It Can Happen Here: A Collapse of Academic Freedom

It can happen here—at
any of the Claremont Colleges. The “it,” in this case, is what happened this
summer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne (UIUC), which is
nothing less than the collapse of academic freedom on that campus and, with it,
the foundations of academic excellence as well. 

In the case of UIUC, Provost
Phyllis Wise and the university’s trustees rescinded the tenured appointment of
Steven Salaita as an associate professor in the university’s American Indian
Studies program, following comments Salaita made on Twitter—some of them decidedly
polemical—about the Israeli state’s attack on Gaza this summer. In doing this, UIUC violated
two pillars of academic freedom. 

To start, UIUC’s action
against Salaita shifted control over academic appointments from the faculty to
administrators and trustees. 

This is crucial, first,
because faculty, unlike administrators and trustees, have the salient academic
expertise needed to make hiring decisions on the basis of academic excellence.
In addition, administrators and trustees are obliged—as faculty are not—to seek
support from wealthy donors and, in the case of a public university, a state’s
political leaders. For these reasons, a shift in control over academic hiring from
faculty to administrators and trustees substantially increases the possibility that
academic appointments will be made not on the basis of academic excellence, but
on the basis of pleasing the economic one percent and/or the politically

Indeed, in the Salaita
case, this is exactly what happened as we now have clear evidence that Provost
Wise acted to revoke Salaita’s tenured appointment in response to communication
from one or more major donors who objected to Salaita’s views on the ongoing
crisis in Palestine-Israel. 

UIUC’s actions also violated
the principle that even defiantly controversial speech is protected on college
and university campuses. This principle of academic freedom is what makes it possible
for colleges and universities to be sites where conventional ideas and dominant
ideologies are rigorously tested and probed. And to give some specific examples,
it is this principle that, in previous decades, helped to make many institutions
of higher education vanguard sites of critiques of segregation, sexism and homophobia.

Moreover, this
violation of academic freedom, like the first violation I discussed above, is,
at the same time, also an attack on academic excellence, precisely because it
removes the protection faculty have to teach whatever, based on their expert
knowledge, they most believe to be the truth, even when this means offending
the moneyed and powerful. One can add
here that this is precisely why there has been a far more honest discussion
about anthropogenic climate change on college and university campuses than
there has been in the broader public sphere in the United States, not to
mention in corporate America.

More generally, the substantial,
albeit never perfect, adherence to these principles of academic freedom over
the last century was a major factor in making U.S. colleges and universities
the world’s leading institutions of higher learning in this time period. UIUC has now abandoned them. So serious is this breach of academic
freedom and excellence that, to date, more than 5,000 scholars and scientists at
other institutions have pledged not to accept invitations to speak on the UIUC
campus until its administrators and trustees respect the hiring decision of the
American Indian Studies Program by reinstating Steven Salaita.

It is important to
recognize, moreover, that the factors that made possible UIUC’s attack on academic
freedom and excellence pertain, at this historic moment, to almost every
institution of higher education in the United States. The Claremont Colleges are by no means
exceptions to this.

First and most
diffusely, there has been a broad increase over the last half-century in the
corporatization of the academy. This has
significantly eroded support for education and the pursuit of knowledge as
things valued for themselves, rather than as things valued for what we (or
rather, some of us) can get from them in money-terms. This corporatization of the academy is,
moreover, an aspect of the even larger shift away from investment in public
goods in the United States—and toward giving market-mechanisms more and more
control over our lives.

But there is also a
more specific and immediate cause to the UIUC crisis. It is no coincidence that Salaita lost his
tenured position at UIUC after critiquing the Israeli state. Since the founding of the State of Israel, many
of its defenders have sought to shut down, rather than try to counter with reasoned
argument, criticisms of Israel. A key
and singularly immoral tactic in this effort to block legitimate political
speech, in an effort to protect the Israeli state from criticism, has been a purposeful
conflation of criticisms of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism. This is, in fact, precisely what happened in
the UIUC case, with the chair of the university’s board of trustees,
Christopher Kennedy, denouncing Salaita for having made anti-Semitic tweets, even
though Salaita’s tweets spoke of “the horror of anti-Semitism.”

The clear purpose of
such a conflation of criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism is to impose on
those criticisms the stigma of speech that is unquestionably reprehensible—and
thereby either inhibit criticisms of the Israeli state or, as in the Salaita
case, garner support for punitive action against an outspoken critic of it.

There are, of course,
some defenders of Israel who disavow and resist such efforts to shut down,
rather than engage, critics of the Israeli state, and these persons deserve
respect on this important point of principle. 

Nonetheless, given a
series of conditions—the hegemony of Zionist views in the U.S. public sphere, the
prevalence within Zionism of efforts to shut down criticisms of the Israeli
state and, finally, the lack of any significant opposition to uncritical
support for Israel among the wealthy and powerful in the United States—it is a good
bet that most colleges and universities have trustees and other major donors of
Christopher Kennedy’s ilk. Moreover, given
these conditions, it would be naïve to count on senior administrators and boards of trustees taking firm and courageous stands in support of the academic
freedom of faculty members who, like Steven Salaita, verbally attack the Israeli state
for what, in the judgment of many of us, are that state’s systemic violations
of the human rights of Palestinians.

In this context, faculty
who care about academic freedom and excellence need to be proactive, rather
than responsive—regardless of their views on Israel-Palestine. 

Joining the more than
5,000 colleagues who have pledged not to speak on the UIUC campus is one action
we can take as individuals. But in
addition, faculty bodies, at every college and university, should respond to
the UIUC crisis by demanding from their deans of faculty, academic provosts and
presidents clear and unambiguous re-affirmations of the core principles of
academic freedom and excellence as those principles have been so ably
articulated by the Association of American University Professors. Faculty bodies that take such actions will help
protect academic freedom and excellence not only at their own institutions but
at other institutions as well—by sending a signal to administrators and
trustees elsewhere that their institutions will be isolated should they join
UIUC’s provost and trustees in trashing academic freedom.

Faculty bodies—at the
5Cs and elsewhere—that do not act now will make further violations of academic
freedom and excellence more and not less likely by standing on the sidelines
at a moment of deep vulnerability for academic freedom in U.S. higher education.

Segal is the Jean M. Pitzer Professor of Anthropology and Professor of History
at Pitzer College. In 2014-15, he is a visiting scholar at the Universidade
Federal de Roraima in Brazil. 
He is a proud member of Jewish Voice for Peace and
of the American Association of University Professors. 
While on
sabbatical, as he is this year, he misses teaching but not committee work or
faculty meetings.

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