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Tech who had been offered and accepted a faculty job at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, had his offer rescinded when the administration discovered that he had posted inflammatory tweets about Israel, such as “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace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. paul kramarchyk says:

    This is not a free speech issue. I am 100% for free speech. But your behavior has consequences, and your behavior includes speech. If I’m doing the hiring and firing , you can say what you want, if I don’t like it, I’m not obligated to hire you. And I don’t owe you and anyone else an explanation. “I may explain” my reason for not hiring you. But I owe you nothing.

    When you are an employee, whether you like it or not, you represent your employer’s judgment in the kind of people they find suitable for the work they do. If you don’t fit the “mission statement” profile, the university, corporation, or whatever is obligated to show you the door.

  2. Roy Abrams says:

    The quote from the book is authentic and it is hate speech, which in practice is seldom condoned at universities, much less in any other work setting, whatever lip service to ideals of free expression may be paid. And it is rampant in his work. The committee did a poor job of vetting him, and if the administration reneged on a promise, then Salaita has recourse to the courts. In an era when students are charged exorbitantly for the privilege of a diploma, the notion that a department has carte Blanche to hire whomever they choose without input from the administration and trustees seems antiquated at best, and scornful of common sense at worst.

  3. Neil says:

    Salaita’s offer was not rescinded. Technically, he did not have an official offer because the UIUC Board of Trustees had not voted on it. It does not matter that Boards usually rubber stamp such matters–until the Board votes in favor, you do not have an offer. I know this from cruel experience. Salaita was foolish to resign his Virginia Tech position before getting an official offer approved by the Board of Trustees. (I expect, as is standard practice, the letter informing him of an intended offer would have stated clearly that the offer was not official until approved by the Board–if not, he may have a legal case.)

    Given that an official offer had not been extended, UIUC is perfectly within its rights not to complete a transaction that is now offensive to important stakeholders and members of the public. It would be different of course, if Salaita were being fired from a tenured position for his remarks. That said, the correct procedure would be for Wise to forward the letter to the trustees who then should vote according to the best interests of the institution.

    Salaita’s comments were inflammatory, antisemitic, and condoned lethal violence against a group of people. Had he made such comments against a group of blacks or indigenous americans, rather than jews, I doubt there would be a debate about about the appropriateness of UIUC’s actions nor, I wager, a boycott.

  4. Amazon User says:

    The job of evaluating a candidate’s competence belongs to the faculty interested in hiring them. You are welcome to question their judgment,…

    I suppose that looking at Salaita’s published works (as opposed to just his tweets) would be a first step in that direction. As would be to note that the Chair of the Department was (to quote Salaita) “one of my dissertation advisers”.

    …but taking that responsibility away from them is a violation of academic freedom.

    It is not at all unusual for senior Administration to overrule a hiring and promotion decision of individual academic Departments. An instance of featherbedding would be justification enough for such a decision. Of course, we’re not privy to the letters and other material in Salaita’s file, so we’re hardly in a position to judge.

    And yes, that’s not the reason cited by the Chancellor in her decision (it was all about the tweets). But “So-and-so said something stupid on Twitter.” strikes me as a redundancy, rather than a reason to overrule a hiring decision. So I assume that there’s more here than meets the eye.

  5. danaigh says:

    “hate speech”, go directly to jail. Well that is so simple, end of discussion.

    Academia seems to swim in the same environment as the rest of us in the US of A. We live in a basically paranoid, totalitarian nut-house. People are fired and denounced for ‘hate speech’ or a any speech that offends. And so it goes.

    Can none of the academic community, in this case, handle such a man who demeans in a rather nasty way. No they can’t….hate speech. Shut him out. No dialogue, no debate no argument. Come on, grow a pair, argue with him.

    BTW: I am Not Jewish, or Arabic, but an older heinz-57 white guy, and seeing the ‘thinkers’ as assigned by our community, chew on their collective arm, agonizing over this is truly revolting.

    Yes the company, corporation or whatever can fire you for what you may say. But is there anyone that hears an alarm going off to such a situation? Apparently not. Well let me clue you in to what is happening to us. We are breaking apart, we are not free, we are not safe.

    This situation will not continue. Chew on that guys.

  6. Gil Kalai says:

    “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.”

    Actually, just spending time disagreeing with people whose views (or even just some nuances) I found disagreement-worthy is possible on scientific blogs. (My occasional comments here are of this kind.) This time, I found the post worthy but have true difficulties to disagree.

  7. Gil Kalai says:

    I guess, I did find something to disagree with (not so explicit in the post itself). While it is reasonable to criticize firing a university faculty over expressed opinions, calling for a boycott or joining a boycott against UIUC is completely excessive and unreasonable.

  8. JohnD says:

    “Salaita’s comments were inflammatory, antisemitic, and condoned lethal violence against a group of people. Had he made such comments against a group of blacks or indigenous americans, rather than jews, I doubt there would be a debate about the appropriateness of UIUC’s actions nor, I wager, a boycott.”

    Well said Neil. Had Salaita made such comments about gays, anti-Semitic “liberals” wouldn’t be piping up about free speech, they’d be calling for his head on a plate.

    Sean, you’re on the wrong side of racism here. Next time you’re tempted to blog about this sort of thing, it might be an idea to talk it through with the wife first.

  9. Thank you so much, guys (and it does seem to be all guys) for telling me how witless I am to quote from a comment on a blog. Having an academic background myself, I hope that I’ve learnt to judge a person’s reliability from what they write and can spot a troll or ranter (just as well as you, guys) usually from the first lines. My point was twofold. 1) Since probably few commenters on this blog had actually read any of Salaita’s books, or even his papers for that matter, I asked if anyone had read this particular book and, if so, was this a true quote? In other words, I asked for input, not a glut of superiority. 2) His use of the word ‘depravity’ for describing the entirely fanciful behaviour of Israelis in this case is a code word, as offensive and as laden with unpleasant history as, for example, ‘lazy N-word’ to others. It’s probably too late for me to ‘grow a pair’ in order to deal with such as Salaita, but I can recognize an obsessive hater when he writes texts like this. And I shudder to think how he judges his graduate students.

  10. UIUC Student says:

    I see nothing in Salaita’s words to suggest he is anti-Semitic (and, for what it’s worth, I say that as a Jew myself). I see plenty to suggest he is insufferable and has nothing but contempt for a significant portion of the population of the United States. But if his scholarship is valuable, his students find him respectful, and his colleagues are willing to put up with him, why should that matter?

    The real issue, of course, is that more than likely, if hired, he would end up being a ‘liability’ for our university, in the sense that he would eventually say something even less tasteful than the above tweets and generate negative coverage and protests. But I am less concerned about this than I am about the danger of universities squeezing out dissidents to protect their ‘branding.’ So, Sean, although I can’t sign your petition, and am disappointed that I will probably never see you come here to give a colloquium talk, I agree with your stand.

  11. allan J says:

    Disagree with the sentiment but Salaita was surely being satirical. If he had made a similarly barbed comment about Putin, Obama or Assad it would have raised no controversy.

  12. Kahler moduli says:

    To those who say Salaita’s comments are hate speech and hypothesize what would have happened had he made analogous statements about blacks:

    1) They’re not hate speech. You may want to read anti-semitism into them, but real hate speech has to be much more direct. Even if he said analogous things about blacks that would not be hate speech.

    2) There is hardly any analogy between Israel and blacks; for one, the former is a state. More importantly, Israel has given plenty of ammunition to its opponents, whether you think Israel’s actions are ultimately justified or not.

    3) The left-wing academia may be quite anti-Israel overall, but anti-Semitism is just as taboo as anti-black racism. In fact I’m pretty sure in day-to-day conduct academics hold much less prejudice against Jews than against blacks, if only because they see and meet so many more Jews than blacks (and because they themselves are Jews so much more often than they are blacks).

  13. Roy Abrams says:

    Sure, a man who wrote: “Zionism: transforming antisemitism from something horrible to something honorable since 1948″ is not antisemitic. Salaita is absolutely worth going to bat for. Bravo.

  14. Kahler moduli says:

    He did put quotation marks around ‘anti-semitism.’

  15. FOGBANK says:

    1) The Ashutosh Joglekar blog posts seems mild to me, however, if I were enraged at SciAm then I would blame the current editor-in-chief for not vetting the blog before the decision was made to include guest speakers and publish their thoughts on the SciAm website. Instead they appear to have fired him after people complained. If Ashtosh’s editors made it clear without any ambiguity that he could not post his blogs discussing certain topics using the SciAm brand then that is a different matter. As a private company I would have expected them to modify their rules about what to discuss and what not to discuss. I believe SciAm is safe under the right to work law until academics start to form a union and strike and push through new laws at the state and federal levels.

    2) Disinviting speakers who disagree with you is a guaranteed way to create a culture of group think. In our system of law we usually would only look at the contract . I would invite the former National Security adviser and former Secretary of State over to explore her thoughts on freedom of speech and national security, however, I don’t think I can afford the commenecement speaker fees .

    3) Salaita’s case is more interesting because Steven left his previous position for a new position at a different university. They could argue that they chose not to hire him due to his twitter postings and reneged at the last moment fairly by citing the contract that it required the approval of a board. However, there is a precedence of him behaving this way. Should we be outraged if anyone made his comments? Should it surprise us that someone studying this conflict is emotionally invested in it? I think it is more important that we avoid a tyranny of the majority and understand that Muslims and their supporters may be the people facing more discrimination than other religious groups. If I were on a hiring committee I would be more worried about possible rumors that a controversial scholar was given a job offer to entice him to leave his current job and then removing the job offer in a premeditated act to make this controversial scholar destitute.

    Giving tenure early and often is perhaps the only way to protect academics when they are studying controversial ideas . There has been and always will be a fight for increasing freedom of speech .

    What I also wonder is if academics are more willing to support those they consider to be like them instead of the crackpots because other academics go through the same initiation in the form of a PhD and the ritualistic intellectual beating they receive in the defense of their work .

    With respect to the discussion on nature vs nurture, I am more worried about a lack of genetic diversity in our species and how that could impact our long term survival. If people have a bias then we should experiment in ways to remove that bias.

  16. Roy Abrams says:

    Typical of a muddled thinker like Salaita to try to have it both ways. On the one hand to mock the idea that there even is such a thing as antisemitism, hence the use of quotes. On the other, to concede that it was once horrible while arguing that it no longer is. By the way, he was hired by his former Phd advisor to teach in a subject that his work has no connection to, except in the most tenuous way. The unfortunate thing is that he is so representative of such a broad swath of academia; reflexively hostile to both Israel and the United States of America. Try reading some of his boilerplate leftist writing. It is a hodgepodge of hyperbolic invective seasoned with the kind of meaningless postmodern cliches that Alan Sokal actually once felt compelled to debunk.

    I’m sure many of Salaita’s supporters are, like Sean, defending a principle. But it is a principle that Salaita and his fellow travelers have abused for decades. Even his intellectual patriarch, Edward Said, began to realize toward the end of his life that some of his would-be proteges had strayed from the path, but by that point he had created an extraordinarily powerful movement that spoke the language of liberalism while routinely betraying its ideals. There are very good writers on Israel and Palestine–I might mention Hussein Ibish for starters–who strive for independence without having any illusions about Hamas. But Salaita isn’t one of them.

  17. Brett says:

    “I actually don’t see any problem with a university taking a pass on someone for interpersonal/personality reasons.”

    Richard Feynman, Lawrence Krauss, Fritz Zwicky, that damn filthy vegan known as Brian Greene, Nikola Tesla and Socrates are just a few reasons why this is poor logic. Shit, based on the evidence, we should be looking FOR people with interpersonal/personality problems.

    How many scientists and engineers are socially awkward assholes who regularly violate social norms? A lot. And the sentiment quoted above is eerily reminiscent of teachers being fired for posting a picture drinking a beer with friends on their day off. This shit has got to stop.

    I don’t give a rat’s ass about my professor’s views on various middle east conflicts unless they are teaching a class related to those conflicts.

  18. Kahler moduli says:


    That’s your interpretation; there are others. I’m not really interested in Salaita’s writings; I’m pretty sure that I probably won’t like his writings very much. But the fact is, the quote in question does nothing to prove that he is anti-semitic, and does not amount to hate speech.

  19. John Barrett says:

    I think your forgetting about Capitalism. Any employer has the freedom of speech to reject someone from a job as well. They can do that just because you looked at them funny. No one is obligated to pay someone else money to work for them. Maybe it was just because the university thought he was wrong. Anyone would be surprised to see someone with a necklace made out of children teeth. Even someone from these tribes may be surprised that they have gained so much honor and respect of their people to posses one. (It’s okay I am currently unemployed, and I am content in staying that way)

  20. VicP says:

    Well Sean Jewish Americans have been the biggest supporters of secular education so not surprising that they would take offense.

    True it is an academic university but it also employs thousands of honest and decent people with sympathies on both sides of the issue. Honestly from a safety POV, we are free to open debate but these type of incendiary comments are not healthy when you are trying to maintain a safe civil environment for all employee and students. I think this is a civility issue and maanagement is entitled. Academic credentials are not license to talk like an ass any more than the guy with a HS Degree.

    Yes I know academics believe they are a protected species, but if ANY employee of the university made these comments they would be reprimanded or even fired. If the administrators felt they had an opening to get rid of this jerk, I could understand their actions. It is not always the “big bad institution vs the free speecher” but maybe the management protecting the interests of their employees and students.

    It’s very similar to FOX showing the WW II vet entry to the war memorial during the government shutdown. Yes he was an elderly vet, but the circumstances are the circumstances.

    I think the employer is sending a positive message.

  21. colnago80 says:

    Re Neil

    It is my information that the comment by Neil above accurately describes the situation relative to Dr. Salaita. He was not, in fact, the occupant of a tenured faculty position at the university at the time that the offer was rescinded. There was, thus, no violation of academic freedom and the administration of the university was well within its rights not to approve the appointment. The faculty was clearly remiss in it’s evaluation of Dr. Salaita and it is unclear if they were even aware of his ravings.

    However, the situation is not comparable to the situation in which someone already on a faculty who has tenure makes inflammatory statements. Cases in point, Northwestern Engineering Professor Arthur Butz, a notorious Holocaust denier, and the late Stanford physics professor William Shockley who wrote numerous treatises on his view that Afro-Americans were genetically inferior to Caucasian-Americans. Both of these fellows occupied tenured faculty positions and it was judged that their remarks, correctly IMHO, did not rise to the dismissal level.

    One of the issues I have not seen addressed is the attitude of Jewish students who took his courses as to whether they detected animosity toward them on his part, particularly if they were from Israel.

  22. Swami says:

    Boycotts can work both ways. One can choose not to attend Salaita’s classes, buy his books or listen to him speak. Ugly comments may be protected by free speech, but they don’t do much for one’s reputation.

  23. Larry Esser says:

    The point you make, Sean, about “demeaning and abusing viewpoints” is right on. People must be respected; but their viewpoints or beliefs are not entitled to any such respect. A person and the views or beliefs held by that person are not the same thing. One is a human being, the other is what that human being is saying is true. This is very hard to get across to religious people when you question their beliefs–if you say something that doesn’t make any sense, you cannot say you are being attacked in any way personally when I ask you what you mean by your statement. You are not being disrespected; your nonsensical statements are.

  24. colnago80 says:

    Re Swami

    Yes, but what do you do if you have a required course and Dr. Salaita is teaching the only session?

  25. Swami says:

    That’s a tough call. I once had an obnoxious professor who wouldn’t lecture and spent the whole session filling up four blackboards with equations. At the time he was the only one teaching the course. I complained to my graduate advisor who assured me that the situation was being remedied. Apparently others had complained as well. Registering a complaint up the chain may help, but it’s no guarantee.

  26. MVE says:

    Serge was only half-right when he identified the corrupting influence of money as merely “another problem here.” We find that judging academic credentials and faculty-building turns is yet another important and nuanced endeavor for which “the market” is an inapt measure, a crude and ill-suited blunt instrument.
    Mr Abrahms, enlightened progressives don’t bleat about Russian crimes and coercion because there’s no danger US policy and opinion will be pervasively influenced by those who support or excuse them. Substitute “Putin” for “Netanyahu,” “Ukranians” for “Palastinians,” and a tooth for a tooth, and an academic could go all hyperbolic without tenure and without fear of censure.