who and what is the university for?

10626682_10100498555702659_8856810526624564766_nA couple of weeks ago, I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign with activist friends of mine. We went to protest in support of Dr. Steven Salaita and the several unions and student groups who were rallying for better labor conditions, for the principle of honoring contracts, for collective bargaining rights, for recognition by the administration, and for respect. It was a beautiful, brilliant rally; I estimated 400 people, many more than I had thought to hope for. And it posed the simplest question facing academics today: who and what is the university for?

The labor unions in attendance that day were fighting for better conditions and more honest, direct bargaining with the university administration, as labor unions in Illinois have fought for decades. Some fought for fair pay and transparent, equitable rules for advancement and compensation. The school’s young graduate union, the GEO, fights simply to be recognized by the university, in an academic world in which universities could not survive without graduate student labor. What was remarkable about the event was how easily and naturally these labor issues coincided with the fight for Dr. Salaita. Some might mistake these issues for disconnected and separate, but in fact they are part of the same fight. The fight for Dr. Salaita is about Palestine, and about academic freedom. But it is also about labor and the rights of workers. It’s about faculty governance in a university system that has seen ceaseless growth in higher administrators and an attendant growth in the cost of employing them. It’s about recognizing that a university is not its endless vice provosts and deputy deans, nor its sushi bars and climbing walls, nor its slick advertising campaigns, nor its football team, nor its  statuary. A university is its students and its teachers. To defend Dr. Salaita is to defend the notion that, in an academy that crowds out actual teaching and actual learning in myriad ways, the actual teachers in the academy must preserve the right to hire other teachers, and to honor those commitments once they are made.

The people at the protest also rallied around a simple truth: that calls for civility are in fact calls for servility. The argument used against Dr. Salaita has been, primarily, the call for civility, a concept that has no consistent definition beyond “that which people in power want against those without power.” Civility is the discourse of power; it is a tool with which those with less power are disciplined by those asking for even more. The activists, union organizers, and rank-and-file members were not being civil. They were being passionate, honest, and righteous. And they were making demands, because as Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” Those who insist on civility are calling for a world in the which such a demand can never be made.

In the Chronicle‘s profile of Corey Robin, Corey lays out the Salaita case in the plainest terms: “An outspoken critic of Israel, speaking in an inflammatory way about it, being punished and drummed out of the academy—that’s what’s happening.” We who stand with Salaita stand for the right to tell that plain truth, that Salaita is being punished for his controversial political views, and not because of nonexistent rules of decorum that are enforced without consistency or honesty. We have to draw the lessons that Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Mullen have identified, and we have to hold onto the plain truth of the bullying nature of those with power, even as they obfuscate with appeals to civility.

Universities can be beautiful places. I’ve been privileged to see them at their best. But universities can also be cruel places. Cruel, because there are many within them who talk about the ideals of intellectual and academic freedom while using their institutional and disciplinary power to prevent the exercise of that freedom. That is particularly true when some are seen as jumping the line, as stepping outside of the rigid hierarchy of professional advancement by working outside of the top-down structures of academic publishing. I am not in any sense a big deal, and would never claim to be, but I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to reach a large audience and engage with many brilliant people. When I get opportunities like writing for The New York Times or guest blogging for Andrew Sullivan, or when one of my pieces gets wide attention and many thousands of hits, I should be able to merely feel gratitude. But I am always made keenly aware that calling attention to oneself brings risk, in a world of unequal power and a brutal labor market. I say this only as a witness, just as one of many who faces this dynamic. I tell you this not because I am uniquely burdened in this way but because I have seen it again and again with adjuncts and graduate students at all kinds of programs, people who have tried to engage publicly and politically out of a sense of democratic and moral obligation, only to find themselves labeled and threatened for having done so. While people like Nick Kristof call for academics to speak out publicly and share their work and ideas, they are rarely around to witness how nails that stick up get hammered down.

Many faculty I know are firmly, fully dedicated to the spirit of honest, passionate inquiry. But I’m sorry to say that many faculty are instead dedicated to the rigid hierarchies of employment and unequal economic power. The faculty in my own program have never been anything but supportive of me, demonstrating respect for my right to exist as an independent, political mind with ideas about pedagogy, and research, and politics. But in my wider dealings with professors and academics, at conferences and gatherings and especially online, I have been shocked and saddened by how many faculty are willing to threaten those beneath them in the academy’s hierarchy, whether directly or obliquely, over perceived slights to their authority. With the job market as bad as it has ever been, too many of the lucky few who enjoy the protection of tenure are willing to use that disparity in power to discipline graduate students and untenured faculty who disagree with them or fail to show the deference they believe they are owed. The results are predictable: thousands of adjuncts and graduate students who feel forced into silence and acquiescence out of fear of having no chance at a career at all.

Steven Salaita is the type of professor who has never asked for permission, who has refused to be docile in the face of those who would force him to be with their calls for civility. That is precisely what is needed in a world with an increasing chasm between those at the top and those at the bottom. What’s needed now is not docility but passion, not deference but demand. Each member of the academic community has to make a choice: you can stand either for the principles of passionate, sometimes intemperate exchange that are written into the very fabric of liberal education and deliberative democracy, or you can stand in support of a servile, silent university. You can use the systems of reward and advancement within the university to reward graduate students and untenured faculty who are passionate, risk-taking, and unafraid, and in doing so nurture a professoriate that is willing to fight for its future in the university of the 21st century. Or you can contribute to a climate of fear in which adjuncts, pre-tenure TT faculty, and graduate students are forced into servility, forever chasing fads in research and pedagogy, conceding to every new demand from administration, and refusing to fight for what they need and believe in, leading inevitably to the total and irrevocable deprofessionalization of the university. You can choose to be a profession of the passionate and the committed or you can choose to be a profession of the passionless and the docile. That’s the choice and those are the stakes and don’t believe anyone who tells you different.

Who and what will the university be for? In the most obvious, most likely telling, the university will be an army of redundant administrators, lording over hideously expensive luxury dorm rooms and dining halls, for students who have been rendered docile and silent through the service mentality, taught by precarious, contingent instructors who have no job security or autonomy, all in service to a neoliberal agenda that seeks to preempt dissent among the youth so that it will not have to crush dissent among adults. That is the most plausible future for the university. But there is another potential future, one articulated by those who rallied for Salaita and for labor at UIUC, whose passion and commitment humbled and inspired me. That future is one where the students and teachers who make up the actual university recognize their shared problems and their shared power, who band together to oppose the corporate takeover of our universities, and work to build something better, a university with fair and equitable labor practices for all instructors, faculty governance over instruction and hiring, and commitment to the principles of free exchange of ideas and academic freedom. That may not be a likely future; it may not, at this point, even be a possible future. But it is one worth fighting for.


  1. Civility and servility are utterly incompatible.

    Some things that are not incompatible with civility: passion, exhortation, radical critique, political engagement.

  2. …an academic world in which universities could not survive without graduate student labor…

    When I worked for a graduate student labor union, someone crunched the numbers and discovered that ‘adjunct’ and ‘visiting assistant professor’ labor was, in fact, significantly cheaper than grad. student labor. The function of the grad. student is as a benefit to the faculty. Without grad. students faculty wouldn’t have fun graduate level classes to teach and would have to spend more money on their research. As public universities start to shut down underperforming research departments this is a real issue… for faculty.

    Ask yourself: with whose interests are those of the professoriat aligned? The people who work for them, or the people who control the flow of money and resources that allow them to have the lifestyle they have come to enjoy? I am moved by Sailata losing his job about as much as I would be for some regional executive at Walmart losing their job for offending Bentonville. It must be difficult for him. Especially with the amount of his life he’s invested in the company. I’m sure he’ll land on his feet though, with some other business in the industry.

    Civility and servility are utterly incompatible.

    You clearly have never been to a German cafe.

  3. The pro-civility point, often made badly, is that uncivil people fail to engage with the ideas they disagree with. Too often, I find people, mostly on the left, resort to name calling instead of discussing points brought up by conservatives.

    Q. “If you want the Boy Scouts to admit gay scoutmasters, where will the scoutmasters sleep on camping trips?” A. “You are homophobic”.

    Q. “Will stigmatizing poor people motivate them to do something to get themselves out of poverty without government intervention.?” A.”You are a bully and a poor-hater.”

    Q. “Could the dearth of women in STEM fields have a cause other then mail discrimination?” A. “You are a male chauvinist.”

    Understand, I disagree with the views behind these questions; I usually dislike people who share these views; and I would typically not invite people who ask these questions to my house when I have a party.

    There is, however, a view among many people that asking questions such as these is so bad, that they may be provoked to name calling and incivility. Apparently these people feel that their emotional attachment to their cause is so strong that an emotional and uncivil response is legitimate.

    What of people new to the argument? A precocious 16 year old college freshman, or an engineering major from the middle east would get the impression that the questioner in all these cases is asking a reasonable question and the response is intolerant and evasive.

    Instead what do we get? The questions don’t get answers or only get answers along with the name calling. It seems to be effective, in that often the questions ceased being asked. I often wonder if they cease being thought.

    1. As a person of the left, here are my civil answers to those questions:

      1. The same place they’ve always slept, because gay does not equal pedophile.
      2. Almost certainly not, as we can see from decades of this being tried in the US, not to mention the Victorian workhouse system.
      3. Maybe, although I’m still waiting to see hard evidence that women are worse than men at math and scientific reasoning.

      If I sound annoyed or even disgusted with you when I give these answers, know that it is because for thirty years I’ve seen right-wingers refuse to take these answers seriously, instead hiding behind their own junk science. Rest assured I would like nothing better than to discuss these questions civilly with you on the basis of reality and peer-reviewed science.

  4. On the one hand, HELL YEAH! Academic freedom must be defended! And if these people are all turning up to fight for the this right, nothing would make me happier.

    On the other hand, it’s hard not to be cynical about the motives of Corey Robin and most of the other people fighting this campaign. Had Salaita been an outspoken critic of Palestine instead of Israel, I doubt that you’d have seen the kind of outrage this has provoked. (Example: Larry Summers) Sure, they’d have been in favor of his reinstatement in principle, but I doubt they’d so much as write an email. I don’t see valiant defenders of academic freedom. I see the tribe protecting it’s own.

    None of this changes the fact that Salaita should be reinstated.

    1. 1. Had Salaita been an outspoken critic of Palestine instead of Israel, he’d still have his job. This is a huge part of the context that people are reacting to, explicitly or not. Thus, your counter-hypothetical isn’t actually an equivalent situation.

      2. Since there are only so many hours in the day, we all have to pick our battles. You seem to be suggesting that if someone takes the time to defend controversial speech once on free speech or academic freedom grounds, they should feel obligated to defend their political opponents on the same grounds, as a matter of principle. This is a nice ideal but a strange standard to actually judge someone on. Political action is generally going to be a response to causes or events that most appeal to one’s sense of (in)justice. If you feel the way Corey Robin feels about Israel/Palestine, of course an instance of speech criticizing Israel becoming an academic freedom issue is going to motivate you to act more than some theoretical scenario where you disapprove of the content of the speech in question. And once you are motivated to advocate for a cause, there’s nothing wrong with emphasizing your strongest, most dispositive and least controversial arguments, as long as you sincerely believe them. In this case, whatever your strongest motivation for entering the debate, once you’re in it, you’re probably going to emphasize that the content of Salaita’s speech should be irrelevant for determining the outcome–as a tactical matter, but precisely because it’s an appeal to a foundational principle that should be self-evident.

      Now if Robin turns around and supports denying academic freedom to his political opponents, it’s clear hypocrisy and of course you’re correct. Then we could look back and know that “it was just the tribe defending its own,” as you put it. But as long we’re only talking about his (hypothetical) omissions, not his positive acts… I have to repeat, there are only so many hours in the day, and there are so many worthy causes in the world. I think it’s best for everyone involved if we pick the ones we feel unambiguously about, and only then worry about what other people think–by considering which of our arguments have the broadest appeal. Your alternative, if followed, puts advocates in a mindset where right from the start, they’re picking their causes based on how their choices look to others. If the goal is to move opinion in your direction, you’re starting with a surrender.

      1. I’m very sorry about the delay in my reply. I’ve had a crazy few days.

        1. No counter-factual is ever an equivalent statement, nor need it be. My point is that people are tribalists, and the point is enough. If he had lost his job over anti-Palestine tweets, he’d have no defenders on the left.

        2. I actually wasn’t pushing for a norm that says “if someone takes the time to defend controversial speech … matter of principle.” I was merely venting, not trying to change social norms. But you’ve got me thinking.

        As people have pointed out elsewhere there is an almost exact parallel between the kind of stuff that Salaita said and what people would label hate speech. Before we continue, would you be okay with Professors being allowed to stay if they made similar comments (“they should all be killed”) about (say) black folk or queer folk?

  5. I get how, on balance, civility serves the interest of the status quo. Still, I’m not a fan of building momentum behind a rule of political discourse that stigmatizes civility as *merely* another tool of oppression. Everybody sees themselves as the aggrieved, powerless David fighting against a corrupt Goliath. Everybody. Fox News geezers, protesters outside abortion clinics, and Westboro Baptist Church congregationalists shouting “God hates fags” at funerals all view themselves as over-matched minorities fighting desperate rearguard actions against some new status quo. Should everyone, not just one’s political allies but one’s political opponents as well, brush aside any calls to civility as simply the obfuscations of the powerful and unjust?

  6. “Had Salaita been an outspoken critic of Palestine instead of Israel, he’d still have his job. This is a huge part of the context that people are reacting to, explicitly or not. Thus, your counter-hypothetical isn’t actually an equivalent situation.”

    Nonsense! The context is that Salaita’s public statements were flagrantly anti-semitic. It’s about time that an academic leader has the courage to stand up and say no.

    1. Not nonsense, at all– hatred of Arabs and Muslims is absolutely uncontroversial in the United States. Nobody bats an eye.

      By the way: Steven Salaita has routinely and roundly rejected anti-Semitism and has repeatedly insisted that the conflict not be reduced to Jews vs. Arabs.

  7. Freddie,

    I know people claim you are intellectually honest, but then you go ahead and write junk like this:

    “Not nonsense, at all– hatred of Arabs and Muslims is absolutely uncontroversial in the United States. Nobody bats an eye.”


    And just so everyone remembers, Salaita wasn’t rejected for “criticism” of Israel (although why he was hired in the first place for crap scholarship* is the real mystery). He was rejected for tweets like this:

    1) “Israeli independence equals sustenance of the European eugenic logic made famous by Hitler”

    2) “Zionist uplift in America. Every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime.”

    3) Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wears “a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children.”

    4) Zionism bears responsibility for “transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable.”

    5) On June 20, soon after three Israelis were kidnapped and killed, he wrote: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the (expletive) West Bank settlers would go missing.”

    *As an example of his outstanding scholarship we find in the book Israel’s Dead Soul the following claim on page 110:

    “It is well known by Palestinians that anytime one of them enters or exits Israel, regardless of nationality, he or she will likely undergo an anal or vaginal probe. These probes… aren’t intended to be pragmatic. They are acts of psychological domineering and political assertion. The agents of these coercive actions are rehearsing their own depravity through fulfillment of their Orientalist notions of Arab and Muslim sexuality.”

    There is only one problem with this — it is totally and completely false. But it sounds good to the left-wing American readers who want to believe Israel is a monster.

    1. Your comment refutes itself; you insist that your problem is not his politics, and yet every criticism you make of him is about a political disagreement. (Beyond a swipe at his scholarship, which is almost certainly not informed by actual knowledge of said scholarship.) Salaita has tweeted many times against anti-Semitism, calling Jews his brothers, criticizing Hamas -why do you not quote these? Because your purpose is to attack his politics.

      1. “you insist that your problem is not his politics, and yet every criticism you make of him is about a political disagreement.”

        Yes of course, we (Salaita and I) have a profound disagreement about politics. But we also have a profound disagreement about how to express an argument and what constitutes rational discourse. Wishing that all West Bank settlers would be kidnapped a killed, presumably so that Palestinians wouldn’t have to suffer from Israeli occupation is evidence of (1) anti-Semitism, (2) a sick mind.

        The other tweets are also not honest, piercing criticism of Israeli policy (e.g. “Israel seems to be targeting innocent kids in Gaza — the U.S. should say no more aid until they stop!”), they are sick and twisted attacks on the very existence of the Israel state, its leader, and those who support it here in the U.S. Plenty of goofs in the academy don’t like Israel and Israeli policy towards the Palestinians — but they aren’t tweeting craziness.

  8. Freddie, I totally agree with you how its wrong to fire salaita for what he said/wrote. As an academic, he should have that freedom and leeway to say inflammatory and offensive things. But lets not sugarcoat what he said. He supports of killing of jewish civilians who live in the west bank.

    How is this any different than supporting the killing of Palestinian civilians in gaza (as say, joan rivers did), on account of them electing a Hamas government that proudly boasts of killing civilians? I thought we dont hold civilians responsible for their govts policies.

    Bottom line is that salaita should be allowed to keep his job, with the acknowledgment that he is a terrible bigot for supporting the killing of jewish civilians.

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