Academic Freedom, Scholar-Activism and the Smoke Screen of Civility


The expectation of “civility” and “collegiality” as necessary virtues for academics as well as recent criticism, and firings, of scholar-activists deemed intemperate and thus unfit for the classroom is a smoke screen to obscure a concerted backlash against the practice of scholar-activism. The demand for “civility” as a condition of scholarly fitness is intended not to protect some sort of normative scholarly standard of civil discourse but rather to divert our attention away from the inequalities (and privileges) that radical scholars expose.

First, on the smoke screen of civility (sometimes defined as “collegiality”), which has long been the way supporters of Israel retaliate against academics critical of the violent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The implication of the idea that academic freedom or free speech is impossible without something called “civility” is to place arbitrary limits on free speech and academic freedom based on the form, rather than the content, of speech or scholarship. Consider the public statements by authorities involved in the recent firing of Steven Salaita. Christopher Kennedy, the chair of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees claimed that the decision to fire Salaita was based on the “manner in which he expresses himself, not the expression itself.” Steven Salaita is a prominent and well-respected Palestinian-American scholar of Arab-American literature who has done comparative work on Native American and Palestinian liberation struggles. During Israel’s recent assault on Gaza, Salaita came under fire from supporters of Israel for a series of highly critical tweets. One particularly notorious one read: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” The Chancellor at the University of Illinois, Phyllis Wise, fired him for that and other public statements, saying that she “cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois… personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

University of Illinois English Professor Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and critic of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, of which Salaita is a prominent proponent, wrote an essay in support of Salaita’s firing that argued he wasn’t fired at all but rather “not hired.” Salaita recently resigned from a position at Virginia Tech after being offered a position at the University of Illinois. Nelson argued that Salaita did not demonstrate the collegiality required to be offered a position as his colleague at the University of Illinois. The decision by Wise to pull Salaita’s offer of employment, as Nelson characterized it, was not about academic freedom at all, but rather about reasonable standards of collegiality to which we should all be held. Like Kennedy and Wise, Nelson assumes, rather than describes, an objective normative standard of civility that, he claims, Salaita clearly violated: “It is remarkable that a senior faculty member chooses to present himself in public this way. Meanwhile, the mix of deadly seriousness, vehemence, and low comedy in this appeal to students is genuinely unsettling. Will Jewish students in his classes feel comfortable?”

The obvious question is, Where the fuck do these administrators get off demanding some arbitrary standard of civility, which they reserve for themselves to implicitly define, in a debate about the human rights violations of the Israeli military in the recent murder of more than a thousand children and unarmed civilians in Gaza? What authority do they imagine invests them not only with the ability to secretly define normative expectations of civil discourse but also with the power to judge and punish its transgressors?

One place to start looking might be the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The Statement, jointly authored by the AAUP and what is today the AACU, or Association of American Colleges and Universities (of which the University of Illinois was and is a member) includes an apparent limit to academic freedom to which administrators often make reference in their calls for civil discourse. It reads as follows:

“College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”

In their explanations for his firing, Kennedy and Wise referred to Salaita’s lack of restraint in his extramural utterances. They wanted us to believe that Salaita violated these undefined “special obligations” and thus his firing was necessary and consistent with the principles of academic freedom.

But this is only true because Kennedy and Wise ignored the October 1964 AAUP Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances, which created a standard of due process in complaints against faculty speech, a standard that Illinois has willfully ignored in the Salaita case. According to the statement: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”

That statement made clear that it was not up to administrators to define what those “special obligations” were. Rather an administrative complaint regarding a scholar’s fitness should be evaluated by an independent, elected faculty committee, not the administrator making the complaint.

The AACU, it should be noted, agreed to that clarification and thus the University of Illinois violated Steven Salaita’s right to academic freedom. And Kennedy and Wise know it. After all they characterized their complaint against Salaita in the exact context anticipated by the AAUP statement. A context the AAUP recognized could lead to violations of academic freedom without due process protections. The AAUP was rightly concerned that unilateral efforts to define “civility” or “collegiality” as grounds for dismissal would undermine academic freedom. Thus a process was established in which administrators could bring a charge against a faculty member followed by an investigation by an independent faculty committee. Chancellor Wise ignored this process and unilaterally fired Steven Salaita. And she claimed the right to do this based on a self-serving technicality. Despite the fact that the University had made Salaita a legally binding offer of employment with tenure in October of last year, had already paid his moving expenses this year and had scheduled courses for him to teach this semester, Wise claimed that the Board of Trustees had yet to finalize his contract and therefore he was not an employee of the University of Illinois—not entitled to the same due process protections of tenured faculty and therefore not protected by academic freedom.

And all of this because Steven Salaita expressed moral outrage at the slaughter of Palestinian children and unarmed civilians by the Israeli Occupation Forces in Gaza, actions the United Nations called human rights violations.

It’s clear to anyone paying attention why Kennedy and Wise would emphasize Salaita’s supposed incivility. The content of Steven Salaita’s speech is protected by the First Amendment and his position as a tenured faculty member extends him further protections against retaliation for that speech by the principles of academic freedom. But if there is one lesson we should take from the Salaita Affair it is that there is no such thing as academic freedom if university administrators and non-academic members of boards of trustees can arbitrarily establish standards of conduct and unilaterally fire those faculty who fail to meet those standards?

And this suggests that the debate over the firing of Steven Salaita is not only about academic freedom but also about the politics of academia more broadly. Consider the reaction of the University of New Mexico to my own political activism.

On April 2, 2014, Chaouki Abdallah, the Provost of the University of New Mexico, posted an entry on his blog that he titled “UNM Personnel as Public Intellectuals.” In it he quoted a previous AAUP statement on the role of the public intellectual that read: “Academics must seize the moment to assert higher education’s primary role in the democratic work of the country and collaborate with the public to address society’s core challenges. We must lead by assuming roles as public intellectuals. We must fill the leadership vacuum created by political intransigence and obstruction.”

Provost Abdallah added, in his own words, “our public intellectual work ought always to be grounded in our specific disciplines (with evidence of that via peer-reviewed publication); otherwise when we speak we speak only as fellow citizens, not public intellectuals.”

The Provost’s call to his faculty to be public intellectuals came just over two weeks after Albuquerque police SWAT and K9 officers shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia. Boyd was shot in the back after a four-hour standoff and a video of the killing, released a week later, sparked local outrage and international attention to the problem of police violence in Albuquerque. Nearly a month later, and just days after Abdallah’s call for scholar activism, on April 10, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice released the results of a nearly two-year investigation of the Albuquerque police department that concluded it routinely engaged in unconstitutional policing and the unjustified use of force. The report also found that most of the two dozen police killings since 2009 were unjustified.

In early April, I registered as a “Faculty Expert” on the issue of police violence with UNM’s University Communication and Marketing department. My book, Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico, examines patterns of police violence directed at Chicano movement activists in New Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s. That work led me to an interest in the problem of police violence in Albuquerque, an issue I began writing about in a variety of media outlets in 2011.

I registered with UNM because I agreed with the Provost’s call for public engagement. The problem of police violence in Albuquerque has been made possible by “political intransigence and obstruction” by local elected and appointed officials and police brass who have long refused any honest accounting of the problem of police violence in Albuquerque.

Because I had studied the problem of police violence as a scholar and written about the historical roots and contemporary manifestations of the problem, I joined this struggle for social justice as a public intellectual. I gave interviews (the first interview I gave, in fact, was with the Los Angeles Times, which was a result of my “faculty expert” registration) I gave public and scholarly lectures, and I did additional interviews with local, national and international news outlets.

I also marched in the streets and spoke at rallies and peaceful demonstrations. I have taken a position in this struggle, not despite the fact that I’m a professor but because of it. There is, I concluded, not such thing as a neutral position to the problem of police violence. My job as a scholar is not only to ask uncomfortable questions about racialized police violence against the poor but also to answer those questions. If the lesson of history is that the Albuquerque police department has engaged in a racialized pattern of violence against he poor, the homeless and those suffering from mental illness, what moral obligation was I under to confront that pattern in the present? Am I limited to the production of dispassionate scholarship? I concluded that more was expected of me. I have a moral obligation that comes directly from the work I do as a scholar. My role does not end at the edge of campus. While it is true that professors belong in libraries and lecture halls, the work we do in those lecture halls sometimes sends us out into the streets to march in solidarity with activists who confront the injustice we study.

Like Steven Salaita I was morally outraged at an entrenched pattern of state-sponsored or state-tolerated violence. And so I participated in a series of actions that included civil disobedience. On May 5, 2014 I joined 40 other people in a protest at the Albuquerque City Council meeting where we served the Chief of Police with a people’s arrest warrant. We briefly occupied the chambers. Less than a month later, on June 2, 2014, I was among 35 people who peacefully occupied the Albuquerque Mayor’s office in protest of his refusal to meaningfully confront the problem of police violence in Albuquerque. I was among 13 people who were arrested for refusing to leave.

A day after my arrest the University of New Mexico released this statement:

“University of New Mexico faculty member David Correia was arrested Monday, June 2 for felony battery on a police officer. Correia, an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies, was taking part in a protest as a private citizen at City Hall in Albuquerque.

The University of New Mexico emphasizes that Correia’s actions, statements and opinions are his own as a private citizen, and do not reflect any official views of the University or its Board of Regents.

‘While we respect all individual’s legal rights, including the expression of their political beliefs, UNM in no way condones illegal actions,’ said UNM President Bob Frank. ‘Faculty are expected to uphold the highest standards, and we will monitor this incident in that light.’

Regarding his arrest and potential consequences that may affect him at the University, the UNM Faculty Handbook is the source of policies that govern the behavior of faculty. It also outlines procedures and possible outcomes if adequate cause is substantiated.

These sections can be found in the UNM Faculty Handbook.”

The statement ignored video evidence that led the District Attorney to later drop the charges. In addition the statement ignored the University’s own role in advancing me as a public intellectual via its University Communication and Marketing Department. Moreover it depicted me as acting as a citizen, not a scholar. It did not acknowledge that my scholarship focuses directly on law’s relation to violence and the problem of police violence in New Mexico. Instead, the statement claimed I acted solely as a “private citizen.” Further, the President promised to “monitor” the incident in order to determine if my behavior lived up to the “standards” to which faculty are held. And then, ominously, it suggested that “possible outcomes” could be found in the UNM Faculty Handbook. The link sent readers directly to the section of that document titled “Separation of Faculty.”

UNM and the University of Illinois follow a similar strategy here. The first step was to distance the University from a controversial member of the faculty. Salaita was not considered a member of the faculty; I was depicted as acting solely as a private citizen. This distancing is important because it gives the University a way to undermine academic freedom protections. Salaita didn’t deserve the due process guaranteed by principles of academic freedom because he wasn’t a member of the faculty. The next step was for administrators to elevate civility, always undefined, as an obvious and necessary condition for academic freedom, and claim the right to unilaterally adjudicate the question of faculty “incivility”. The AAUP objected to UNM’s statement in my case and wrote a strongly worded letter to the President, explaining that “Under principles of academic freedom, a professor has the right to express his or her views on public matters not only in speech but in conduct, and such conduct may include acts of civil disobedience . . . . In any future comments on his case, we would welcome your speaking out regarding the university’s commitment to principles of academic freedom.” While UNM did not fire me, its intimidating statement gives the lie to any claim to an institutional desire for its faculty to serve as a public intellectual. What professor would weigh in on controversial public issue when the University refuses to support its faculty, and even goes so far as to “monitor” behavior? It’s easier to stay in the lecture hall and off the streets. If UNM holds public engagement up as a goal and even a priority, as I believe we should, then UNM must quickly defend its professors when the inevitable backlash comes.

As recent events have shown, UNM is not the only New Mexico academic institution that has refused to support the academic freedom of its faculty: Northern New Mexico College recently fired tenure track faculty in retaliation for speaking out against the college’s dismantling of “career tech” programs and its ties to Los Alamos National Laboratory and the nuclear weapons industry.

These recent attacks against academic freedom get to the heart of the politics of academia. The professoriate is a profoundly conservative institution, one particularly interested in protecting the comforts and privileges that go along with the stability of tenure. Historically it has been a bourgeois institution, dominated by a privileged elite who benefited from its prestige and social stature. This prestige was given in exchange for the intellectual rationale the professoriate could give to an existing social order that served the interests of the few at the expense of the many.

In order to effectively serve this role, the professoriate must be understood, generally, as a credible and legitimate source of authority—the final word—over a wide range of social and political issues. While it is true that radical politics have always been found in the professoriate, it is usually accommodated only so far as it offers objective prestige to institutions of higher education in the form of “star” faculty. But what cannot be accommodated is the professor who engages in political struggles that challenge the status quo. Those professors threaten to leverage the prestige of the professoriate and lend that prestige to movements and causes that profoundly challenge entrenched interests. To engage in such a politics is to become a target, as any radical scholar interested in Palestinian liberation can attest. The reaction, as we’ve seen of late, is predictable. These professors are condemned for abandoning objectivity and engaging as partisans in political struggles of liberation (as though conservative scholarship is objective and apolitical!). They are painted as uncivil. They lack collegiality. They’re lousy scholars. These were the tropes trotted out in the sacking of Salaita and they were the subtext in the statement UNM released regarding my scholar-activism. The smoke screen of “civility” has obscured any clear view of academic freedom; indeed, it has disappeared from view.


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