WJ linked to Leiter above, but this was very good on the basics:

Hi, Mark, I should have resisted, but didn't, the opportunity to take a cheap shot at Illini athletics. Didn't mean to detract from your comment at all.  (In general I find your comments thoughtful, and so was this one.)

A contingent job offer seems like a cruel thing.  Pretty sure Salaita's personal budget doesn't run to the billions, so this is not exactly a negotiation between equals.  One practical lesson I take away from this is, don't extend a job offer until everyone who needs to approve the hire has done so.  That just seems like rudimentary fairness.


I mean the job offer was not really contingent for all practical purposes. People are in this situation re: approval and start teaching and have checks cut for them. He will win in court not just on freedom of speech grounds, but also because he had every reason to think that he *had* a job. 

This is not the first case we've seen of the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign being in the news over employing a professor who espouses controversial views.  Dr. Kenneth Howell's termination (and then, I believe, rehiring) was discussed a bit here on dotCommonweal in 2010 (see the comments - the blog post was on a different matter), and was widely covered elsewhere.  

The two cases, Salaita and Howell, are not identical, but they do seem to have in common the right of professors to engage in free speech, even when it is offensive to some students.

Comparing the two cases may also be challenging to the consistency of principles, both of conservatives and liberals.  In my view, it doesn't seem possible, from an academic-freedom standpoint, to support terminating (or not-hiring) the one but not the other.


More relevant to the Catholic procedure for disinvitation of speakers. The man's tone is distinctly unhelpful. He strikes me as a hothead. Needs seasoning. He's far from the best spokesperson the Palestinians have got--a with-friends-like-that thing. On the other hand, the university has a moral obligation to pay the man. I'm sure lawyers will figure it all out.

Hi Jim,

Thanks for your kind words.  Your contributions are always a challenge for me.

I took your comment as you intended, but realized from your note I had probably chosen poorly in putting football in the Illinois context.  Shots, cheap or otherwise, at big-time college football are almost always welcome. 

I don't see that the Salaita case has anything to do with "the current state of Catholic higher ed".

He is being treated unjustly, obviously, but bad treatment of hirelings is standard at state universities and Catholic universities.  


The search committee that offered Salaita the position he accepted in UIUC's American Indian Studies program did carry out a full review of his academic and teaching record. As Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Mullen document in an article for Mondoweiss, his credentials and classroom evaluations after teaching for eight years at Virginia Tech are impeccable.


The real issue, imho, is that Catholic colleges and universities, like secular schools, treat their adjunct faculty like dirt.


Scroll down that Google list for “A Betrayal of Mission”, by Anna Harrison, Associate Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University.


Agree with Todd about rescinding invitations to speakers.  But just as professors should be careful about believing job offers are legit, so speakers should be careful about believing invitations will not be withdrawn.  





Sort of off topic but it reminds me of Robert Mickens getting fired by The Tablet for a facebook comment about B16.

As far as Catholic universities go, do they not now disallow certain people teaching based on their beliefs ... thinking of those  like Roger Haight SJ, who was barred from teaching at Catholic universities.

The difference in this case is that it was not a university or seminary that barred Haight from teaching.  It was the Vatican that forbade him from teaching Catholic theology.  His employer at the time, Weston Theological Seminary, is run by the Society of Jesus and honored the Vatican's position.  At least this is my understanding; if it's not right, I hope someone will correct me.  But colleges that are not under the direct, formal control of the church authorities needn't feel compelled to be bound by what the Vatican said about Haight or any scholar.   And in fact, Haight did get a job teaching at Union Theological Seminary, which is not affiliated with the Catholic Church.   The Vatican subsequently barred him from teaching Catholic theology anywhere.  His Wikipedia page states that he is currently scholar-in-residence at Union.  Whether that involves teaching, I don't know.  But I'd be surprised to learn that Union would consider that Vatican ruling to be binding on it.

It would count for a lot at the seminary in my diocese, but probably wouldn't count for a hill of beans at the University of Illinois or any other state school.   How much it would count at a place like Fordham or Marquette, which are Catholic but aren't directly controlled by a diocese, a religious order or the Vatican, I don't know - it's an interesting question.

I think Charles Curran's case is parallel in some ways, and I understand Curran now teaches at Southern Methodist, which also presumably doesn't allow the Vatican to influence its hiring decisions.


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