The Gang of Five Supporting Salaita’s Dismissal

By John K. Wilson

Earlier this month, five professors at the University of Illinois (Nicholas Burbules, R.H. Campbell, Kim Graber, Joyce Tolliver, and Matthew Wheeler, referred to as the “Gang of Five”) wrote a response to the UIUC CAFT Report, criticizing it and defending the dismissal of Steven Salaita.

The Gang of Five claims that they embrace the AAUP’s protections for extramural utterances: “We strongly affirm the AAUP position on academic freedom and their holding that extramural political speech is a protected area of free speech that generally should have nothing to do with the assessment of academic qualifications.” Unfortunately, the Gang of Five then rejected that principle by inventing a new exception for academic freedom: “when public comments do directly relate to the faculty member’s areas of teaching and scholarship, and provide insight into the level and quality of their thought.” The problem with this is that extramural utterances never provide insight into the level and quality of a professor’s teaching and scholarship. If you want to know whether a professor is a good teacher, you examine their teaching record, not their tweets. If you want to know whether a professor is a good researcher, you read their 140-page books, not their 140-character tweets. Unless a professor’s tweets reveal research or teaching misconduct (and no one suggests that Salaita’s tweets ever did), they are always irrelevant to academic judgments.

The Gang of Five goes on to claim that extramural utterances should not be protected because students can read them: “Many students actively follow the social media postings of their professors, and this is both a venue of teaching and a position of professional role-modeling. The idea that teaching only pertains to what happens in the classroom and that ‘extramural’ utterances are entirely separate is rendered obsolete by the use and impact of these new technologies. In such a world, it is entirely predictable and appropriate that the full gamut of a candidate’s public writings and utterances related to their area of academic expertise will be taken into consideration at the hiring stage. In an era when the first thing people do in a hiring process is Google a candidate’s name, it is only prudent to realize that everything you do and say online is available to decisionmakers.”

It is not “obsolete” to separate extramural utterances from teaching, and demanding prudence from professor in everything they do and say at any time is not compatible with standards of academic freedom. The fact that “teaching” may include emails to a class does not mean that every email a professor sends is a form of teaching. The fact that a professor might create a classroom blog for discussion does not mean that every professor’s personal blog is part of their teaching. Indeed, since we are told by Salaita’s critics that he was never employed at the University of Illinois, how could his tweets have been a part of his teaching?

This notion that new technology has changed everything is incorrect. New technology does not change our fundamental principles. Freedom of expression and academic freedom remain the same, whether it is a blog or a newspaper transmitting the ideas. 50 years ago, we had a clear equivalent to social media: the letter to the editor. It was a public expression of a professor’s opinion that students might actively follow. Yet the letter to the editor, like tweeting, is clearly an example of extramural utterances.

In the case of Leo Koch at the University of Illinois in 1960, Koch wrote a letter about student sexuality that was arguably related to his area of academic expertise as an assistant professor of biology. But the AAUP and everyone else in the case explicitly defined this as an extramural utterance. The fact that students could (and probably would) read Koch’s letter in the Daily Illini did not change this principle. There is no basis for this nefarious idea that extramural utterances related to a professor’s “area of academic expertise” are subject to academic evaluation and punishment. The Gang of Five do not quote any AAUP document that indicates extramural utterances are unprotected if related to professional expertise.

The Gang of Five frequently declares that the U of I statutes are the binding authority. Yet they do not offer a single word from the U of I statutes to justify this novel interpretation of extramural utterances. Not one word in the U of I statutes indicates that extramural utterances can be punished if they are related to academic expertise. To the contrary, the U of I statutes explicitly declare that no extramural utterances can be punished by the university.

The Gang of Five argues about Salaita’s tweets, “They go far beyond matters of ‘civility’ – they go to the heart of Dr. Salaita’s willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of views that differ from his own and his pattern of employing hateful and divisive rhetoric in his scholarly area.” According to the Gang of Five, these tweets show “disrespect for other points of view, a tendency to oversimplify complex problems and reduce them to provocative sound bites, personalizing intellectual disputes and attributing to intellectual opponents bad motives, and so on. These are not merely issues of manners or tone: they indicate an orientation toward academic work that is inconsistent with intellectual inquiry and with teaching students to develop critical skills based on that inquiry, as well as a more general attitude and approach to dealing with scholarly disagreement.”

The Gang of Five is wrong for two important reasons. First, as I have noted, extramural utterances do not necessarily reveal the nature of professional work. A professor can make snarky remarks to a friend and still be capable of fair-minded work. Second, the Gang of Five is wrong to claim that opinionated stands are “inconsistent with intellectual inquiry.” Universities should welcome a broad range of professional styles, from complete blandness to provocative critiques. It’s no small irony that the Gang of Five demands respect and tolerance for other points of view, while refusing to respect Salaita’s point of view even when it is on his own time.

According to the Gang of Five letter, “Dr. Salaita’s initial appointment had gone through the entire review process, up to Board approval level, even though the content of his academic and political views were quite well-known. This puts the lie to the frequently repeated claim that his hiring was reversed because of his views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.” This argument is false. If a university allows critics of Barack Obama to be hired (as it obviously must) but then fires someone for their extreme criticism of Obama, this does not put the lie to a claim that the firing was due to their criticism of Obama.

Clearly, Salaita was dismissed because of the content of his views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict combined with the tone of his expression. Whether he might have been similarly fired for expressing controversial views on other topics is unknown, but that would only reveal a viewpoint-neutral policy of firing people with extreme political views; it would not refute the fact that his extreme political views caused the firing. If Salaita had used obscenities to condemn both sides and urge a moderate solution, it’s almost inconceivable that he would have lost his job.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the Gang of Five letter is the suggestion that criticism of the administration is valid justification for firing (or not hiring) a professor: “it must be asked whether the circumstances of potentially hiring him now have changed. What is the likely impact on the university of hiring someone who has spent months publicly attacking it?” The answer is, it would show itself to be a true university. The idea that anyone who critiques an administration can be fired (or not hired) is a fundamental attack on academic freedom. It is a particularly disturbing threat to any of us who have ever criticized an administration. It would be difficult for me to find a university that I’ve never criticized publicly for one act or another. Does that mean that I should be banished from academia for the crime of criticism? If you carry the logic of the Gang of Five forward, then anyone who publicly criticized the firing of Salaita should be dismissed (if an adjunct) or denied tenure. That’s absolutely unacceptable under any conception of academic freedom.

The Gang of Five have argued that a committee recommended by the CAFT Report should not look at Salaita’s case: “we see no reason to believe that a fair and objective review of Dr. Salaita’s professional fitness is possible in the highly politicized and polarized campus atmosphere that exists. Nor do we have any idea of where to find disinterested ‘academic experts’ who could carry it out.” There are no objective people; there are only people who have not publicly expressed a view about the case. Objectivity and disinterestedness is not a requirement for serving on a faculty committee. Nothing in the U of I Statutes says that objectivity is required to participate in the hiring process. Academic expertise, not neutrality, is the defining characteristic. Suppose the University of Illinois wanted to examine the question of hate speech codes: would we declare that anyone who opposed the mass murder at Charlie Hebdo was “biased” and therefore should not be allowed on a committee? Should we require all members of a committee to be “disinterested” on whether terrorism is good or bad? Of course, the CAFT subcommittee did manage to find members who had publicly spoken out on the Salaita case, so the Gang of Five is wrong to claim it is impossible. But they’re also wrong to think that objectivity is required.

Since a faculty search committee chose to hire Salaita, it seems logical to me that this same committee should evaluate any new information as to whether it would affect their decision to hire Salaita over other candidates. The fact that its members may have publicly expressed support for hiring Salaita makes no difference, just as the Board of Trustees will be the final judge even though many of its members voted to get rid of Salaita.

The Gang of Five also argued that if a duly established faculty committee ruled that Salaita should not be hired, “it would not end the boycott, would not remove the risk of AAUP censure, and would not end the controversy on or off campus.” That may be true. But sometimes you have to do the right thing, even if it will not end a controversy. I don’t speak for the AAUP, but I think a ruling from a legitimate faculty committee would greatly influence the AAUP. The AAUP normally does not question the judgment of faculty committees about academic qualifications, although it would still have concerns about the process at the University of Illinois.

The Gang of Five asserted, “The Illinois branch of the AAUP has made clear that any review of the Salaita case can have only one outcome that they would accept: reinstatement,” and cites essays by me and Peter Kirstein. First of all, Peter and I do not run the Illinois AAUP, nor are we even a majority of its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Nor does the Illinois AAUP have any connection to national AAUP censure. Although I believe that Salaita should be reinstated, I think that the University of Illinois can avoid censure (or be removed from the censure list) without reinstatement, if they change their policies and procedures to protect academic freedom, and providing fair compensation to Salaita.

But even if the AAUP would only accept reinstatement, that would do nothing to change the moral obligation of the University of Illinois to belatedly follow due process and give Salaita a fair hearing.

The Gang of Five also argued that even if the faculty committee endorsed Salaita’s qualifications, “there is no reason to think that the outcome would change.” Perhaps not. But is the likelihood of failure a reason to ignore due process?

According to the Gang of Five, “The Board has voted overwhelmingly not to hire Dr. Salaita. There are no Statutory provisions for revisiting that decision.” This is incorrect. Nothing in the U of I Statutes prohibits the Board from changing its mind and hiring someone it (or a previous Board) refused to hire. According to the Statutes, the U of I Board of Trustees can hire Salaita at any time it wishes to.

If the Gang of Five fears anything that might “reopen campus wounds that are just beginning to heal,” then why would they write a letter that raises these same disruptive issues? The answer is, because it’s important to have campus debates and discussions, even if it leads to divisions and hurt feelings. And having a committee report on the Salaita case would be a valuable determination about whether Salaita’s tweets affected his academic qualifications.