The University of Illinois administration is imploding under the weight of a swiftly growing academic boycott and a rash of no-confidence votes by numerous university departments. All of this has come in response to the firing of Professor Steven Salaita by Chancellor Phyllis Wise in August for his social-media critiques of Israel. The story of that firing is a sordid and rapidly deteriorating one on the verge of concluding. It has also become the story of how university administrations across America, unsettled by the Salaita case, are responding with calls for ‘civility,’ a preemptive strike threatening the principle of academic freedom.

To explain, it’s first necessary to briefly tell Salaita’s story as it currently stands, which indeed is a strange one. A former English professor at Virginia Tech, Salaita was hired away by Wise to a tenured professorship at Illinois, where he was to teach Native American Studies beginning this fall. However, Salaita was suddenly fired before he even stepped into a classroom just before the academic year began because of his severe critiques of Israel on Twitter.

For nearly three weeks, as outrage grew and academic boycotts by professors around the country spread, Wise and the administration remained silent. Then, finally, Wise released a statement explaining the Salaita firing in which she wrote:

“I firmly believe that a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois is a tremendous honor and a unique privilege. Tenure also brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.”

Wise’s leaning upon the principle of “civility” to justify firing Salaita further inflamed the academic community, particularly given that it was being applied not to his professional performance, where by all account Salaita’s collegiality and classroom performance were stellar, but to his outside political opinions.

The Acadame Blog, published by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), immediately responded to Wise’s letter with this:

“Wise’s grotesque mistake is imagining that one of the rights of an individual is to be protected from the possibility of hearing ‘disrespectful’ criticism. To the contrary, one of the fundamental rights of individual students is the right to hear dissenting points of views without censorship, and Wise is clearly violating that right of students to hear Salaita teach when she imposes her personal standards of ‘civility’on a university.”

Soon after, the AAUP wrote directly to Wise, rejecting her “civility” rationale, expressing concern for the state of academic freedom at the University of Illinois and charging it with breaching Salaita’s rights by punishing him for Tweets critical of Israel:

“We see Professor Salaita’s online statements as extramural activity as a citizen rather than as faculty performance, and the 1940 Statement of Principles cautions that when faculty members ‘speak or write as citizens they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline…’”

It’s now been revealed by internal email dialogues, via an FOIA request by The News-Gazette, that Wise’s decision to fire Salaita came from pressure by pro-Israel donors to the university who threatened to take their money elsewhere if Salaita stepped foot upon the Illinois campus. These revelations have caused Wise to publicly express regret for the decision and send Salaita’s hiring to the university board, which will decide the Palestinian-American’s fate.

However, while Illinois may be backtracking, other university administrations have suddenly, within the past week, doubled down on the concept of “civility.” In strange statements, which can only be seen as preemptive strikes against the Salaitas of the world, a movement is underfoot which threatens academic freedom at American universities.

Calls for “Civility” Spread in Salaita’s Wake

On Friday, students and faculty at UC Berkeley received an unsettling email from Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who wrote:

“[W]e can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility.”

The letter was roundly criticized, with the word “civility” being seen as a front for censorship and a direct attack on the concept of academic freedom. Some wondered whether Dirks’ letter, which closely echoed Wise’s “civility” argument, was a direct response to the Salaita case.

Then, on the same day, Pennsylvania State University made a similar, unprompted call for civility, couching it as a plea to the community in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal. However, officials admitted that no specific incident at the university prompted the statement.

“Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said there was no specific incident that triggered the statement. Rather, she said, growing in civility is a national issue, and the leadership of Penn State felt that the beginning of the semester was a good time to begin a conversation on civility and respect.”

Since Friday, other university presidents have mentioned “civility” in their opening remarks, forcing academics and observers to wonder whether presidents and chancellors are independently responding to the Salaita case, or whether there is coordination among some university leaders to establish “civility” as a normative academic principle capable of providing cover for firing the likes of Salaita.

At Ohio University, there is no question as to whether a connection exists. What happened there? University President Roderick J. McDavis called upon student senate president Megan Marzec to take the “ice bucket challenge.” Which she did, subverting the meme – as other Palestinians have done – by pouring fake blood over her head to call attention to those killed in Gaza.

In response, McDavis wrote,

“I take great pride in the fact that Ohio University is a community that tackles hard issues head-on. The conflict in Israel and Gaza is no exception. But the manner in which we conduct ourselves as we exercise our right to free speech is of utmost importance.

In my First Year Student Convocation address, I emphasized the idea that we are a University family. As members of a University family, we will not always agree, but we should respect one another. And when we engage in difficult dialogue on issues such as this, we must do so with civility and a deep appreciation for the diverse and resilient international community in which we live.”

All of these calls for civility, from the University of Illinois to Ohio University, have had one thing in common: the trumpeting of “civility” by university administrations as a prerequisite to free speech.

Of course, such a stance runs counter to academic freedom. Professors and students are not supposed to be punished for their external political views, with protest and dissent being, by definition, both uncivil (in that they challenge comfortable norms) and integral to the free exchange of ideas.

This concept of “civility” is currently being used specifically to attack pro-Palestinian voices. Which means that everyone who holds difficult opinions are under attack. For if Salaita can be punished for Tweeting severe critiques of Israel, anyone can be punished for any political opinion.

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What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.

Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

 


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