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Progressive Academics Troubled By Defenders and Critics of Salaita

By Academic Advisory Council

New York, NY – September 4, 2014
CONTACT: Professor Chad Goldberg

Gideon Aronoff
212 366-1194 (After hours 347-583-7277)


Academic Freedom and Legitimate University Goals Both Present in Controversial Case


As progressive and liberal academics committed to the protection of academic freedom and, thus, opposed to all academic boycotts, we have closely followed the decision by the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) to reject recommendations from her faculty and dean to hire Steven Salaita and the subsequent call to boycott UIUC for its action. Although we are divided over the UIUC’s decision, we share concerns about the process and the consequences for academic freedom.

If the University of Illinois had fired Steven Salaita from its tenured faculty for his tweets we would be calling on the university to reverse its decision. For academic freedom to thrive, it must be constrained by neither civility nor political correctness. New ideas are sometimes unsettling, and we should not judge them adversely simply because they cause discomfort for students, faculty, nor staff. Instead, we should protect speech and scholarship that produces robust, intense, and even provocative debate and disagreement.

But as academics, we also realize that academic freedom and the First Amendment do not require a university, when hiring, to overlook statements that suggest a job candidate holds views that might affect his or her conduct as a scholar, colleague, or teacher. There is no obligation to hire someone who the university thinks will be a dogmatic scholar, a problematic teacher, an abrasive colleague, or in other ways fail to advance the larger goals of the university. It is legitimate to consider hateful, racist, or bigoted statements about any group of people at the hiring stage.

The Salaita case is difficult because it is in the gray area. Prof. Salaita was offered a position by a hiring committee and dean and his classes had been announced, but he had not been formally hired yet. Some AAC members believe he should be afforded the same protections, at this stage, as if the hiring process had been finished. Others, noting the important distinction that he was not being fired, but rather that he was not yet hired, believe the university was within its rights — and in fact made the correct decision — not to go through with the job offer. We believe that both positions are reasonable, given the publicly available information about the case.

According to the AAUP’s “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities” (1966), the governing board and president should defer to faculty on questions of faculty status, including hiring, “except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.” Although we are pleased that the chancellor and the chairman reaffirmed their commitment to academic freedom and open debate, they have failed to assuage the anxieties, shared by some of our members, that administrators at UIUC or elsewhere may seek to fire or deny tenure to faculty based on the tone of their extra-mural speech.

Regrettably, these anxieties have taken the form of a petition by professors in the U.S. and abroad vowing to boycott the University of Illinois unless Salaita is hired. Despite our questions about the process surrounding Salaita’s case, our opposition to academic boycotts leads us to oppose this effort. We believe academics should welcome opportunities to speak at the University of Illinois on their respective topics of expertise, and, if they are inclined to protest, should make their views of the Salaita case known while on campus.

Finally, we call on the AAUP to adopt policy that addresses cases like this, defining whether, and how principles of academic freedom apply, if at all, during different stages of the hiring process.


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