global politics, relationally

The Salaita Case, Academic Freedom, and Modern Conflict: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us


There is a lot of debate and discussion about the almost-hiring/top-down “firing” of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois. For those who have missed the story, you can find a recap in the Chronicle here.

Academics, of course, love to argue. Many have argued that the “un-hiring” of Salaita was a gross violation of academic freedom. Others have raised concerns about the start of a trend: more aggressive central administration “meddling” in academic hires. Many have been critical, even severely critical, of UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise. Whatever you think of the other issues involved, this last group is dead wrong.

The way the case has played out in the academic press (you can read the latest Chronicle piece here) is typical of public controversies today. The fact is that no matter what decision Wise made, there would have been a substantial and vociferous public outcry against UI. Wealthy donors would have threatened to withhold funding. Students, parents, and alumni would have been outraged. There was no decision she could make nor justification she could offer that would prevent this outcome.

The fact that this is true is very much our fault – ours meaning all of us, both inside and outside of academia. We have developed a culture in which disagreements are conducted largely via screaming matches, with ever-escalating levels of rhetoric. It would be interesting to measure the length of time it takes in any given controversy for Godwin”s Law casino to kick in. I suspect that period is shrinking.

One interesting aspect of the Salaita case is that”s a sort of narrative Mobius strip – it”s the same inside and out. The original conflict of the hiring decision revolved around Salaita”s apparent tendency to conduct arguments via Twitter in a somewhat profane, angry, and even uncivil way. I”m no fan of the idea of using “collegiality” or similarly slippery concepts as hard-and-fast rules – but I”m not sure I would have wanted to be this fellow”s colleague either. At root, it”s just uncomfortable (and potentially dangerous to the educational enterprise) to have somebody around who is so sure of his position that he is willing to denigrate others while he trumpets it.

As the conflict became public, this same dynamic metastasized. Now you have people on all sides screaming about how immoral, moronic, or inhuman those who disagree with them are. Those who defend Salaita (not all, but some) do so with the very tools he got himself into trouble with in the first place. And had the decision gone the other way, those defending Wise would undoubtedly be doing the same.

This is particularly the case, of course, whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on the table. There seems to be an especially vicious level of rhetoric attached to this conflict in particular, one matched only rarely by other contexts (abortion and gun control come to mind). There just isn”t a lot of reasoned dialogue on this that can cut through the noise.

But all of this – Salaita himself, the controversy of his hiring, and the reaction to the decision not to – is simply of a reflection of who we have become. Even within academia – as sad as that is – we have allowed a winner-take-all, take-no-prisoners culture to take root. And so we spend a lot of time uselessly screaming at each other, comparing each other to Nazis, and hurling insults most of us would be ashamed to use in front of our mothers, spouses, and children. This isn”t academic freedom, its the barbarization of the academy.

We have lost the virtue of Humility. In so doing, we have guaranteed that we will have more screaming fights. There will be more Salaitas, more hiring decisions conducted under fire, and – very likely – greater administrative involvement in those decisions. If you want the world to be different, you won”t get there by screaming your viewpoint about academic freedom, or shared governance, or anti-Semitism any louder. Try screaming a little less.