I have just gotten my hands on a copy of Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, the new book by Dr. Steven Salaita. Dr. Salaita is a Palestinian academic who had a tenured job at Virginia Tech, left that job to take a job at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that he had been offered and accepted. But because of controversial tweets he sent denouncing Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, his job offer was rescinded, causing him and his family incredible professional and academic hardship. He has since enjoyed a string of legal victories against Illinois, and the case has been a terrible embarrassment for the university and its leadership, but his job has never been restored.
I am again contemplating the future of academic freedom as I open the book. As I have said before, it strikes me that the broader threat is not attacks on tenured faculty like Dr. Salaita, as awful as his ordeal has been, but to young faculty and those looking to become faculty. The real lesson that will likely be absorbed by many institutions is to shut out potentially controversial academics before they arrive on campus. Why risk the potential hassle of a Steven Salaita situation, when you can instead police the politics of applicants to your universities? That, I think, is the real battleground for the future of campus freedom, in the job search committees and the emails from deans to department heads, regarding potential controversial hires. And sadly, these are the places where there is the least light of all. Meanwhile, the pressure on young academics to be public with your work, to engage in the online sphere, comes from both without and within, as journalists and commentators wonder why academics don’t do more to share their work, and as applicants feel forced to build a name for themselves before they’re hired, given brutal labor conditions. For so many young academics I know, this feels like an impossible tension: be public, be accessible, engage! Ah, but for god’s sake, don’t say the wrong thing!
You can read past work of mine discussing these dynamics. As I wrote last September in a post for this blog titled “Who and What is the University For?,”
Many faculty I know are firmly, fully dedicated to the spirit of honest, passionate inquiry. But I’m sorry to say that some 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.
I wrote on similar themes when I guest blogged for Andrew Sullivan in April of 2014. In a post titled “Academics, Public Work, and Labor,” I wrote
…I was approached over the course of the next day by perhaps a half dozen grad students, who confided in me that they, too, feel constrained in what they can say, and fear speaking out in public about issues of controversy. They appreciated the support of the faculty in attendance, as I did, but said that with the academic job market as demoralizingly competitive as it is, they could not help but feel pressure to keep their opinions to themselves. They want to engage publicly, but the risks seem to outweigh the rewards….while I hope and pray that Salaita lands on his feet in a secure tenured job, the damage to academic freedom has been done no matter what the outcome: the millions of academics observing this situation, particularly those who are in the precarious position of being untenured—the vast majority—cannot help but be less likely to speak out on matters of controversy.
Check them out.