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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Academic Freedom

From my position of University Senate President the issues are clear. I am in favor of academic freedom without reservations. That means freedom for positions I disagree with.

The Salaita case is interesting for several reasons. We find people lining up behind Salaita because

a) they share his politics

b) they stand for principles of academic freedom and basic contract fairness

c) a and b

People opposing Salaita might do so because

d) they oppose his politics and / or don't think much of his scholarship and don't care deeply about academic freedom, or think academic freedom is for me but not for thee

I would love to talk about how abhorrent some of his twitter posts are, or might seem to many, or my misgivings about him being hired in a department of American Indian Studies. I won't do that because I am in category b.


Thomas said...

I'm also firmly in category b. But I want to repeat my concerns about forming an opinion about his tweets and apply them also to the original hiring decisions. I don't think it's because we are in category b that we shouldn't talk about these things but because we respect the governance structure of universities and follow a golden rule.

Here's what I mean: If we had to explain an individual tweet to people who don't follow us whenever they (i.e., the critic) decides to hold us to account, it would be a nuisance, and would in the long run simply undermine the whole point of Twitter.

On Twitter we're always trying out expressions. Yes, it's in public, but it's also in a context. It's perfectly possible to say something and then "realise how that sounds", even realising that one holds some beliefs one didn't think one held. It's one of the places we can work out our position in conversation. Not everything we say actually reflects a deeply held position, nor ones we necessarily continue to hold after expressing them. But sorting out the role a particular tweet played in a conversation, mindful also of the long-term effects of that conversation on the development of our views, requires a lot of interpretative charity.

Likewise, hiring committees do their work under a great deal of peer and administrative oversight. It's not because we support academic freedom and contract law that we're not going to second-guess the committee, but because if the roles were reversed we wouldn't, as a hiring committee (or as a department head who acted on its recommendation), want to have to respond to someone's quickly formed opinion about whether or not my department needs expertise in some particular area.

(It looks like there is an argument for hiring people with competences broadly related to "indigenous rights" in AI programs. But I definitely don't have competence to judge.)

These days, really good arguments can be made for hiring philosophers and literary theorists into business schools because they have competences (in, e.g., epistemology or gender studies) that can usefully be applied to organisational theory. Any particular hire might look odd or unwise to an outside eye. But you only want to have to defend the hire against criticism from someone who has a serious interest in the health of the discipline.

Again, it's like defending a tweet against a particular interpretation. It's something I'm willing to do with my twitter followers. I'm much less interested in explaining it to a journalist or political opponent or boss who's just been told about something I said.

Jonathan said...

Suppose you had a dept. of Caribbean studies. You hire a specialist in Japan with a very superficial acquaintance with the ostensible "area" of the dept.. Well, you could justify it because of a theory of "insularity," pointing to historical parallels between Japan and Cuba. But I can imagine a dean questioning that also. There are very few American Indians with PhDs in anything at all, and there is also a tradition of solidarity between Palestinians and American Indians. You put those two things together and you get that kind of stretchy, sketchy hire. I wish I could trust the experts in the field to hire people who they think appropriate, but I don't in this case. They made a bad hire (for reasons unrelated to his tweets). One of his very few articles on Native American literature is a critique of how an author treats an Arab character.

The entire field looks very bad, especially in wake of the Ward Churchill affair. He was also a non-Indian (though he claimed to be) with questionable academic qualifications, who came to attention for intemperate remarks unrelated to American Indians, and brought general disrepute to the field. Salaita is more qualified than Churchill, his remarks are less outrageous, but I still think this is a problem for the field as a whole. The whole idea of Palestinians = Indians is highly insulting, because wouldn't you want a specialist in your own field? Someone with broad knowledge of Indian culture or at least of some particular area of that culture?

Jonathan said...

Here's another way to make the point. You don't know if someone is committed to academic freedom unless they believe in it for people with views opposed to their own. I believe in academic freedom, but am dismayed about what the case reveals about a field that I would like to see thriving.

Thomas said...

One of the things that is sometimes forgotten is that the names of departments sometimes don't really capture the nature of the research and teaching it does. Maybe in a couple of years the AI department will be renamed as the final development of an intellectual shift of research focus within it. At that point it might be as devoted to the study of the Middle East as of the Americas. Or something like that.

It was also surprising for some to see that Salaita was tenured professor in the English department at Virginia Tech. But there are probably also some who would ask why Virginia Tech has an English department! My point is that there are often pretty trivial reasons for why particular departments exist and have the names they have, and these are sometimes unrelated to why they choose to build up expertise in a a particular subject area like the Palenstinian issue.

Anonymous said...

The really important issue here is being drowned in the endless parsing of Salaita's life, emotions, experiences, feelings, and social network participation. If even academics can't stick to discussing general principles and have to smother every issue in these irrelevant personal details, then things are really bad. And then we all wonder why electoral campaigns concentrate on personalities and gossip and not on the ideas each candidate is supposed to represent.

I have read a lot on the subject but yours is pretty much the only blog that still reminds people that this is not about whether Salaita is a good guy but about a much larger issue of academic freedom.

Vance Maverick said...

Clarissa -- Lawyers, Guns and Money is quite clear on this as well. Scott Lemieux has posted most frequently on the issue, but it's important to several others there too. They might be slightly more favorable to Salaita on the accusations than Jonathan is, but they're equally firm that that's not the point.

Anonymous said...

The link in this post is not working.

OT I think you should post about Senate to the extent it is politic. Our old provost tried to engineer an administrative takeover of the senate, and now our new one is, albeit more subtly. I am interested to figure out whether this is a blueprint presented at conferences of college administrators, that they are all following, or what. (Process is apparently complete at ASU.)