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The College Educators Behind The Push To Speak Freely On Campus

 (Paul Sakuma/AP)
(Paul Sakuma/AP)

Steven Salaita was a rising star in the field of American Indian studies.

In the fall of 2012, he applied for a job at the University of Illinois.

“Around a year later, I was finally offered a position,” he says. “I signed the contract. It was announced all over the internet. You know, so, it was done.”

Then, he lost everything.

“I had taken to Twitter and other forms of social media to condemn Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Palestine,” Salaita remembers.

His move to Illinois was two weeks away.

“And suddenly, I got an email out of the blue informing me that the job offer had been pulled,” he says. “I had effectively been fired.”

Today, On Point: Academic freedom on American campuses.

Guests

Keith Whittington, academic committee chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance. William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton. Author of “Speak Freely.” (@kewhittington)

Also Featured

Steven Salaita, former tenured associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. (@stevesalaita)

Emma Gerike, senior at the University of Rhode Island.

Transcript: Steven Salaita, A Professor Fired For A Series Of Tweets, Tells His Story

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: For more than a thousand years, universities have aspired to be the place where human knowledge blooms. At times, they’ve failed to meet that aspiration. But the very word — university — contains within it an ambitious purpose. Universum — the Latin root — meaning, “all things, all people, the totality of all that exists.”

CHAKRABARTI: But what if universities are no longer such places? No longer open to the “totality of all” people, all knowledge? What do we all lose, whether or not you’ve ever stepped foot on a university campus? Let’s start with Steven Salaita. Listen carefully to how he introduces himself.

STEVEN SALAITA: I used to be a professor of English and American Indian studies.

CHAKRABARTI: Salaita used to be a professor of English and American Indian Studies. He hasn’t been able to find a job in academia since 2016. In the fall of 2013, he’d accepted a position at the University of Illinois. He’d signed the contract and was ready to begin his new job.

SALAITA: Late July 2014, I was literally less than two weeks away from moving to Illinois. Everything had been arranged with the mover. My child, who was two years old at the time, had been enrolled at the on campus daycare. Everything was ready to go. And suddenly I got an email out of the blue from the chancellor … informing me that the job offer had been pooled. I had effectively been fired.

CHAKRABARTI: More than 420 American scholars have been “targeted for sanction by ideological adversaries” since 2015, according to a new study from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Given the size of higher education in this country, you might consider that an insignificantly small number.

CHAKRABARTI: Or, you might consider it deeply troubling that there’s a need to track such a number in the first place.

____

CHAKRABARTI: Steven Salaita’s troubles began, as now they so often do, on social media.

SALAITA: I had taken to Twitter and other forms of social media to condemn Israel’s 2014 bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

CHAKRABARTI: Salaita posted hundreds of strongly worded tweets. For example:

On July 19: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”

On July 20: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”

SALAITA: My comments, very highly critical comments of Israel’s behavior, sort of evoked the ire of a lot of pro-Israel elements in and around the University of Illinois. And some large money donors who were pro-Israel in orientation pressured the university to rescind the appointment.

CHAKRABARTI: For example, Dave Downey, life member of the University of Illinois foundation board, said this about Salaita in September 2014:

[ARCHIVAL TAPE] DOWNEY: “From what I can see in Mr. Salaita, he is an engaging man, he’s probably a very smart man, and he will probably do very well. But I don’t want him doing it here representing me and being the face that I have to look at with the kinds of things he has said about other people.”

SALAITA: The university’s administration hewed to the will of the donors and ended up pulling the job offer.

SALAITA: I was stunned, absolutely stunned. First of all, it came out of nowhere and we’re talking about really a two year hiring process. I had been vetted extremely carefully.

SALAITA: I had already resigned my job at Virginia Tech, so it was a bit of a mess, everybody was in flux. It wasn’t just me. The department was in flux. I had already been assigned courses. I had already ordered my textbooks and turned in my syllabi. Certainly, the university’s administration knew that it wasn’t going to be a smooth process, although I doubt that they anticipated just what an enormous story it would become.

CHAKRABARTI: Salaita then went to the American University of Beirut, working as a visiting professor in Lebanon. He was there for two years. Salaita says his fellow faculty chose him to become permanent director of the University’s American studies program. But he claims that decision was revoked by the school’s administration in 2016. That was when the well dried up, Salaita says.

SALAITA: Over the years, I’ve applied to dozens and dozens of academic jobs, and I’ve not gotten so much as a screening interview. And people who aren’t in [academia] don’t always understand this. It’s extremely difficult after being the source of a public controversy to land another job. Once you’ve been marked with a certain reputation, then you become all but toxic to search committees.

SALAITA: In 2017, realizing that I needed money, I needed health insurance, especially, I decided to become a school bus driver. And I went for training in Northern Virginia and became a school bus driver. And I stayed in that job right until the COVID pandemic hit.

And then the pandemic, of course, shut down all school transportation possibilities. They shut down the schools in general in this region. And so now I’m just writing and doing substitute work as needed as a school bus driver. So that’s kind of my life right now.

SALAITA: Making the decision to leave [academia] was in a lot of ways heartbreaking. It still is heartbreaking and difficult to me. Just talking about it. I get sad. But it was at the same time a relief in the sense that I did what I felt in the moment was necessary.

____

SALAITA: There have been times where I’ve been resentful that I’ve had to go into a different job, you know, in lots of ways a more difficult job and certainly a job that doesn’t come with the same kind of pay and prestige. It took me out of a career that had become a decisive feature of my identity. It changed everything.

Interview Highlights

Is there actual evidence that shows that there’s been a change or a reduction in academic freedom in this country?

Keith Whittington: “It is particularly tricky to get good evidence about changes over time. It’s hard to even get a good handle on what the situation is right now. As you noted, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education just issued a report which covers just the last few years. Focusing on faculty who have been threatened in their jobs and targeted for termination at American universities. I think we know that that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Even over that time period, those are publicly discussed cases, cases you could find in the media. FIRE, through its own work. The AFA, through our work, encounter lots of faculty who are dealing with these more quietly behind the scenes, and their cases never become public. So I think we know that there are hundreds of faculty who are being threatened now. Many, many more, whose speech is chilled as a consequence of seeing those threats occur.

“What’s much harder to get a handle on even than that is knowing how bad were things 10 years ago, how were things 20 years ago? Certainly the sense of many of us is that the situation is worse now than it was not too long ago. And we may be at a crucial turning point where things could get much worse in the not too distant future.”

Is academic freedom changing on college campuses?

Keith Whittington: “I think there really is a narrowing of the range of ideas and discussions that could go on on college campuses. That’s not to say everybody is affected, that’s not to say some people aren’t willing to speak out. But you see an awful lot of faculty who find themselves much more cautious about what it is they’re willing to do, what it is they’re willing to write about, how they teach their classes. I’ve talked to lots of professors who said they’ve dropped material from their teaching.

“They’ve dropped topics and subject matter from their teaching simply because it’s too controversial. It’s too likely to get them in hot water with students, with administrators, with outsiders. And so it’s just safer, easier to simply drop that material and not talk about it. People are affected in terms of what kinds of research projects they take on, and how they pursue them, out of concern about what kind of backlash they might get as a consequence of their scholarship.

“So people react in various ways. And of course, part of what’s really disturbing about these kinds of attacks is it’s not only about the particular individuals who are threatened with being fired or dragged through lengthy investigations, but it’s the much, much larger number of faculty who look at those examples and say, I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to have to go through a similar ordeal.

“So how can I avoid the possibility that I might cause offense to anyone, and potentially be subjected to that? And that just makes academia a much less interesting place. It makes the scholarship not as good. It makes the teaching not as good. Universities aren’t accomplishing what they’re supposed to be accomplishing if you’re afraid to grapple with difficult ideas.”

Why should we as a country care about the hothouse of thought on college campuses?

Keith Whittington: “I would hope the country as a whole gets better, as well, about tolerating dissent and the free expression of ideas. Universities ought to be leaders on that front. They ought to serve as an example that it’s possible to tolerate people who disagree with you, and actually engage them constructively. And so it’s terrible [that] universities, instead of being models for that kind of civil discourse, instead become models for cancel culture.

“Moreover, if universities become places where certain ideas can’t be explored constructively and with due diligence, the result is our scholarship will be worse, our education will be worse. We will not actually learn the truth about things. We will not understand the world as well as we should. And society as a whole will be worse off as a consequence because we won’t be pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge, which is what universities ought to be doing.”

From The Reading List

The San Diego Union-Tribune: “USD law professor under investigation over Chinese reference in coronavirus blog post” — “A law professor at the University of San Diego is under investigation after students complained about an offensive phrase he used in a blog post about China and the coronavirus.”

Washington Post: “Banning ‘critical race theory’ would be bad for conservatives, too” — “Bills aimed at directing how race is taught in public schools and colleges are sweeping through Republican statehouses across the country.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.