Editor's Introduction - Volume 6

By Michael Bérubé

I was asked to serve as editor for this volume of the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom in August 2014, a few weeks after University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced that she would not seek approval from the University of Illinois Board of Trustees for the appointment of Steven Salaita to a tenured professorship at UIUC. (Chancellor Wise later reversed course and forwarded Salaita’s candidacy to the board, which rejected Salaita 8-1.) Needless to say, I did not have to think very long or hard about the topic around which I wanted to focus this volume of JAF.

However, that focus is not exclusive; of the sixteen essays published here, eight discuss the Salaita case, and eight do not. I think this division of intellectual labor makes sense: even though Salaita’s “dehiring” was international news, and led to AAUP censure of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015, the AAUP is not all Salaita all the time, and there are many other pressing issues before us– challenges to and violations of AAUP policies and principles almost everywhere you look, from individual cases to specific institutions to structural transformations. James Bailey’s essay on unionism at Catholic universities, for example, offers lessons from adjunct unionization at Duquesne that have national implications, while Richard McCarty’s essay holds out new hope for the teaching of sexuality and LGBT studies at Catholic universities in the era of Pope Francis I. Catherine Lawson’s essay on the 1947 controversy over Lorie Tarsish’s textbook on Keynesian economics has resonance for the present, when figures such as Art Pope and the Koch brothers seek to dictate what can and cannot be taught about American economics, labor, and inequality.

James Nichols writes of the overreach of institutional review boards, which began as safeguards against the abuse of human subjects in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials and the Tuskegee Experiment, and now cover so many areas of research and impose so many restrictions on anthropologists, journalists, and ethnographers as to constitute a genuine threat to academic freedom. Committee A Chair Henry Reichman offers an account of unionism and professionalism that sees each working to the benefit of the other, a timely commentary on the prospects of the AAUP in the wake of the Association’s restructuring. And Richard Hanley issues a warning that I wish we could somehow have published last year: upon reading closely various universities’ guidelines on sexual harassment, Hanley concludes that “in an unseemly haste to obey the demands of OCR [the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education]—under threat of Title IX investigation and punishment—university administrations across the country are implementing procedures that most people, including the implementers themselves, do not understand. Those procedures can often be interpreted to mean that any behavior, including speech, that is of a sexual nature, and which is unwanted by the recipient, is at once a violation of Title IX and must be reported as such.” I suspect that this will not come as news to Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, who wrote an essay skeptical of contemporary sexual harassment guidelines for the Chronicle of Higher Education in February 2015 and promptly found herself the object of a Title IX investigation, on the grounds that the essay itself created a hostile environment for students at Northwestern. (Kipnis followed up with an essay about this Kafkaesque inquisition in May 2015.)  

There is much here, in other words, for everyone who might have concluded by now that they have heard and read enough about Steven Salaita. And yet even those of you who believe that commentary on Salaita has reached the saturation point may be in for a surprise. For the essays on Salaita collected here are not only multifaceted, instructive, and occasionally surprising; together, they constitute a historically significant debate over AAUP policies and principles regarding extramural speech and the use of social media.

This is not to say that AAUP policies on extramural speech and social media will be changing any time soon. The 2011 statement Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions is very clear that in extramural speech, “consideration of the manner of expression is rarely appropriate to an assessment of academic fitness,” and that there is “no basis upon which an institution might properly discipline a faculty member for extramural speech unless that speech implicates professional fitness.” Likewise, the 2013 report Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications acknowledges the complexity and fluidity of social media but insists that “the fundamental meaning of extramural speech, as a shorthand for speech in the public sphere and not in one’s area of academic expertise, fully applies in the realm of electronic communications, including social media.” Such statements, set against Chancellor Wise’s August 22, 2014, statement that “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” and that tenure “brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built,” suggest why Salaita has won so much support in the AAUP and among people familiar with our principles, even or especially from people who, like myself, find some of his tweets offensive or obnoxious. For Salaita’s supporters, those tweets are unquestionably extramural speech, and any decision to “de-hire” Salaita on the basis of those tweets is unambiguously illegitimate.

David Moshman and Frank Edler, for example, point out that Wise’s injunction against the demeaning of “viewpoints” is nonsensical, and they link her remarks on civility to other cases such as that of David Guth at the University of Kansas, who was placed on leave for tweeting remarks critical of the National Rifle Association, and Francis Schmidt at Bergen Community College, who was absurdly suspended for posting to Google+ a photo of his young daughter wearing a T-shirt reading “I will take what is mine with fire and blood” (a quote from the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, which presumably led the Bergen administration to fear that Schmidt’s child would lay claim to the Iron Throne). Moshman and Edler also adduce remarks on civility by Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Penn State president Eric Barron, though I can say that from my on-campus vantage point at Penn State, Barron’s remarks, unlike Dirks’s, were aimed not at unruly faculty but at a faction of alumni who apparently believe that justice will not be done until Joe Paterno’s statue is restored and the NCAA and Louis Freeh are compelled to admit that no one at Penn State ever did anything wrong. (In the words of Obiwan Kenobi, this is not the civility you’re looking for.) Still, Moshman and Edler are right to conclude that “the inherent tension between free speech and civility will perhaps never cease”– except that I do not believe there is any “perhaps” about it. The more pressing question they pose is “why top-level administrators in higher education when faced with the choice between defending free speech or civility overwhelmingly defend civility.” Perhaps–just perhaps–it has something to do with increasingly risk-adverse administrations, and (relatedly) academic institutions transforming themselves from places for the vigorous exchange of ideas into places for the rigorous pursuit of paying customers (students, donors, sponsors of research). You defend free speech if you believe in the exchange of ideas; you defend civility if you need to protect your brand and grow market share.           

Karrieann Soto and Ariane Vari Kannan take up arms against civility as well, not with fire and blood but by way of an interview with Salaita that forms the basis for their analysis of civility and collegiality in social media. This essay takes us to a higher degree of specificity with regard to Twitter, as when Salaita remarks that tweets

happen in real time so there’s always an implicit context, always. So you can’t just read a tweet like it’s an aphorism, right? It always exists in a context, and there’s always a set of shared assumptions that has to be maintained in order for conversation on that platform to happen.

Salaita is right to suggest that most people who read his tweets did so stripped from their original medium and lined up seriatim as if they were the meditations of Marcus Aurelius or the epigrammatic remarks of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But then, that is precisely one of the problems with Twitter as a medium; though it allows for what Salaita calls “rhetorical creativity” and permits a kind of performance art for scholars in the digital humanities (as in the case of “Occupy MLA,” a fictional movement that generated much heated commentary in 2013 before it was revealed to be no more real than Game of Thrones), it also tends to promote the most histrionic, intemperate forms of social-media exchange. It is a medium of wall-to-wall sound bites: next to a tweet, a Facebook update looks like a scholarly article, and a reasonably thoughtful blog post looks like The Federalist Papers.           

The advent of Twitter therefore poses substantial challenges for the limitation clauses in the 1940 Statement’s paragraph on extramural speech:

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

There is no clear way to show respect for the opinions of others in a medium that limits utterances to 140 characters. But more important is the admonition that professors should “exercise appropriate restraint.” It is hard to argue that a tweet like “you may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” exercises “appropriate restraint”; on the contrary, it is deliberately crafted to flout appropriate restraint. That is what “you may be too refined to say it, but I’m not” is doing: it announces a standard of refinement (and civility) that the speaker is going to proceed to transgress. It may even be said the “you” is that standard, inasmuch as Salaita did not direct his tweet to any specific individual. (I, for the record, am definitely too refined to say that I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing. I merely wish that the fucking West Bank settlers would go someplace other than the West Bank, preferably as part of a negotiated, peaceful, two-state settlement.) But then, what does “appropriate restraint” mean in a medium such as Twitter? Salaita’s tweet is by no means inappropriate or out of discursive bounds in a context where professors produce endless strings of colorful obscenities in all-caps mode, showing no respect whatsoever for the opinions (or the tweets) of others.[1]

And yet, as Sean Anderson and John Wilson remind us, the Salaita case is not without precedent. Quite the contrary. For Anderson, Salaita’s case calls to mind the controversy over Bertrand Russell in 1940, when a New York court revoked Russell’s appointment to the College of the City of New York. That decision relied on a moral panic centered on Russell’s public writings, in which (to take one of Anderson’s examples) Russell criticized the Catholic Church on the grounds that if a woman were to marry a syphilitic man, the Church’s position would be that the woman could neither divorce her husband nor “use birth control to prevent the birth of syphilitic children.” This altogether accurate assessment of Church policy, together with Russell’s other remarks about religion, led Justice McGeehan to conclude that Russell would corrupt the youth of CCNY. Salaita’s opponents, likewise, worried that he would be unfair or intimidating to students, even though there was nothing in his teaching record at Virginia Tech to suggest this; in both cases, the cry went up, won’t anyone think of the children?–a gesture widely known on the internet as “pearl-clutching.” Still, Anderson admits, “I know of nothing in Russell’s writings or lectures that is similar” to Salaita’s statements in social media.

Wilson draws a much closer parallel–closer in part because it involved the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and led the AAUP to rethink its position on extramural speech. (It also led the AAUP to censure UIUC in 1963.) The 1960 case of Leo Koch, Wilson reminds us, “forced the AAUP to confront the flaws and contradictions in its guiding philosophy” on extramural speech, precisely because the case put pressure on the standard of “appropriate restraint” and the implicit ethics of personal responsibility attached thereto, and because it revealed what Wilson rightly calls a “schism” within the AAUP on the matter of extramural utterances. Koch, a professor of biology, had written a 2500-word letter to the student paper, the Daily Illini, challenging traditional sexual mores even more forcefully and emphatically than Bertrand Russell, openly advocating sex among students. In the frenzy that followed, pearls were clutched with great ferocity, and Koch promptly found himself out of a job. The UIUC Faculty Senate Committee on Academic Freedom issued a report shortly after Koch’s dismissal; as Wilson notes, the report opened by insisting that

The concept of academic freedom is fundamental to a democratic society, because it is only through the freedom to pursue truth without fear of reprisal or censure and through the unfettered competition of ideas that the democratic society can progress to higher intellectual and moral levels. This freedom cannot be reserved only for those who agree with majority beliefs and those who have the wisdom to be right. To so restrict academic freedom would render it meaningless.

“After this promising start,” Wilson writes,

the committee went on to argue for restrictions on academic freedom that would render it meaningless: “A faculty member does not have the right to urge students, or anyone else, to engage in illegal or immoral behavior or to violate University regulations” (3). The report added, “the faculty member, in keeping with his University association and his position as a man of learning, has the obligation to be accurate, to exercise appropriate restraints, and to show respect for the opinions of others” (3).

The problem with the language of the 1940 Statement was now too obvious to ignore. Though the paragraph on extramural speech sought to keep professors “free from institutional censorship or discipline” when they spoke as public citizens, the limitations clauses allowed for all manner of institutional censorship and discipline to be meted out to professors who spoke as public citizens in allegedly irresponsible and uncivil ways.         

Wilson concludes that the eventual response to the Koch case, the 1964 Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances, “marked one of the most fundamental changes in the AAUP's approach to academic freedom” insofar as it “rejected the notion of a common academic ethic that bound the behavior of all professors, on and off campus.” But as Wilson also notes, Koch never taught again; and if indeed the past is prologue, the AAUP’s current debates may not produce a result that benefits Steven Salaita. What is certain is that the Salaita case has revealed another schism in the AAUP.    

Andrew Squires’ contribution to this volume addresses the Salaita case not from the perspectives of civility, social media, or extramural utterances, but– cannily– in the light of the 2006 Supreme Court case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, which has such potentially profound implications for academic freedom in the context of shared governance. If, following Garcetti, courts determine that professors at public universities have no First Amendment protection for statements they make in the course of their professional duties, then, Squires argues, we need a new rationale for academic freedom under which “academic freedom should go beyond scholarship and teaching, into intramural speech, even that which does not touch upon public concern.” Squires’s interpretation of the 1940 Statement would seek to “extend academic freedom to the informal curriculum of the university, provided it advances the knowledge-seeking activities of the university.” The AAUP recognized immediately that the Garcetti decision could apply to professors at public universities even though it originated in a whistleblower case in law enforcement, which is why it launched the “Speak Up, Speak Out” campaign to accompany its report, “Protecting an Independent Faculty Voice: Academic Freedom after Garcetti v. Ceballos.” But we have not yet grappled with the implications of Garcetti for intramural speech.        

And grapple with them we must, as Don Eron’s essay makes clear. Not only because the AAUP statement on social media freely acknowledges that “the literal distinction between “extramural” and “intramural” speech– speech outside or inside the university’s walls– has little meaning in the world of cyberspace,” but also because, in one important respect, Salaita’s extramural statements were nothing like Leo Koch’s letter to the Daily Illini. It is not merely that Koch’s 2500-word letter appeared in a medium that allowed for statements longer than 140 characters; it is also that Koch’s remarks had nothing to do with his area of scholarly expertise. Though he signed himself “Leo F. Koch, Assistant Professor of Biology,” his area of specialization had to do with the study of moss, not with the science of sexual practices among advanced primates at American universities. Salaita’s extramural statements, by contrast, were arguably directly related to his scholarly career. And this, now, is what we need to argue about if we are going to argue– as we must– about the meaning of academic freedom for extramural utterances.           

Eron emphatically rejects the premise that Salaita’s statements in social media constitute extramural speech protected by the post-Koch consensus: as Eron writes,

Professor Salaita’s tweets, because they directly invoke his area of academic authority, should be considered intramural utterance. A common view, that Salaita’s tweets are irrelevant to his professional fitness because he was speaking as a citizen and did not publish his opinions in a professional format, is antiquated in view of the efficiency, power, and reach of social media. Any disciplinary evaluation of Salaita’s speech should apply the stricter standards of intramural utterance.

This seems to me a reasonable position, though I think the collection of essays assembled here complicates it significantly. If we grant that Salaita’s statements on Israel and Palestine are something other than “extramural” on the grounds that they are intimately related to, or follow from, his scholarly publications on Israel and Palestine, then we have to take on board Squires’ argument about extending academic freedom to intramural speech in the wake of Garcetti. Moreover, we have to read Eron’s extension of the standard of “professional fitness” in the light of Patrick Colm Hogan’s argument about academic freedom and “democratic competence” in his engagement with Robert Post, and in light of John Mowitt’s meditation on the vexed relations between freedom and responsibility in the concept of academic freedom. In other words, we have to revisit the concept of academic freedom altogether, in the wake of the de-hiring of a scholar whose statements in social media, which are sometimes closely related to his statements in published scholarship, are arguably both extramural and intramural utterances.           

At this point we appear to be in the Schrodinger Wing of the Academic Freedom Building, where an utterance can be at once within and without the walls of the institution. But lest we succumb to bewilderment, let me briefly review what is clear.           

It is clear that widely accepted norms of shared governance were violated in Salaita’s de-hiring. He was approved by a departmental search committee, then by a department, then by a college, and then by the chief academic officer of the university. He had been given every reason to believe that he had been hired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; he had moved his family to the area, he had resigned his position at Virginia Tech, and he had been assigned courses for the fall semester of 2014. Suddenly, his offer was withdrawn a few weeks before he was to begin teaching.           

It is clear that all invocations of “civility,” with regard to Salaita’s tweets, are illegitimate with regard to AAUP policy. For our purposes, and for all good purposes, the consideration of a faculty member’s manner of expression– in extramural or intramural utterance– is rarely appropriate to an assessment of his or her academic fitness. If you want to complain that, say, Professor Mxyzpltk’s impish remarks in the comment section of the Crooked Timber blog have some resonance for how he (or she) will conduct himself (or herself) as a colleague and as a teacher, the AAUP will insist that you find stronger evidence.           

And yet it is also clear that, despite the parallels between the Salaita case and the cases of Leo Koch and Bertrand Russell, despite the AAUP statement on academic freedom and electronic communications, despite the AAUP policy document on politically controversial appointments, we are in uncharted waters when it comes to determining whether Salaita’s tweets are extramural or intramural or somehow both.           

I have reason to suspect that Cary Nelson’s contribution to this volume will provoke a great deal of discussion, though I hope it will not exhaust all the oxygen in the room, to the detriment of all its companion essays published here. Nelson has been the most prominent and vocal supporter of Chancellor Wise’s decision, and his essay mounts a pamphlet-length argument against the position that widely accepted norms of shared governance were violated in Salaita’s de-hiring. “The AAUP has long maintained that trustees should accept faculty appointment decisions except in exceptional circumstances,” Nelson writes. “This case was more than exceptional; it was extraordinary.” Procedurally, Nelson concedes that “the last minute character of the Illinois decision not to approve the appointment was obviously a disaster”; but on substantive grounds, Nelson argues in great detail that Salaita never should have been offered a tenured position at UIUC in the first place, and that the search process that produced the offer to Salaita was rigged in favor of strident supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against Israel. “A simple Google search on the names of Salaita’s outside reviewers,” Nelson writes, “would have revealed their BDS activism and thus their expressly political affinities with Salaita.”           

In his response to Nelson, Robert Warrior notes that although Nelson knows the names of the external reviewers for Salaita’s appointment, he did not have access to the content of their letters, and therefore cannot pass judgment on the legitimacy of their assessment of Salaita’s work. That is quite true, but there is a still broader point to be made here as well, as Warrior shows. Nelson’s argument that Salaita should not have been hired makes it clear that Nelson believes Salaita should not have been hired; it does not make it clear that there was something fundamentally flawed or corrupt about the offer. Strange as it may sound, faculty members hire people of similar mind and interests all the time. But we allow search committees to have that kind of autonomy, because all the alternatives are worse. Moreover, academe is full of people who think that x percentage of their colleagues should not have been hired; in any given institution, half of the political science department thinks half of the economics department should not have been hired (and vice versa), and half of the literature department thinks half of the philosophy department should not have been hired (and vice versa, though the philosophers are obviously wrong). “How,” Warrior wryly asks, “does a search committee chair report to faculty colleagues that some truly excellent candidates applied for the position your unit advertised, but since the committee’s competence has been challenged by emeritus faculty and those in other colleges, the committee has deemed it prudent to take a pass on them?”           

More important, and ultimately far more challenging, is the aspect of Nelson’s argument that overlaps with Eron’s–namely, that Salaita’s tweets should be considered as part of his profile as a scholar rather than as strictly extramural speech. There is precedent for this position in AAUP history, as Nelson establishes in his epigraph: Matthew Finkin and Robert Post, two of the most insightful and influential theorists of academic freedom, have held that extramural speech involves a “dimension of academic freedom [that] does not concern communications that are connected to faculty expertise,” and “is typically about matters of public concern and that is unrelated to either scholarly expertise or institutional affiliation.” This understanding is echoed in the passage I cited above from the 2013 statement Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications in its reference to extramural speech “as a shorthand for speech in the public sphere and not in one’s area of academic expertise.” The argument, then, is that if a professor who studies moss writes an op-ed or a tweet advocating bestiality or denying the Holocaust, that speech is protected; if however a biologist (to use Nelson’s example) publicly promotes the idea that evolutionary theory is a hoax, his or her statements call into question the professional fitness of the person who utters them.           

This is unquestionably a plausible argument. It has, however, a nasty corollary, as we have discovered in the wake of Garcetti. In Pickering v. Board of Education (1968), and again in Connick v. Myers (1983), the US Supreme Court held that if an employee’s public speech were a matter of personal grievance rather than a matter of public concern related to his or her employment, then that speech is protected by the First Amendment. The Pickering-Connick test therefore turns largely on whether an employee is talking about matters about which he or she is well informed, and paradoxically affords employees less protection from retaliation for statements in their area of expertise than for statements about matters unrelated to their work. For this reason, I call the Pickering-Connick test a Crank Protection Plan, insofar as an employee who mouths off about matters in which he has no credibility is granted more of a hearing in the public square than an employee who actually knows what she is talking about. That logic underlies the Court’s finding in Garcetti, and it underlies Nelson’s argument here.   

But this, in the end, is an argument worth having. It is an argument that reminds us why the AAUP exists: to set the terms for debates about and definitions of academic freedom. From Russell to Koch to Salaita, the AAUP’s position on extramural speech has been revisited and revised time and again; and as the essays collected here demonstrate, there are good reasons as to why there is no unanimity about the parameters of the extramural. Social media did not create this problem. They have merely intensified it, both with regard to the question of the means of communication and with regard to the questions of “appropriate restraint” and “professional fitness.” My hope is that this volume of the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom will help us conduct that debate thoughtfully, cogently, and productively. It will not always be a “civil” debate, I imagine, for the same reason that the First Amendment is never invoked to protect innocuous speech. But then, I think civility is overrated.

[1] People in the Twitterverse– the Twitterati– will know that I am referring to the Twitter feed of MIT English professor Noel Jackson.