Troublesome Speech and the UIUC Boycott

Self-indulgently long post below. Short version: Steven Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech who had been offered and accepted a faculty job at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, had his offer rescinded when the administration discovered that he had posted inflammatory tweets about Israel, such as “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Many professors in a number of disciplines, without necessarily agreeing with Salaita’s statements, believe strongly that academic norms give him the right to say them without putting his employment in jeopardy, and have organized a boycott of UIUC in response. Alan Sokal of NYU is supporting the boycott, and has written a petition meant specifically for science and engineering faculty, who are welcome to sign if they agree.

Everyone agrees that “free speech” is a good thing. We live in a society where individual differences are supposed to be respected, and we profess admiration for the free market of ideas, where competing claims are discussed and subjected to reasonable critique. (Thinking here of the normative claim that free speech is a good thing, not legalistic issues surrounding the First Amendment and government restrictions.) We also tend to agree that such freedom is not absolute; you don’t have the right to come into my house (or the comment section of my blog) and force me to listen to your new crackpot theory of physics. A newspaper doesn’t have an obligation to print something just because you wrote it. Biology conferences don’t feel any need to give time to young-Earth creationists. In a classroom, teachers don’t have to sit quietly if a student wants to spew blatantly racist invective (and likewise for students while teachers do so).

So there is a line to be drawn, and figuring out where to draw it isn’t an easy task. It’s not hard to defend people’s right to say things we agree with; the hard part is defending speech we disagree with. And some speech, in certain circumstances, really isn’t worth defending — organizations have the right to get rid of employees who are (for example) consistently personally abusive to their fellow workers. The hard part — and it honestly is difficult — is to distinguish between “speech that I disagree with but is worth defending” and “speech that is truly over the line.”

To complicate matters, people who disagree often become — how to put this delicately? — emotional and polemical rather than dispassionate and reasonable. People are very people-ish that way. Consequently, we are often called upon to defend speech that we not only disagree with, but whose tone and connotation we find off-putting or even offensive. Those who would squelch disagreeable speech therefore have an easy out: “I might not agree with what they said, but what I really can’t countenance is the way they said it.” If we really buy the argument that ideas should be free and rational discourse between competing viewpoints is an effective method of discovering truth and wisdom, we have to be especially willing to defend speech that is couched in downright objectionable terms.

As an academic and writer, in close cases I will almost always fall on the side of defending speech even if I disagree with it (or how it is said). Recently several different cases have illustrated just how tricky this is — but in each case I think that the people in question have been unfairly punished for things they have said.

The first case is Ashutosh Jogalekar, who writes the Curious Wavefunction blog at Scientific American. Or “wrote,” I should say, since Ash has been fired, and is now blogging independently. (Full disclosure: I don’t know Ash, but he did write a nice review of my book; my wife Jennifer is also a blogger at SciAm, although I’m not privy to any inside info.)

The offenses for which he was let go amount to three controversial posts. One was actually a guest post by Chris Martin, arguing that Larry Summers was right when he said that “innate ability” “intrinsic aptitude” (my mistake — see comments) was a major determinant of women’s underrepresentation in science and math. It’s a dispiritingly self-righteous and sloppy argument, as well as one that has been thoroughly debunked; there may very well be innate differences, but the idea that they explain underrepresentation is laughably contradicted by the data, while the existence of discrimination is frighteningly demonstrable. The next post was a positive review of Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. Again, not very defensible on the merits; Wade’s book lurches incoherently from “genetic markers objectively correlate with geographical populations” to “therefore Chinese people may be clever, but they’ll never really understand democracy.” In a great Marshall McLuhan moment, over a hundred population geneticists — many of whom Wade relied on for the “scientific” parts of his book — wrote a scathing letter to the New York Times to make sure everyone understood “there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.” Finally, a post on Richard Feynman chronicled Ash’s feelings about the physicist, from young hero-worshiper to the eventual realization that Feynman could be quite disturbingly sexist, to ultimately feeling that we should understand Feynman’s foibles in the context of his time and not let his personal failings detract from our admiration for his abilities as a scientist. I didn’t really object to this one myself; I read it as someone grappling in good faith with the contradictions of a complex human being, even if in spots it came of as offering excuses for Feynman’s bad behavior. Others disagreed.

So SciAm decided to deal with the problem by letting Jogalekar go. In my mind, a really dumb decision. I disagree very strongly with some of the stuff Ash (or his guest poster) has said, but I never thought it came close to some standard of horribleness and offensiveness that would countenance firing him. I want to be challenged by people I disagree with, not just surrounded by fellow-travelers. I didn’t find much of interest in Ash’s three controversial posts, but overall his blog was often thought-provoking and enjoyable. SciAm had every “right” to fire him, as a legal matter. They are under no obligation to stand by their employees when those employees take controversial stances. But it was still the wrong thing to do; nothing Ash said was anywhere close to falling outside the realm of reasonable things to talk about, disagree with them though I may.

It breaks my heart. In the interminable arguments about gender and IQ and genetics, a favorite strategy of people who like to promote lazy arguments in favor of genetic determinism is to bemoan their victimhood status, claiming that even asking such questions is deemed unacceptable by the liberal thought police. (Wade’s defenders, for example, eagerly jumped on a rumor that he had been fired from the Times because of his book, when the truth is he had left the paper some years earlier.) Usually I have just laughed in response, pointing out that these questions are investigated all the time; the only real danger these people face is that others point out how superficial their arguments are, not that they are punished or lose their jobs for reaching the wrong conclusions. But I was wrong, and they were right, at least to some extent. You really can lose your job for holding the wrong view of these issues. (Sometimes the attitude is completely out in the open, as in this Harvard Crimson op-ed urging that we “give up on academic freedom in favor of justice.”) As a liberal and a feminist myself, I think we should be the ones who protect speech rights most vociferously, the ones who are happy to counter arguments with which we disagree with better arguments rather than blunt instruments of punishment. It’s a difficult standard to live up to.

The second case is less specific: the growing penchant for disinviting speakers with whom we disagree. It’s been bugging me for a while, but I won’t say too much about it here, especially since Massimo Pigliucci has already done a good job. I’m not a big fan of Condoleezza Rice’s contributions to US foreign policy, and I can understand that it might be disillusioning to hear that she was scheduled to be the featured speaker at your commencement at Rutgers. But I would advocate putting up with this mild inconvenience — unless you think that conservative students should also have the right to veto commencement talks by Democratic politicians.

I’ve expressed similar feelings before, in the even more straightforward case where Larry Summers (he keeps popping up in these conversations) was disinvited from giving a talk to the Regents of the University of California. That seemed completely wrong to me — the idea apparently being that Summers, having once said incorrect things about one topic, should be prevented from speaking to any audience about any topic. At the same time, I had no problem at all with Harvard faculty working to remove Summers as President of the university after his problematic speech. The difference being that what he said had a direct bearing on his performance in the office. He clearly misunderstood the situation of many women in modern academia, especially the sciences, and that’s something a modern university president really needs to understand. And it turns out that — shockingly, I know — the number of women hired as senior faculty under Summers was in fact noticeably smaller than it had been under his predecessors. But that, of course, doesn’t mean he should have been fired from his position as a tenured professor of economics — as indeed he was not. (Although I have to say his teaching load seems pretty light.)

The third case, most recent and newsworthy, is Salaita. The specifics were listed up at the top: he was offered a position, accepted it, and had it withdrawn before he could actually move, when the administration learned about some inflammatory tweets. I am not completely conversant with all of the details of his contract — apparently the job had been offered, and he had resigned from Virginia Tech, but the step of having his contract approved by the Board of Trustees (usually a formality) hadn’t yet gone through, giving the UIUC Chancellor an opportunity to step in by deciding not to submit the appointment to the board. (I had read about the issue in various places, but special thanks to Paul Boghossian at NYU for nudging me to pay attention to it.)

There’s little question in my mind that some of Salaita’s remarks were ugly. In addition to the Netanyahu tweet at the top, he said things like like “Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” and “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” Statements like this don’t have anything very useful to offer in terms of rational discourse and the free market of ideas. (Even if, as always, context matters.) But I’m perfectly willing to believe that his other work has something to offer. We don’t judge academics by their least-academic utterances. And one-liners like this, as off-putting as they might be when read in isolation, shouldn’t disqualify someone from participating in the wider discourse. (Salaita has also tweeted things like “I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs” and “#ISupportGaza because I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in the eyes of God.”)

When a professor has already been vetted and approved by a department and essentially offered a position, there should be an extremely high bar indeed for the administration to step in at the last minute and attempt to reverse the decision. It would be one thing if new evidence had come to light that indicated the person would be incompetent at their job; in Salaita’s case there was nothing of the sort, and indeed he received excellent teaching evaluations at Virginia Tech. And what would be really bad would be if administrators were making decisions for non-academic reasons, in ways that threaten to truly undermine academic freedom. That seems to be the case here. It is clear, at least, that UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise was directly contacted by prominent donors who threatened to stop donating if Salaita were hired.

Most worrisome of all was Chacellor Wise’s statement about the controversy, which included remarks such as this:

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.

It’s easy to let your eyes glaze over that, but the statement itself is clear: the UIUC administration thinks it is not permissible to “demean and abuse … viewpoints themselves.” At Urbana-Champaign, you can be fired if you make fun of creationism, racism, or sexism. Those are viewpoints, and viewpoints cannot be demeaned or abused!

Perhaps Wise, or whoever drafted the statement, dashed something off and wasn’t thinking about it too carefully. If that’s their defense, it’s not much of one; these are crucially important issues for a university, which warrant some careful thought and precise formulation. And if they stand by it, a statement like this is straightforwardly antithetical to everything that universities are supposed to stand for.

I am therefore in support of the call for a boycott, until Salaita’s position is restored, even if (and in fact, especially because of the fact that) I don’t agree with his positions. I don’t really like boycotts in general — again, always preferring to err on the side of engagement rather than disengagement. I think the idea of an academic boycott of Israel is silly and counterproductive, for example. But a boycott is one of the few things that academics can do to put pressure on a university administration. And in this case there are signs it might actually be having an effect on UIUC — it seems that the Chancellor has forwarded the case to the Board of Trustees after all, although they have yet to actually vote on it. So if you are a science/engineering faculty member and inclined to support it, feel free to sign the petition. (There are also petitions organized by other disciplines, of course.)

Having said all that, it’s not like I’m very gleeful in my support of all these people with whom I disagree. It’s necessary and, I think, honorable, but also uncomfortable. Some people disagree with my own stance, of course: while the American Association of University Professors is firmly in Salaita’s corner, former AAUP president Cary Nelson takes a dissenting view.

One of the reasons why these issues are difficult is because of the emotional component I’ve already mentioned. In particular, it’s easy for me to say “You people who are being denigrated by these statements should just buck up and take it in the name of free speech and inquiry.” I have never personally had to suffer from sexism, racism, or anti-Semitism (or having my neighborhood bombed, for that matter). I’m a straight, white, upper-class, lapsed-Episcopalian Anglo-American male — in the sweepstakes of being privileged, I just about hit the jackpot. It’s no problem for me to sit back from this position of comfort and extoll the virtues of unfettered speech. The way our society is set up, it would be very difficult for anyone to write a blog post or series of tweets that would call into question my self-worth simply because of a group to which I happened to belong.

And yet, I don’t think that my position disqualifies me from having an opinion. It just means that I should try to be cognizant of my biases, be thoughtful about how other people might feel, and try especially hard to actually listen to what they have to say.

So to me, the most effective statements I’ve read on the Salaita controversy have been those from Jonathan Judaken and Bonny Honig. Here is Judaken:

As a scholar familiar with Judeophobic imagery, Salaita’s one-liner veered dangerously close to the myth of blood-libel. For a thousand years, Jews have been accused of desiring the blood of non-Jewish children. If the depiction of Netanyahu as savage and barbaric was applied to President Obama (as it has been) the racism would be patent.

Having grown up as a Jewish person in South Africa under apartheid — a dominant racial group and a religious minority — Judaken understands this language when he hears it. But here’s the thing: he supports the boycott, “on the basis of the principles of faculty governance, academic freedom, and freedom of speech.” Protecting the right of scholars to have an express unpopular opinions is too important to compromise. And here’s Honig, a political theorist at Brown:

I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel. Perhaps tweets like Prof. Salaita’s, along with images of violence from Gaza and our innate sense of fair play, could wake us from our uncritical slumbers. It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way – awakened to thinking.

That’s such a great statement of the true academic mindset. Provoke me! Say something I disagree with, even in an intentionally disagreeable way. Make me think, force me to re-examine my cherished presuppositions. Probably I will come out with my basic opinions intact — as an empirical matter, that’s usually what happens. But if you provoke me well, I’ll understand those presuppositions even better, and be more prepared to defend them next time. And who knows? You might even change my mind. One way or another, let the disagreements fly.

Very short version: I wish I lived in a world where I could spend my time disagreeing with people whose views I found disagreement-worthy, rather than fighting for their right to say disagreeable things.

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76 Responses to Troublesome Speech and the UIUC Boycott

  1. Dan says:

    While posting someone else’s opinion is admittedly lazy, Christopher Hitchens spoke pretty well to the issue of freedom of speech:

    “The right of others to free expression is part of my own. If someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Moreover, I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read. That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear and that it must extend above all to those who think differently is to me self-evident.”

  2. David Keys says:

    I wonder if he had a signed contract with UIUC, or only an offer? Then there is the pesky tenure question. Did he have tenure at VT? And was the UIUC offer a tenure track one? We may want to revisit Groucho Marx and update his aphorism–he didn’t want to belong to an organization that would have him. In this case have him, and then change their mind. Who does UIUC’s changing their mind say more about–him, or them?

  3. Matthew V says:

    This is appalling and scary, especially from public university! But I wouldn’t say that it’s particularly surprising.

  4. Nikita says:

    I am a female intellectual. I support free speech of opinions that I disagree with. I actually revere writers (now dead) who were sexist (but brilliant). I agree with Summers being fired by Harvard but I think he should have been appointed chairman of the Fed. But I draw a line. I draw the line when misogynists threaten (or actually attempt) to kill me. Or rape me. Or other women or men or children. So, as long as we are talking characterizations (Netanyahu wearing a necklace of children’s teeth) it is, to me, free speech that should be protected although I disagree with it. But when free speech promotes violence or murder, I draw the line and argue that it must be stopped by whatever means available. I support the boycott of UIUC and think that they should reopen their offer of employment to Salaita. However, I doubt that they will — they would rather dissolve the university than support free speech.

  5. Jason Loxton says:

    I am torn on this. The late stage of the decision is unfortunate, and the suggestion that it was based partly on external donor pressure is almost reason for me to support a boycott on its own (donor pressure is a truly dangerous threat to academic freedom), but barring those two considerations, I actually don’t see any problem with a university taking a pass on someone for interpersonal/personality reasons.

    Aside from good scholarship, a professor has to be a respectful colleague, an effective educator, and a public representative of the institution as a whole. A bad apple can make a department completely dysfunctional. If he had gotten drunk during the standard interview dinner and started spouting stuff like, “[y]ou may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” [seriously? whoa.], the hiring committee would have quietly cut him off the list: there are enough qualified candidates in the oversupplied academic market to find someone who isn’t likely to upset the working dynamic of a department. (That his comments have nothing at all to do with his scholarship, make recourse to academic freedom harder to maintain.)

    As a young academic myself (who just served on his first hiring committee), I have to say that there’s a very good chance I’d pass on this fellow if the tweets came to light during the hiring process: he sounds like the sort of disruptive hot head who I’d want to avoid bringing into my department. Is it actually that dramatically different that they came to light during the final stages of confirmation?

    I am not sure, personally.

  6. Bob Zannelli says:

    This is appalling, as are many of the actions of Israel and the Palestinians

  7. Cade DeBois (@cadedebois) says:

    I have a lot of problems with this, to be very honest. But rather than nitpick I’ll just get to the heart of what’s really bothering me.

    All through reading this I keep asking whether you regard evil as a reality or as a mere thought experiment or matter or perspective–a bias, if you will. And if you do think evil can be a reality, then I must ask, what do you think is the appropriate response to it?

    This is the problem with pretenses of civility. Civility is only truly civility if it seeks to civilize: to temper the violent, to include the exluded, to heal the wounded and sick, to protect the weak and vulnerable and of course, to right injustices. But we live is a so-called civilization that has acquired all its trapping of civilization–including science and academia–by propping itself up on the exploited, the oppressed, the excluded and the disenfranchised. This is an unavoidable, defining pattern within our society, which if we were truly civilized, we’d be addressing with honesty and courage. Yet that’s not what happens in our world. Instead, far too often pretenses of civility, including obligatory defenses of “free speech” and calls for objectivity and dispassionate discourse, really serve to protect this charade of civilization and to rationalize its injustices and its evils, rather than confront the ways our civilization is deeply, deeply uncivil.

    So I ask again, if you think evil is a reality, what should one’s response to it be? And in a world where pretenses of civlity are so often used to distract from the gravity and extent of evil being done in our world, in our time, right before our eyes, from extraordinary events to banal, everyday incidences, what is a moral person to do? What obligation does a moral person have here to maintain pretenses of civility?

    By the way, I don’t ssume to have the answer to that question myself. I just think it is a question we need to be asking, especially in regards to any issue that involves those who any society has trampled upon in its pursuit of “civilization”.

  8. Richard E says:

    With regard to the SciAm blogger, I had no problem with him being sacked — his ruminations fell far short of the standard one would expect to see associated with the SciAm brand. That isn’t about content as much as it is about competence.

  9. Caroline O'Donnell says:

    I have to agree with you totally. I do not like what he tweeted – although, I have to say, his opinion probably held some truth, from my personal opinion also, but that said, putting it out considering his position and into what could, and did, become a public forum, was not the wisest thing he could have done… But he shouldn’t lose his position over it!

  10. Sjw says:

    I’m strongly in favor of defending academic freedom, but I think in this case the university’s decision was appropriate. The trustees would not have confirmed salaita’s appointment, better to pull the offer now than after he’d actually moved there. Trustee confirmations are usually a rubber stamp, but in the end it’s their decision. Also, he would have been coming in with tenure, an important consideration. Bad choice on his part perhaps to do those tweets before the job was final. Also, I wonder if there’d be boycotts if he was tweeting “F*** Palestine.”

    If he were already teaching there, it would be a different case.

  11. Jonathan Ponniah says:

    A university has a responsibility to foster discussion and debate among a diversity of viewpoints, especially when the subject is controversial and the stakes are high. I think it’s fair to say that the provocative and incendiary statements that Prof. Sailata makes about Israeli-Palestinian conflict preempt any constructive engagement with those who hold different opinions. They only add to the entrenchment of both sides in their existing camps.

    Isn’t our world polarized enough? We don’t have shortage of people on opposite extremes of the political/religious/cultural spectrum screaming and hurling abuse at each other. We do however, lack people willing to step outside of their comfort zone and engage with their ideological opponents, in good faith.

    Prof. Salaita may have been a highly competent scholar in his particular field, which is why the department recommended tenure. But his confrontational and aggressive style doesn’t fit within the broader mandate of the university. And it’s certainly not what our contemporary discourse needs today.

    Chancellor Wise, in my opinion correctly sees the bigger picture at play here. As an alumnus of UIUC, I support her decision.

  12. Sam says:

    Why should students and faculty have to “put up with” a commencement speaker who they find repugnant? Nobody has a right to be invited to give a speech, and (unlike many other university activities) commencement speeches aren’t a public good – they are for the entertainment of those who attend and the university has no more moral obligation to bring a controversial speaker than does Disneyworld. It seems to me that the wishes of a broad majority of the campus should definitely carry some water.

  13. Roy Abrams says:

    Anyone empathetic towards Saleita’s attitude should read this transcript of Palestine’s top negotiator boasting about rejecting the two comprehensive peace proposals Israel made, in 2000 and 2008. Afterwards, it’s worth meditating on just why boycotts only seem to coalesce in matters concerning Israel, despite it’s conflict with its neighbors being the least fatal in the region.

  14. BobC says:

    A few weeks ago, in a moment of psychological weakness, I wrote and shared something that turned out to be quite abusive in a passive-aggressive way (insinuations, “helpful” suggestions, etc.). I came to my senses about 12 hours later, to be greeted by a maelstrom. I immediately fell on my sword, pleaded mea culpa, tried to explain, and begged forgiveness. None was forthcoming. The ripples affected folks I care about, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to fix the damage or undo the effects.

    This clearly is an entirely different scenario from Sean’s examples, but the common element is forgiveness: Not just of the writer, but perhaps also of those taking offense in a pejorative manner.

    It is the total lack of forgiveness in the reactions that has me floored. To me that reeks of a level of self-righteousness “ownership” of another person’s expression of their opinions.

    Ok, that’s one perspective. But let’s take another look at those who took action against the writers.

    Don’t SciAm bloggers have even a hint of editorial supervision? A quick sanity-check before posting? If not, then there should be, as an inherent and integral part of associating with the SciAm brand. If a post gets rejected, the author may post it elsewhere, well outside the SciAm umbrella.

    If anything, SciAm has failed in their responsibility to their own brand, and firing the blogger for it is inexcusable. SciAm seems to be a mess right now. I wonder if it wouldn’t be best for SciAm to get out of the blog hosting business, and instead advertise on and link to blogs they like, and simply redirect their funds and links when they see fit. No editorial responsibilities, and far clearer lines between each blogger and SciAm.

    I know little of the university faculty hiring process, but friends who have gone through it say it can be highly politicized, and the best way through it is to be aggressively apolitical and level-headed (but that’s very different from voicing no opinion – just doing so with kindness, wit and tact, like Sean).

    I’m presently going through the hiring process for a staff position at a premier research institution, and I’m aggressively self-monitoring to prevent any more “weak moments”. Not because I lack the will or right to say what I like, but because I know I can do real and irrevocable damage.

    But who gets to use a post to inflict their own retaliatory damage? Under what conditions, and with what restrictions?

    All of Sean’s examples contain reactions that appear to be the work of a single individual, possibly running scared, who has now exposed their institution to public backlash. Do the institutions have room to backtrack without being further excoriated?

    At this point, let’s not make anyone eat humble pie: Let’s be supportive instead, establish some degree of rapprochement, and give all parties room to wiggle away from the current polarization to an equitable, fair, just and (hopefully) face-saving outcome.

  15. john boguta says:

    The last great free speech case was also
    from Illinois: Nazi march in Skokie.

  16. Roy Abrams says:

    There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world (Pew Research) and 56 Islamic countries (Organization of the Islamic Conference Member States). There 14 million Jews, about six million of whom reside on a splinter of land in the Middle East, the only Jewish state in the world. Salaita’s statement is undiluted bigotry, not to mention incitement to violence–witness the explosion of antisemtism around the world. The fact that we don’t see it for what it is–insane hatred, particularly given the astronomical death tolls in states neighboring Israel–is because we are so inured to the saturation of anti-Israel rhetoric in academia. This simply would not be tolerated under similar circumstances if other minorities were involved, and it shouldn’t be now. The idea that his views can be treated discretely from his teaching, something that might sound reasonable in other, more abstract fields, is just not tenable. He has every right to express his views, but no sacred right to a job offer in what is intended to be a sanctuary for the enlightened and collegial pursuit of knowledge.

  17. Roy Abrams says:

    And I might add that the fact that comments are ‘moderated’ on this blog, perfectly appropriate in itself, just bears out my argument.

  18. John Call says:

    It seems to me that the only that makes this a freedom of speech issue is that UIUC is a public school. If it was a private university than it would be very difficult for a boycott defending a scholar’s freedoms (academic and legal) without attacking the university’s freedoms (again, academic and legal). UIUC being a public school is what makes it so hard to draw the line Sean speaks of. But a truly major question here is this, does a public university, which is an extension of the government, have the right to discriminate against someone based on that persons opinion as expressed under the protection of freedom of speech? To which I think most would answer “no.” So than the question becomes “did UIUC retract there offer because someone personally disagreed with Salaita’s remarks, or did they do so because they believe that his remarks show that hiring Salaita would be counter and detrimental to the university’s mission?”

  19. Steve Weiss says:

    I am also an alumnus of the University of Illinois, and an ex-Jew, and I would support the right to free speech, very reluctantly, in this case. The way to defeat bad ideas is with good ideas, as Ayn Rand said. I do find it inconsistent, however, that there has been a strong reaction to defensive actions taken by the Israeli government but no demonstrations against Syria, Russia, Boka Haram, El Shabab, etc., at least not on an equivalent scale. I wonder why? Would South Korea allow North Korea to launch hundreds of missiles into the South? Would any legitimate government allow it? Double standards are not standards.

  20. Joshua Pepper says:

    Based just on the material in this post, I think the UIUC administration did have cause for the job retraction. The three quoted tweets are not the same.

    “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” – This is clearly a hyperbolic statement about a public figure, even though it is insensitive, considering the resonance with the blood libel. Nothing to justify a major action aside from a snarky response.

    “Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” – This is a nonspecific ad hominem attack. Nothing for the administration to deal with, but it does go to the question of collegiality. The faculty of the department should have the right to decide if statements like “If you believe X, you’re an awful human being” represent the kind of exchanges you want to invite into their workplace.

    Finally, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” – In the context of the current crisis, this is clearly a reference to the Israeli teenagers who went missing and were later found murdered. A statement like this is calling for the death of hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not saying that they are wrong. It’s not saying that they are awful people. It’s saying that they should die. I realize there is a difficult line to draw here, but a public statement calling for mass death seems like it crosses the line in any reasonable definition.

  21. Roger says:

    Larry Summers did not say anything about “innate ability”.

  22. scourge99 says:

    I’m divided on this issue. On principle, people should not face legal or employment consequences for having personal opinions that others disagree with. But on the other hand don’t we also have freedom of association? Can’t we choose and remove people we don’t like or want to be associated with, including in the workplace? But doesn’t having such consequences on the table effectively squelch unpopular speech?

    Take for example the recent ousting of Mozilla CEO Brenden Eich. His personal opinion about gay marriage and his support for proposition 8 seemed to play a large part in his removal from his job.

    Should we be ashamed of this happening? Was it wrong for Eich to be fired because of his personal views on gay marriage that are largely, if not entirely, irrelevant to his job’s duties? Or should public and colleague opinion chase people with unpopular views from employment opportunities? What about positions of power or positions of leadership; is it ok to remove them for unrelated personal opinions then? Furthermore, what about abhorrent personal opinions for example, what if Eich was an unapologetic racist?

    In short: If its acceptable to impose consequences on people for having personal opinions we find distasteful then to be consistent we must also accept that any of the personal opinions we have may result in those same consequences. Even if our views are indisputably superior or true. That would include views about god, gay rights, and women’s rights. On the flip side, I imagine i would find it very difficult to not object to working with someone, be associated with that person, or be under the leadership of someone whose personal opinions I find abhorrent.

  23. Sean Carroll says:

    Roger, the phrase he used was “intrinsic aptitude.” Are you seriously going to claim there is a distinction?

  24. Roger says:

    Yes, Sean, there is a difference. The word “innate” means inborn. Summers did not say that. Quotation marks mean that you are quoting someone. You misquoted him. You complain that Martin argued that Summers was right when he said that “innate ability” was a major determinant, when Martin actually said that this was a misrepresentation of what Summers said. And you complain that they are sloppy, when you are the sloppy one here.

  25. Sean Carroll says:

    If your argument relies on there being a substantial difference between “innate” and “intrinsic” … Good luck to you, mate. I’ll update the post to prevent further misunderstandings.

  26. JimV says:

    There have been several posts on the Salaita case at “Crooked Timber”. From what I have gathered there, he was offered the job, accepted, and was told he had the job, quit his previous college-teaching position and was preparing his new curriculum when donor pressure caused the University’s President to rescind the offer – without having submitted the matter to the Trustees for approval or disapproval, or consulting with the hiring department (which still strongly supports Salaita based on his qualifications and teaching record).

    The University appears to be in the dilemma of losing a lot of donor contributions if Salaita is hired, and losing a lot of collaborations and visiting lecturers if he is not (and of course Professor Salaita becomes unemployed in that case). The resolution I would personally favor is for Professor Salaita to apologize for some of his more extreme comments, produce some endorsements from Jewish students he has had to the effect that he does not display bias in class or in grading, which I gather are obtainable, and be hired. He may feel this is unfairly degrading (I don’t know) but I expect some such form of rapprochement will be necessary.

  27. If I owned a company that hired a number of employees I believe I would have the right to expect that certain acts, other than just illegal acts, will not be tolerated by employees outside the workplace. If a person goes around town behaving in a manor that might give the company a bad name I would warn the employee that the company policy discourages certain behaviors, such a blatant sexism, unacceptable personal behavior in public, including hateful free speech, etc. In the same way I think any university or government institution has the right to make there own policies, that if clearly written and given to an employee as a condition of employment, the employee could decide for himself if he wanted to work for that entity. If he violated that agreement outside of work it could be grounds for his dismissal.

    The gray line would be dismissing somebody without such clear agreed upon rules, because that person said or performed in a “thought-to-be-disgraceful” manner in the eyes of the employer. On this the individual might have grounds for redress or suit.

  28. BobC says:

    To follow up on Roy Abrams post:

    Of the world’s Jews, all but about 1 million are in the US and Israel, split almost equally. The other million are primarily in Europe and South America, with a smattering elsewhere.

    Israel, as a nation, as a political entity, is not a friend of the USA. They are “friendly”, to be sure. But always remember the following facts: Israel intentionally attacked and boarded a US spy ship, killing members of its crew. Mosad has repeatedly been caught running “hot” operations on US territory, including in Washington, DC. When you look at the source countries of cyber attacks against the US, Israel consistently ranks high on the list.

    These are not the actions of a friend. But they are the actions of a nation that views the entire world as a direct existential threat (with ample justification). Israel does not believe it can rely absolutely on its partners in the political, military or economic spheres, and therefore seeks to always ensure it can go it alone. Which includes not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (look at the list of other non-signatory countries) and building its own Bomb.

    I, personally, cannot even begin to understand that level of existential fear in a country, though I do try to empathize by thinking of the last days of “Duck & Cover” (which I do remember). That’s why I don’t condemn Israel for its actions. I’m frankly surprised they don’t do more insane actions in the name of self-defense.

    I’m so glad to be a citizen of the huge, powerful, rich, dominating, resource-consuming country of the U.S. of A. We have our problems, but tiny minority countries surrounded by enemies have far worse ones.

    From a coldly analytical perspective, Israel cannot survive. Not because of militarized neighbors, but because of population: The population of Israeli-Arab citizens is growing 25% faster than the population of Israeli-Jews. In 75 years, the majority could simply vote to change it from being the “Land of the Jews”. All without a shot being fired. Unless the Jews “ethnically cleanse” Israel, which is not going to happen.

    Another factor is at the core: Judaism is the largest religion that does not proselytize. Against the recruiting power of Islam and Christianity, Judaism stands no chance. The primary way for Judaism to grow is by Jews birthing more Jews, and their rate of doing so isn’t all that high (though the Haredi are trying hard).

    How Israel can survive, and if/why it should, is a rich topic for analysts, strategists and political philosophers.

    For myself, I dream that humanity as a whole will grow wise, and choose to make the world safe and secure for countries such as Israel. But I doubt that’ll happen, certainly not in my lifetime.

    The USA, home to the “other half” of the world’s Jews, is the only thing that keeps Israel alive. They’d disappear in a puff of smoke if we withdrew our financial and political support. I advocate that support not because I think Israel deserves it (I don’t). Instead, I advocate support because I think the world deserves to have countries like Israel.

    I’d like to see Israel survive because it is a unique example of the world’s diversity.

    Israel is an endangered species that should be conserved, even when it bites the hand that feeds it.

    Israel is not our friend. They cannot afford to be. That’s OK.

    We now return you to your regular broadcast.

  29. Serge says:

    I agree with most of what you said (it’s really more like 100%, but I don’t want to look too slavish). Your analysis of Chancellor Wise’s statement is especially poignant. It is hard to imagine that the bit: “demean and abuse … viewpoints themselves” was actually meant to state what it does.

    It is tempting to pretend that this particular sequence of words is just a result of some sloppy, hurried workmanship. Alas, as you point out, the statement is perfectly clear and the use of “themselves” practically underlines the word “viewpoints.” In fact, I don’t think it could have been written any clearer.

    That is the root issue, in my view. The idea that ideas, any idea, or viewpoint, or sensibility, for that matter, can be held sacrosanct and rest beyond the reach of honest assessment, or even criticism, and demand such respect that people should be loosing their jobs over it, or worse. That is an idea I do not agree with.

    I do agree with the rest of her statement: “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them [viewpoints].” That statement would make perfect sense to me. But she couldn’t make a statement like this because it would not provide enough justification for her actions. Professor Salaita made his comments public on Twitter and these comments were clearly not directed at anyone in particular. Thus, these comments were not “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse” anyone in particular, they simply express an unpopular point of view (certainly unpopular with the “prominent donors”).

    That is another huge problem here. The corrupting influence of money. As an aside, the US Supreme Court has decided that money is speech, when, in fact, money is power — power to demand attention, power to amplify a message. That, of course, is not what is happening here. Here, instead, money is (allegedly) used for its power to influence decision makers. But what does money have to say about the merits of an idea, any idea? Nothing. Can it be seen as corrupting the process and casting a shadow over the UIUC officials’ decisions. Certainly.

    Bottom line is I would join this boycott were I a member of the academia. But as it stands, I can only offer my moral support and wish this enterprise good luck!

  30. I also have some doubts about the Larry Summers case. The idea behind his speech seems to have been, here’s a thing that’s happening in academia, we don’t really understand why, let’s throw out some hypotheses and debate them in the spirit of academic inquiry and hopefully eventually get some data that sheds some light on which ones are correct. One particular thing that he said was brought by the media to the attention of a wider audience, and as tends to naturally happen in these situations it was taken somewhat out of context. The controversy itself has had positive effects—Harvard is probably taking gender diversity more seriously than it was before this thing blew up, and it probably spurred some of the studies which gave us data (that didn’t exist in 2005) against that particular hypothesis. But was it really the case that Summers was actively making things worse and needed to be removed from office for the good of all? I haven’t seen much evidence of that. And the activity that he was engaging in—proposing explanations for a poorly-understood phenomenon, without prejudice against those that might be unpopular—is important and I’d hate to see academics discouraged from doing it.

  31. JimV says:

    Re: “Was it wrong for Eich to be fired because of his personal views on gay marriage”

    As I heard it he resigned voluntarily from his executive position but still has ties to the company, perhaps as a consultant. Google or your favorite search routine will give you the precise details, but I don’t think he would agree that he was fired. So the question becomes, should he (and his company) be subject to public outcry because of his personal views – or something like that.

    Having worked under the Jack Welch regime at GE I can only feel envious that my own public outcries were not nearly as effective.

  32. Biswajit Basu says:

    I think nothing, especially political and personal issues, should be allowed to penetrate the thin membrane that separates scientific matters from extraneous issues.

  33. Michael Sommers says:

    In the 60s people used to chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” The comment about Netanyahu was not worse than that. And look at what has been said about people like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush. How many academics were fired for criticizing any of them?

    It’s all ordinary political invective. All of it should be condemned, or none of it.

  34. JohnD says:

    Sean, I agree with Roy, Salaita’s statement is undiluted bigotry, not to mention incitement to violence. And I have to say that your judgement here is wanting. IMHO you are siding with hate crime and anti-Semitism, and you should stay out of it.

    By the way, please don’t lecture us on free speech, because when I made this comment as JohnDuffield, it didn’t appear. And now I see those fateful words:

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

  35. Chuck Magee says:

    I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but do you or any other boycott supporters really have much skin in this? For example, do you have colleagues at UCIC who you are now withholding paper submission permission on, or grant money that you’ll have to hand back from cancelled projects, etc?

    On the other hand, hey, if this is an excuse to decline to review, I’ll take it!

  36. kpp says:

    OT for a minute, about the Steve Weiss remarks that we don’t protest as much against what happens around “Syria, Russia, Boka Haram, El Shabab, etc.,”

    You see this come up a lot as what I suppose is an argument on how those who criticize Israel must be at least a little anti-semitic, but I’d suggest you think this through a bit further. Syria is the country the US threatened to bomb on several occasions, whom they only backed off from when it was agreed their chemical arsenal would be disposed of (which it was) and it became clear there was no reasonable ally left inside the country. Boko Haram and El Shahab are organisations which are universally condemned in the west, and I wouldn’t be surprised if western troops are actively fighting parts of them as we speak (especially el shahab). There was a huge public protest on social media concerning Boko Haram. Russia, finally, is the target of major sanctions from both the US and the EU. As long as those entities don’t institute similar sanctions against Israel, this is simply a false equivalence, and really just a sneaky insult, more than an actual argument.

    Or at the very least find some better examples of horrible things happening that nobody in the west care about (yet), but I’m pretty sure those will also be places that don’t fund their military with American money, or their economy with free trade agreements with most of the free world.

  37. PJR says:

    I take exception to your characterization of protests against Ms. Rice as Democrats objecting to a Republican speaker. She was, and remains, a proponent of utilizing torture to further the national interest. That is not disagreeable speech, that is a policy position which had, and continues to have, dramatic negative consequences. To wash it away as “oh look, college liberals don’t like the conservatives” is a discredit to the actual harm she has inflicted on the country.

    A public (or private) intellectual who says something stupid or ignorant is nothing new and should be fully protected by the First Amendment. Ms. Rice was a high government official who actively conspired to circumvent Federal law and lie about it to Congress and the People.

  38. jayarava says:

    “The way our society is set up, it would be very difficult for anyone to write a blog post or series of tweets that would call into question my self-worth simply because of a group to which I happened to belong.”

    Really? I see such stuff every day. Your wife RTs some of it on Twitter so I’m surprised you haven’t noticed. Some of her followers recently abused me because in my Twitter avatar I’m wearing a hat that is supposed to indicate both my opinions about women and my relationships with them. I disagreed with the notion that everyone is entitled to security no matter how risky their behaviour.

    The risk of being fired from SciAm for promoting bad science is a little bit unfair, but when one blogs under someone else’s banner, one takes their money and plays by their rules. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If they fired him unfairly he has legal redress in America.

    That aside I think you’re right to support the boycott. Freedom of speech is important, especially when you disagree with what’s being said. It was fascinating watching Jennifer’s Twitter followers shout me down this week. Some kinds of dissent are quite risky.

  39. Nicolas says:

    What about Roy Abrams’ right to free speech?, his comment on this page was effectively silenced because enough people didn’t agree with his views.
    Maybe it’s ok to draw a line somewhere after all?

  40. Roy Abrams says:

    I believe it also relevant that Salaita’s remarks are not incidental to his work. All of his books on Amazon are about the Middle East, and his most recent book is entitled “Israel’s Dead Soul.” It is not as though he ventured some intemperate opinions in the heat of emotion. The spirit of animosity pervades his work.

    Thanks to sympathetic comments above. Sean, you are brilliant, which is why I follow you, but this issue is fraught politics and bad faith.

  41. Brian Kerk says:

    I think what needs to be taken into account here is what makes Salaita different. I think we all know that there are many who share his viewpoints in academia. Many who tweet or otherwise publically state it. Those people weren’t fired, or denied tenure. Those people didn’t have their contracts revoked. It was only this one person. What made him different?

    It is a bit of victim-playing, to my mind, to assume it’s because of his views and not the way in which he expresses them. To wish death (sorry, “going missing”) on people, to say that anyone who disagrees with you on a particular topic is an “awful person” – these things suggest that it is not the institution but actually Salaita himself who is NOT open to traditional academic debate, the exchange of ideas, etc. The University HAS hired other professors, I’m sure, who believe that Israel is in the wrong. They express it differently, though.

    But how is a student to go into this man’s classroom, knowing in advance that their professor thinks they’re an awful person? How are other professors supposed to be friendly with this new hire when they know that under the surface this person is seething with rage at them, simply because they happen to disagree on a topic? As someone pointed out above, had he made any of these statements in his job interview, it would have been case closed, he never would have been offered a contract in the first place. How is that different that stating it publically online? The only issue appears to be that it came to light after the fact.

    Those two example tweets were simply two among a vast number. His twitter feed shows him ranting seemingly 24 hours a day, dozens of tweets every day, a constant unending stream, repeating himself over and over again. Even to those who agree with his general sentiments, the man appears to be in the grip of mania, frankly.

    We all have those subjects we feel passionate about, of course, that we talk about more than others. His twitter feed, at best, suggests he’d be one of those annoying people no one wants to invite to any parties because they just can’t stop talking about the same subject over and over and over again. At worst, it suggests he actually wishes death on those he disagrees with.


    I also wish people would understand the concept of “free speech” before accusing a person or organization of squelching it. Free Speech means the United States Government will make no laws restricting speech. That’s the long and short of it. There is nothing whatsoever, within our laws that says you can’t be fired for things you say. The idea that if someone is a public employee they’re exempt from that is untrue. Government agencies may fire someone for speech that is disruptive. The Supreme Court has already weighed in on this: ““many of the most fundamental maxims of our First Amendment jurisprudence cannot reasonably be applied to speech by government employees” – it’s simply the interest of maintaining an efficient workplace, the way it would be in any private sector job. The government is not, in that case, even inhibiting speech – the complainant still has every right to say whatever it is they wish to. In the case of a police officer who was fired for things he’d said, Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote “The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.”

    There are certain types of protected speech in the workplace, be it public or private – whistleblowers being the most common example. However, extreme political speech which others in the workplace might find offensive is not. In Illinois (oddly, a lot of cases on this subject have come from Illinois) the courts sided with the government when a prison guard, a member of the KKK, was let go for espousing white supremacist views at work. His Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association were never impinged – he could continue to express his views as much as he liked. However, he has no constitutional right to the job, and his speech at work was disruptive. The courts also sided with the Department of Social Services in Massachussets who let go an investigator who told a racist joke at a dinner party.

    Point being, this isn’t a “free speech” issue.

  42. D says:

    Sean, great article. A couple minor points:

    1. I think you meant to say that Judaken was a member of a “dominant racial group” in South Africa, not a “racial majority”!

    2. People might get the impression that Summers was fired primarily because of his comments about women. Actually, they were only a minor factor; the main reason was his heavy-handed mismanagement of the university.

    3. Along with Wise’s letter explaining her position, the Board of Trustees also sent a letter of support that included the following passage:

    Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.

    This seems to be taking an even worse position, actually arguing against the First Amendment (“no place for that in our democracy”).

  43. Pete says:

    Great article Sean.

    ‘The Curious Wavefunction’ was a blog I checked in to once every few weeks or so before Ash was let go. I completely agree that the move by SciAm was stupid. I’m also in agreement about the Summers case and Salaita as well.

    One thing about the Salaita case I wanted to point out was in relation to this recent Washington Post article:

    It’s a bit scary that a man who would probably say he’s completely in favor of freedom of speech and information would delete every single goodreads review he’s ever made (apparently within two hours of the above article being posted). Then again, some interesting review commentary was found, especially as it relates to a book on Christopher Hitchens:

    “Yes, it’s always rewarding to read somebody pillorying Hitchens, if only because his disaffected little white fans treat the atheist as a God and it’s amusing listening to them argue with all the bluster and arrogance of mini-Hitches.”

    I guess there are several other passages where he refers to people and cites skin color (looks like each one in reference to ‘white’). I don’t really get that, especially considering the fact that he seems to be vehemently opposed to racism.

    I also find the fact that he vilifies atheists in the above manner a bit disturbing. I think the University was wrong to rescind his appointment. Then again, the incendiary rhetoric he employs, coupled with reviews of books based solely on who the author is (there is at least one example of him admitting to not reading the book) and his seemingly complete opposition to considering other views makes me wonder why they thought him a good choice to begin with.

  44. Sean Carroll says:

    D– thanks for pointing out “racial majority,” that was clearly a brain glitch on my part.

  45. I really shouldn’t comment on books I haven’t read but I have no plans to read Prof. Salaita — not my field and I have a pile of more relevant books waiting. If he did write this (quoted on comments, Cory Robin blog, 26 Aug.), he really should not be teaching at any university.

    From. 110 of his book “Israel’s Dead Soul”:

    “It is well known by Palestinians that anytime one of them enters or exits Israel, regardless of nationality, he or she will likely undergo an anal or vaginal probe. These probes… aren’t intended to be pragmatic. They are acts of psychological domineering and political assertion. The agents of these coercive actions are rehearsing their own depravity through fulfillment of their Orientalist notions of Arab and Muslim sexuality.”

    Academic freedom does not correlate well with deliberate lies and blood libel. Is it a misquotation? Has anyone commenting actually read his stuff?

  46. Sean Carroll says:

    I think it’s better when hiring cases are decided upon by departmental faculty who are familiar with the candidate’s work, their CV, and their letters of reference, rather than people who have read out-of-context quotes that they found in the comment sections of blogs.

    None of us here is likely to be competent to judge Salaita’s worthiness to be hired; the point is that it already has been judged by people who presumably are competent.

  47. Roy Abrams says:

    Oh, Professor, the things that have been done by people ‘who presumably are competent.’

  48. Mike P says:

    innate:intrinsic ~ genetic:congenital.

    An artery may have a congenital kink. It might not have been predetermined. However, it may well have grown that way without any unusual circumstances.

    Likewise, a photon’s energy is not innate. Photons can have any energy. But once a photon is created, the energy of that particular photon is an integral part of its being. It’s intrinsic.

    As for Summers’ proposition, the distinction suggests that even if there’s no genetic predisposition, and even controlling for how we treat boys and girls differently, and for available role models, if we pursue our investigations as far as we possibly can, we might still find that women and men as groups may tend one way or another in a particular trait.

    Making “aptitude” precise, especially aptitude for what, would be crucial to any such test we devise. But his point was, how can we ever get a sensible answer to a question we won’t even ask?

  49. Amazon User says:

    …rather than people who have read out-of-context quotes that they found in the comment sections of blogs.

    No need to rely on what one can find in blog comment sections, when one can
    look inside the book and see for one’s self.

    Browsing through the book (or, at least, the generous portion of which Amazon makes available online), the excerpt quoted by @JudithWeingarten does not seem atypical.

  50. Sean Carroll says:

    That misses the point fairly completely. The job of evaluating a candidate’s competence belongs to the faculty interested in hiring them. You are welcome to question their judgment, but taking that responsibility away from them is a violation of academic freedom. The important issues here aren’t about Salaita, they’re about how universities operate.