Harpo Jaeger dot com

Professor Steven Salaita and the right of public dissent

(If you want to skip my summary and just read the paper, it’s here.)

Almost a year ago, Professor Steven Salaita lost a job. Or did he? The debate about whether the University of Illinois abridged his academic freedom rights has raged since last August, when the news became public. The most recent update: the American Association of University Professors has censured the University. Censure is the highest penalty the AAUP can impose on an institution. It will do serious damage to UIUC’s status in the academic world.

Last fall, I researched the case of Professor Salaita in some depth for an undergraduate course on academic freedom, taught by Luther Spoehr at Brown University. A number of people have requested that I post that paper publicly; today I’m doing so. There have been several important updates since I wrote it – Prof. Salaita filed a lawsuit to go after UIUC donors who were likely behind his firing, he won a FOIA case, and now the censure – but my main conclusions still hold up: that UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise acted in contradiction of the principles of academic freedom when she fired Professor Salaita after public outcry caused by his tweets during last summer’s Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

Some excerpts from the paper:

Both the legal and procedural arguments fail to adequately settle the issue. The legal argument can get us only as far as determining whether Professor Salaita had academic freedom rights with respect to the University of Illinois. The procedural argument can get us only as far as determining whether the University acted in accordance with its own policy. The true question is whether the merits of Salaita’s dismissal stand up to the rather high bar that the standard conception of academic freedom imposes.

…in the absence of specific charges as to how Professor Salaita’s angry and rude tweets affected his abilities as a scholar or a teacher (beyond vague and unsubstantiated claims of potential student discomfort), it is inappropriate to consider the content or style of his remarks in a hiring decision.


Pending the University of Illinois Academic Senate investigation, I would not be surprised to see an AAUP Committee A investigation of this case, with censure of the University a distinct possibility, if not a likelihood. The Illinois AAUP has already weighed in, and the local Campus Faculty Association also believes an AAUP investigation is likely.

My predictions were accurate. The AAUP has vindicated Professor Steven Salaita about as thoroughly as is possible. Perhaps UIUC will reinstate him. Probably not. Perhaps the AAUP’s censure will increase the chances he’ll be hired elsewhere.

This case is a powerful reminder of exactly what happens when the limits of acceptable political discourse are set by wealthy people and institutions with their own interests. If academic inquiry is to remain a tool of progress, it is vital we learn from the case of Professor Steven Salaita and vigorously resist any attempts to impose political tests on university faculty, whether or not we agree with their particular opinions. This is a lesson that politically-minded people of all different beliefs must internalize.

“First they came for the loudmouthed professors, and I did not speak out because I was not a loudmouthed professor…”

Read the full paper: “You Can’t Fire Me; I Quit!” Academic freedom and the case of Steven Salaita”