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The AAUP in the Digital Universe(ity)

Today, organizations of all sorts are building a larger and larger Internet presence, the AAUP included. How will the AAUP adapt to the changing digital landscape as we move into the future?
By Aaron Barlow

The universe of the Internet is changing both the AAUP and the university—and it will continue to do so. The AAUP, an organization that once could focus primarily on matters of particular concern to the faculty, now finds that it must react to a much wider range of issues and address a wider population. Universities that once were able to solve many of their problems out of public sight now find that almost everything they do is subject to comment. The privilege of privacy has disappeared—for all of us. And the AAUP, like every other organization, is having to deal with this new reality both in its advocacy and in the way it defines and approaches core principles such as academic freedom.

A century ago, the AAUP was an organization of elite faculty, and its outreach concerned intersections of specific faculty prerogatives with educational, political, and funding forces. The ancestor of Academe, the Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, started its first issue with the annual address to the AAUP by the organization’s first president, John Dewey. Though Dewey did bring up academic freedom, a topic of as great concern today as it was then, he was more interested, in this address, in the internal workings of the organization, with “whether the Association was to have legs and arms and be a working body.”

Not surprisingly, the same question faces us today, but in a wildly different environment. The walls of the ivory tower that once housed most AAUP discussions are becoming irrelevant, unable to stem the digital back and forth that, adding insult to injury, for the most part ignores the faculty. Not only do we need arms and legs today, but we also need smartphones and digital smarts—if, that is, we want to be effective participants in this new and much broader world.

And we need to understand the impact of the new digital tools and platforms that are changing the ways we deal with each other, our professional organizations, and our institutions.

The Salaita Case

The case of Steven Salaita, a professor whose tenured appointment to the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was terminated after he strongly criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza in a series of Twitter posts, illustrates what is at stake for universities—and the AAUP—in the digital era. In early August 2014, when UIUC chancellor Phyllis Wise notified Salaita that she and the board of trustees had blocked his appointment, Salaita had already accepted the job, his teaching schedule had been published, and he was looking for housing. Writing for Inside Higher Ed on August 6 that year, Scott Jaschik reported that “the sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter.”

On that same day, a statement on the case from the Illinois AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure was posted on the AAUP’s Academe Blog. It read, in part, “Reports that the university has voided a job offer, if accurate, . . . would be a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country.” The next day, the national AAUP issued a statement on the case of Steven Salaita that ended by declaring that Salaita’s “posts were arguably not intended as scholarly statements but as expressions of personal viewpoint. Whether one finds these views attractive or repulsive is irrelevant to the right of a faculty member to express them. Moreover, the AAUP has objected to using criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty evaluation because we view this as a threat to academic freedom. It stands to reason that this objection should extend as well to decisions about hiring, especially about hiring to a tenured position.”

Thus began what has been, perhaps, the biggest academic freedom controversy of the past few years, one that has expanded to include the propriety of using private e-mail accounts for discussion of university business. Significantly, it has been carried out in the public of the Internet.

And the AAUP has been right in the middle of it.

The online presence of the AAUP is soon going to be its primary face to the world, if it is not already. The organization’s website is becoming, through the resources it houses, a first line of defense not only for academic freedom and tenure but also for a broad variety of other faculty concerns. On it can be found, for example, the 2014 report Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications, which is pertinent to the Salaita case. But it is within the immediacy of discussion on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites—and on the AAUP’s own Academe Blog—that the unfolding of the controversy has taken place.

Behind the scenes, on all sides, has been e-mail. Ultimately, it was the alleged misuse of e-mail by Wise, a public employee, that led to her removal as chancellor. She was done in by her attempt to circumvent the possible public release of her university e-mails through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Stripped of its particulars, the Salaita controversy illustrates an emerging pattern of public discussion concerning the AAUP and its members. In light of the Salaita case, the AAUP needs to be—and, in fact, is—reexamining its own positions regarding the digital world. To a significant extent, the fate of academic freedom—in terms of both public support and how particular incidents are handled—is going to be determined online.

New Public Sphere

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues that the European “public sphere” of the eighteenth century, what literary critic Michael Warner might characterize as an “ongoing space of encounter,” was replaced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by an ethos of consumerism. It has long been a common contention, one that I share, that what was once called “cyberspace” provides the possibility for a countering force, one leading to the establishment of a new public sphere. I am a little less optimistic than I used to be, for commercial forces have followed into the online world, taking it over as surely as they did the public sphere of three centuries ago—and much more quickly. The digital world does remain, however, a space of encounter, though it is one that does not fit the models to which we grew accustomed in predigital times, especially those that acted as gatekeepers to the public sphere.

The very act of setting words into type could cool the ardor of an eighteenth-century printer or editor, as would the fact that publication was generally a group process and that primary audiences were often the very people the writer lived among and dealt with daily. As we moved into the realm of one-way and distant electronic media in the twentieth century, methods grew for the protection of propriety—from out-and-out censorship to the “voluntary” monitoring of Hollywood’s Hayes Office to professional standards used to hound people out of the media when they overstepped even unwritten bounds. These were not particularly the best ways, unfortunately, and they often led to suppression (or, sometimes, started there), but they did provide something of a break between thought and publication.

In the digital environment, there are no such breaks. Two patterns result, both best illustrated by political examples. The first is the politician who has become so concerned with public utterances that almost anything uttered “off the cuff” needs to be “walked back” by handlers schooled in after-the-fact damage control. This makes candidates so reluctant to say much of anything at all that almost everything they say is carefully scripted. Jeb Bush is one such politician. The other is that of the candidate who says, essentially, “To hell with this, I can say anything I want, so I will.” Donald Trump, of course, is the exemplar. The former seems safe, the latter dangerous. That, in the political realm, they are both calculated approaches does not diminish the power of the illustration, for the distinction is quite real, and it filters down into everyday concerns regarding freedom of speech for everyone and, for professors, of academic freedom.

Just as politicians spend days and dollars figuring out how best to approach the Internet, so must we of much lower profile. Freedom of speech and academic freedom have never been absolutes: speaking freely, unfortunately, can be a tool for stopping others from speaking freely, as I wrote in a blog post earlier this year. “Falsely shouting fire,” also, is not right. Though protocols can be dangerous, the lack of them—or the lack of at least some sort of rudimentary filter—can also be harmful. So it is incumbent on all of us to explore the changing needs of academic freedom in digital environments.

In that blog post, I described a rule or two I concocted for myself. Not wanting to be as stultifyingly careful as many of our politicians, I still wanted to make sure that I followed my father’s old admonition that a gentleman never insults anyone by accident. One thing that I decided was to try never to write anything that could be construed as harmful or a personal attack about anyone who is not already a public figure. I also try not to write things that could be misconstrued as an attack on any group of people of any sort. Yes, this is self-censorship, and I am not comfortable doing it. I would feel better if, as when I write for Academe, there were others involved in the process, people also invested in the product with whom I could discuss what I am trying to communicate—or even a vetting process somewhat like peer review. Then, I could make my outrageous comments, knowing that someone would rein me in.

Though the process of diminishment of the editorial process and the role of the editor began long before the digital age, it has accelerated over the last few decades. Many writers now see editing as an attempt to wrest control of the work from them rather than as a strengthening process. Also, editing takes time. When we don’t have to spend that time, many of us don’t.

Today, First Amendment and academic freedom protections are as important to what we misstate as what we state. This is a major change, a result of the immediacy of access to the web, of the new and public nature of discussions, and even of what is now called “trending”—that is, discussions gaining traction through repostings of particular items, sometimes thousands upon thousands of times. Once a post begins trending, the originator quickly loses control of her or his statement. Although it may have been meant only to spark discussion, the post can be amplified or twisted in myriad ways with no possibility of rebuttal or even continued conversation. Freedom of speech becomes irrelevant, perhaps, for the act is no longer being used in a speech context. Concern for the academic freedom of a professor becomes something of an afterthought, of little use once the damage has been done.

And the damage, as we are seeing more and more frequently, can be tremendous. Careers are ruined, lives irreversibly altered.

New Roles for the AAUP

What’s to be done? How should the AAUP approach the changed environment of this new public sphere, one so different from that available when academic freedom was first codified for the AAUP a century ago, when the scholar’s access to the public sphere was much more constrained and when most academic discussions were shared by only a few, even when they drifted into the popular press?

Of course, it’s extremely difficult to successfully predict what the future will bring. All we can do is try to learn from what we are observing today, extrapolating what we can but recognizing that the entire landscape can change at a moment’s notice.

Three distinct digital arenas were relevant to the unfolding of the Salaita case: social media, online journalism, and e-mail. Blogs, depending on particular usage, can be in either of the first two categories. Private conversations through social media platforms fit into the “e-mail” category.

As the 2014 AAUP report on electronic communications makes clear, social media can play a various roles in academic discourse—and can raise a variety of concerns. As the report says, “Many academic conferences and some individual sessions have associated Twitter hash tags—at times suggested by the conference organizers. As a result, ideas and information that previously would have been controlled by the presenter and limited to a relatively small audience may quickly become accessible globally.” Once the door to instant media presentation is opened, whole new protocols for utilization need to be established—and, as the Salaita case demonstrates, not simply in relation to conferences and other presentations. When an academic speaks at all in public, people note the institutional connection, and institutions, often more protective of their public images than of their faculty, can respond with what seems close to panic when reaction to a particular instance snowballs. A professor’s “trending” comment on an issue of immediate public concern can lead to quick and often ill-thought reactions, as happened in the Salaita case.

In hindsight, it’s clear that UIUC and Wise made at least a tactical mistake. Whatever the virtues of Salaita, whatever the legal status of his employment, the results have been worse for UIUC and, particularly, Wise (who has lost her job) than even for Salaita. He, at least, now has a national platform for expressing his opinions—though the insecurity engendered by his “unhiring” must have been sickening.

Fortunately—and I suspect Wise did not understand this—Salaita’s defenders were in a position to respond immediately and powerfully. Within days of the news leaking out of what was happening, his was a major story. The AAUP was able to respond quickly, on its website and through member-written postings on Academe Blog. An online petition in Salaita’s support was quickly organized and gathered thousands of signatures within days. Wise, knowing what the AAUP reaction would likely be—though surely not recognizing its ability to react immediately online—had even gathered support from a former AAUP leader who teaches at UIUC, perhaps believing that his support was enough to blunt the impact of AAUP criticism. Though internal debate did take place within the organization, the AAUP’s action was decisive.

The Salaita case would certainly have become a cause célèbre even without Academe Blog, but it was the blog that became the locus for discussion of his case. More than sixty posts dealt with the issue over the year since the story broke, and these posts have been among the blog’s most read, commented on, and shared. Though the bloggers are all academics, they have been acting as citizen journalists within the network of online journalism. Just as we read the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed online today, the reporters for these and other publications are also reading Academe and Academe Blog.

The final aspect of the digital revolution relevant to the Salaita affair and the future of academic freedom is the role of e-mail, not so much in relation to what happened to Salaita as in relation to what eventually happened to Wise. The chancellor apparently lost her job because she had tried to circumvent expected FOIA requests by conducting e-mail exchanges concerning university business through nonuniversity e-mail accounts. That in itself might not have been problematic had she not stated in an e-mail that this was what she was doing. Though Wise was an administrator, she is also a tenured member of the UIUC faculty, perhaps making what happened to her e-mails—on university accounts or not—of concern to the AAUP.

Just some months before Wise was forced out, Michelle Fine, a professor at the City University of New York, found e-mails she had written using her CUNY account becoming public through FOIA requests. The e-mails concerned public education in the schools of her home community in New Jersey. Fine’s mistake, if it was one, was conducting nonuniversity business through a university e-mail account. Because of the legal responsibility for openness, e-mails written on accounts at public institutions are vulnerable to FOIA requests, but these requests, on occasion, can lead to vilification of the sender, as seems to have happened to Fine.

Questions involving e-mail constitute an area that the AAUP has yet to address as seriously as I suspect it will in the near future. After all, e-mail and other private online messaging services are the means, today, of coordinating responses quickly. In reacting to the events of the Salaita case, private electronic communications were essential, both within the AAUP and among faculty in general, allowing for quick and coordinated utilization of social media platforms and online journalism. Already, all e-mail and other private online activity need to be considered compromised, likely to appear in public at some point. We’re seeing this in politics and business as well as in academia.

The organization has been fortunate, so far, to have had the infrastructure in place to respond quickly and effectively to violation of academic freedom principles within the new electronic environment. In the future, the AAUP will have to begin to organize these resources into a considered frame both for action and for advancing understanding of academic freedom in this new universe surrounding our universities.

Aaron Barlow is associate professor of English at CUNY New York City College of Technology, faculty editor of Academe magazine, and executive editor of Academe Blog. His e-mail address is

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