Does the University of Illinois Care About Academic Freedom?

The university's decision to withdraw a job offer to professor Steven Salaita after he tweeted political commentary shows its disdain for an open learning environment.
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(Photo: dharma_for_one/Flickr)

(Photo: dharma_for_one/Flickr)

You’d think education would be focused on educating. Just as often, though, it's devoted not to imparting information, but to withholding it. I've worked for 20 years, on and off, doing curriculum development, and a lot of what curriculum development entails is creating course materials or test questions that shield students from certain topics or ideas. Sexual situations, obviously, are out. Violence is a no-no. Any suggestion that school administrators or teachers might make questionable decisions is verboten. Slavery, or discussions of discrimination, are often disallowed on the grounds that you might offend or upset someone—whether it’s black people or white people isn't entirely clear. You're also encouraged to avoid discussions of snakes, or blood, or storms, or earthquakes, or creepy crawlies, or natural disasters. Teaching, it seems, isn't about broadening minds; it's about narrowing topics.

Most of the curriculum I work on is for elementary and high school students, but you can see a similar nervousness about exposing students to ideas in college as well. The most high-profile recent example has been the controversy surrounding English professor Steven Salaita.

Salaita was a tenured professor at Virginia Tech, and he accepted a faculty appointment to begin teaching at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign in the American Indian Studies program. Shortly before he began teaching, however, Salaita, who is Palestinian-American, wrote a series of tweets in which he harshly criticized Israel for attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. "Only Israel can murder around 300 children in the span of a few weeks and insist that it is the victim,” one tweet read. “If Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” he wrote in another. Other more recent tweets on his timeline (less reprinted in the press) read: "The first thing anyone sees in #Gaza are children: bounteous, beautiful, boisterous, all eyes and curly hair. To harm them is unforgivable" and "#Israel is a great example of how colonization impairs ethics and compels people to support shameful deeds in the name of atavistic ideals."

At what point does the demand that you avoid offensive speech start to mean that you can't talk about snakes, or earthquakes—or slavery?

Salaita's tweets angered a number of important donors at the University of Illinois, who threatened to cease contributing if Salaita was hired. In response, the U of I administration revoked Salaita's appointment. The university argued that Salaita's tweets constituted "disrespectful and demeaning speech." On her blog Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise added: "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. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals." She also expressed concern that students who disagreed with Wise about Israel might feel afraid to voice their opinions in his class.

There are legitimate concerns about civility, tone, and the way professors use social media. Cyberbullying is generally thought of as a problem in secondary schools, but it can occur on college campuses as well, and perpetrators can include professors as well as students. If Salaita had singled out one of his students for public abuse online, or if he had used Twitter to target and bully a pro-Israel student or group, that would be clearly unprofessional, and would rightly raise questions about his fitness to teach.

That isn't what Salaita did, however. Instead, he used the platform to speak about a political issue that relates to his research on colonization and to his ethnic background as a Palestinian. He spoke forcefully and angrily, it's true—but are schools supposed to be places where you can't speak forcefully, or express anger at what you see as injustice? Is it possible to challenge students, or conventional wisdom, in a way that does not "demean and abuse ... viewpoints themselves"? By that standard, would a teacher be able to say that anti-Semitism has been a great evil? Would that be seen as demeaning the viewpoint of Stormfront? At what point does the demand that you avoid offensive speech start to mean that you can't talk about snakes, or earthquakes—or slavery?

The Salaita controversy has raised concerns about whether teachers can discuss controversial issues, inside or outside the classroom, according to Isabel Molina-Guzmán, an associate professor of Latina/Latino studies and media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. Molina-Guzmán says that—ironically given its censure of Salaita—the U of I has over the last few years been pushing its faculty to have a social media presence. "In an ideal world, I think the chancellor would like us all to have Twitter accounts and to be constantly tweeting about our publications and reflections on what's happening," Molina–Guzmán says. The impetus here appears to be marketing; the school wants to increase its visibility, and social media is a good way to do that.

However, Molina-Guzmán says, there is a downside as well:

[T]o me [having a social media presence is] scary, because what I have to tweet about the university isn't all rosy. As a woman of color I have a particular experience of what happens on this campus. And most of the time I'm really angry about decisions made at the administrative level that I believe are harmful to the climate here for faculty and students of marginalized groups. And I would include Jewish students and Palestinian students among those groups. So that's the difficulty; on the one hand you have the administration encouraging all of us to have a social media presence, but apparently only if we engage in social media by whatever rules of civility, which have yet to be established or disclosed.

Molina-Guzmán's concerns here affect the classroom as well; she says that she's wary of expressing her opposition to U of I's mascot, Chief Illiniwick, because of possible student backlash and her concern that she would not be supported in a dispute by the administration. Last winter, when Chancellor Wise did not cancel school during a heavy snow, U of I students attacked her with a deluge of often racist (Wise is Asian-American) and sexist abuse on social media. Yet, in response, the chancellor, according to Molina-Guzmán, "said nothing; not one word came from the chancellor's office." For faculty who teach about "subjects that may be uncomfortable for students,” Molina-Guzmán says, the contrast between the treatment of the students and the response to Salaita is stark. Racist and sexist speech is barely censured; criticism of Israel results in expulsion from the university community. There seems to be a clear message about which speech is allowed on campus and social media and which speech is not. Molina-Guzmán acknowledges that of course professors have a higher standard, and students are students, but even so, "we're feeling like the rules of civility are unevenly applied."

In a recent article on trigger warnings, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom argued that many schools are moving to a student-customer model, in which the focus is on students as shoppers or consumers, rather than as learners. By this rationale, she writes, "No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger." The job of professors is not to raise difficult questions, but to provide a non-controversial education with the least possible troubling of the student psyche.

Though students don't pay directly for professors' tweets, the vision of education that Cottom writes about seems relevant to the Salaita controversy. Twitter, as Molina-Guzmán told me, "is an excellent way to get your ideas across in ways that are accessible to a lot of people, and maybe getting ideas out there that aren't given a lot of exposure in mainstream media channels." Social media is an amazing way to share knowledge; it's a great educational tool.

And that seems to be precisely why it's so controversial. U of I donors didn't want to learn about what the Israeli occupation of Gaza looks like from the perspective of the Palestinians, or from the perspective of indigenous scholarship. They didn't want to agree with, or think about, or even disagree with, the lessons Salaita was presenting. They just wanted to silence him.

Education for them—and for the U of I administration, and for the venues where I develop curriculum—was not a benefit, but a danger. Social media could be a great way for teachers to share their knowledge with the public. But as long as we see education as a threat rather than a resource, social media will be used not to broadcast teachers’ voices, but to coerce them into saying either nothing of value, or nothing at all.

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