Can one be hugely disappointed but not at all surprised?

If so, here’s a good case, from CHE

U. of Illinois Board Votes Down Salaita Appointment
The University of Illinois’s Board of Trustees voted on Thursday to deny the appointment of Steven G. Salaita to a professorship on the Urbana-Champaign campus, in the latest chapter of a month-old saga that has inflamed academe.

That Mr. Salaita’s appointment appeared on the list of proposed faculty hires to be voted on by the board came as a surprise. The campus’s chancellor, Phyllis M. Wise, who has been the subject of several no-confidence votes at the college, maintained in recent weeks that she would not send the appointment to the board. Trustees have expressed support for her leadership.

H/t also to Dailynous

35 thoughts on “Can one be hugely disappointed but not at all surprised?

  1. I’m not disappointed at all. In fact, I commend the trustees for showing that they’re willing to take real and unpopular steps to improve the climate on their campus.

    Academic freedom is not tantamount to freedom to use whatever language you please in support of your views. I find it strange that more people don’t acknowledge this. Just as one can be a serious scholar free to be critical of, say, African-American culture, that freedom doesn’t mean that one can start flinging around racial slurs without consequence.

    I happen to share some of Salaita’s views. But I try look at things from the other perspective: Would be doing wrong by our Palestinian students were we to hire a faculty member who thinks that defenders of Palestine are per se “awful human being[s]”? Clearly so.

  2. I wonder if we would all be so eager to support Salaita in his claim against the university if his comments were directed at, say, homosexuals of trans persons.

  3. Let me suggest we beware of statements that are very vague. I do think there is objectionable speech, and there is speech on a campus that I think should be silenced, but I don’t think we can get very far without considering the details and making a lot of distinctions.

    For example, the professors, thankfully now fewer, who rant in front of their engineering class about the inferiority of women in engineering should not be provided a forum. BUT THAT IS NOT TO SAY THAT THEY SHOULD BE FIRED, or refused a job that was presented to them as theirs except for a technicality. (Though perhaps they should be fired; I don’t want to decide that now.)

    Among the relevant distinctions is that between all sorts of silencings and actual removal of a job.

    Another is the setting: in the classroom, elsewhere on campus or in a campus publication or elsewhere such as TV or even the more exiguous twitter..

    We need also to consider precedent. Should we expect that ranting on twitter can get tenure withdrawn?

    I was president-elect of the faculty senate when a faculty survey was done. The results were extremely negative. We were accused of all sort of bad things, and the board of regents wanted our heads. If you think Salaita deserves to be denied the tenure he was sort of offered just because of his words, but faculty who convey nearly comparable complaints about an administration should be protected, you are on a very sticky wicket. Everything other than his words, I think, place him farther outside of the circle of understood grounds for denying denure.

  4. Maybe our intuitions differ, but yeah: I think that a professor who rants in front of his class about the inferiority of women should be fired. But let me make clear exactly what I mean here. I do not mean Larry Summers-type commentary about sex differences in science aptitude. Maybe Summers is right, maybe he’s wrong, but that’s a conversation which, although touchy, we can have in a civil and mutually respectful way.

    I’m talking about a guy who gets up in front of his class and says that all women are bitches, or that by being a woman you’re per se an inferior scientist, or that anyone who supports the cause of women in science is part of a pernicious plot. For me, any one of those statements uttered in seriousness, anywhere–publicly, in the classroom; quasi-publicly, on Twitter; or privately, at a dinner party–at any time, is a good reason to fire the person. And the issue of academic freedom doesn’t arise; it’s not that he holds unpopular, or touchy, or inflammatory views. It’s that he doesn’t understand that just because a person disagrees with you it doesn’t make that person morally bad. And especially when it comes to hugely thorny issues like the Palestine/Israel question! I’m not a Zionist but I know lots of morally upright and intellectually honest Zionists. And if you can’t recognize that such a thing is possible; if you really think that Zionists are per se “morally awful”, then that does show that you’re lacking an ability which is really essential to what we, as academics, do–namely, the ability to engage in civil debate.

    Like Eleanor says, imagine if Salaita’s criticisms had been leveled at the LGBT community instead of the Jews. [Here I was going to translate Salaita’s tweet “If Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised” into the corresponding anti-LGBT tweet, but I found it too painful to type].

    Chancellor Wise said that “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.” And that seems exactly right to me. Disagree all you want; but don’t demean, and don’t abuse, and ESPECIALLY don’t do these things when the underlying issue is a tough one.

  5. Happy Philosopher, I really didn’t mean to suggest it is a matter of our intuitions. The decision Wise made should have clear legal grounds, and not be a matter of what people feel.

  6. HappyPhilosopher: How is pointed criticism of Netanyahu’s apparent indifference to Palestinian lives anti-Jewish? Was pointed–even demeaning–criticism of George W. Bush anti-white? Or anti-American? Was calling Idi Amin a moral monster racist? What in that tweet can you possibly find in that particular tweet that is anti-Semitic?

    The tweet you mention is aimed narrowly at Netanyahu, more broadly at his government’s policies, and–at its absolute broadest–at Zionists and supporters of current Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. None of those are “the Jews.”

  7. Happy Philosopher,

    The key disanology between your professor and Salaita is that your professor meant exactly the words that you have attributed to him. Salaita’s tweets have been taken out of context and so he never said anything approaching the level of hate that your imaginary professor does. This is clear from the tweets themselves along with his entire body of work. A better analogy: imagine that my government is currently engaging in actions that I find morally abhorrent and tantamount to war crimes and I tweet the following: “I wish that Obama and Congress would just jump off a cliff.”

    Now imagine that I were fired for threatening the life of the president.

    The only way to make the Salaita example identical to your thought experiment would be to read Salaita’s tweets only for their literal surface meaning. This is, however, ridiculous.

  8. Anonymous:

    “Pointed criticism” of “Netanyahu’s apparent indifference to Palestinian lives” is not anti-Jewish. But saying that Israel supporters are, ipso facto, morally awful is anti-Jewish.

    Just as criticizing the LGBT community for–I don’t know–being indifferent to the sensibilities of religious conservatives is not anti-LGBT. But saying that LGBT people are, ipso facto, morally awful is anti-LGBT.


    That’s not right, because I’m not objecting to the “literal surface meaning” of the tweets. I’m objecting to what they reveal about the man’s character, as explained above.

    Let’s imagine we have a job candidate who has made his dislike for gay people plain; who has written that LGBT allies are, ipso facto, “morally awful”; and who tweeted “If [HRC President] Chad Griffin appeared on TV with a necklace made from dildos, would anybody be surprised?”.

    It seems to me that that tone reveals something unfortunate about the man’s character–namely, that he has contempt, moral and otherwise, for those of us who disagree with him. And that’s an excellent reason to fire him, revoke his job offer, etc. We’ve learned something important about our prospective colleague here. We’ve learned that he lacks an essential element for being a good intellectual and a good teacher–namely, the ability to engage in civil discourse with people who do not share your views on debatable moral issues.

  9. Happy Philosopher, you wrote, “But saying that Israel supporters are, ipso facto, morally awful is anti-Jewish. Just as criticizing the LGBT community for–I don’t know–being indifferent to the sensibilities of religious conservatives is not anti-LGBT. But saying that LGBT people are, ipso facto, morally awful is anti-LGBT.”

    But these two cases are not analogous. Supporters of Israel are not representative of Jews in the way that the LGBT community is representative of LGBT persons, nor are Israel supporters as a group constituted by Jews in the way that the LGBT community is constituted by LGBT persons.

  10. Happy philosopher,

    In a case like this, especially about a person’s character, you can either go with what your gut reaction divines from 128 character messages…OR…take the word of the faculty who interviewed him and selected him as the best candidate for the job.

    Thus far every faculty member who was a part of the search (including the Dean) stand behind him as a scholar and a person. Every person complaining about his “character” or trying to “protect the students” are doing so from a significant distance on the basis of almost zero evidence.

    Do you trust your guts that much HP?

  11. Saying that Israel’s supporters are, ipso facto, morally awful is definitely NOT anti-Jewish. If someone were to say such a thing, it would be false (I’d say they’re misguided or engaged in the defense of the indefensible, but they’re not morally awful people). But to say it’s anti-Jewish is to conflate Israel with Judaism, which is a conflation often deliberately made by Israel’s supporters in order to falsely claim all critics of Israel are engaged in anti-Semitism.

  12. To add to Matt’s post:

    AND this (the strategic conflation of Jewish identity with Israel) is exactly what many of Salaita’s tweets (and his research) are about.

  13. Eleanor, Happy Philosopher: I am in a department who voted to hire precisely such an anti-gay philosopher, whose public statements were of exactly that sort, which department did so precisely on grounds of academic freedom. Don’t tell me things would be different in this case if the public sentiments expressed were anti gay. I know better. Heck, when anti-gay people act on those sentiments in their professional capacities, still nothing is done. I know that too. (I don’t object to the former, even as frightening as it is as someone who is gay–academic freedom simply is that important. I do, however, object strongly to the latter) And yes, for this, I’m anonymous, so I’d understand if you choose not to believe me. It’s still true.

  14. Let me try to clarify two lines of thought in favor of Salaita:

    First, the majority opinion: objections to the conflict in the Gaza, however much the fault is laid at Israel’s door, are not anti-Semitic. Israelis do not = the jews.

    Secondly, particularly from post 14, freedom of speech is so important in academia that we should be prepared to allow into our ranks individuals who are anti-gay, anti-semitic, etc.

    These are, it seems to me, points we must pay attention to in discussing this. One of the huge worries the situation raises is that academic freedom of speech may be vulnerable to the opinions of people who do not care to draw such distinctions.

  15. I’m curious then why there was such a push to censure and disallow institutions who were judged to have anti-gay views and practices from advertising in the JFP, for example. If academic freedom is as important as you say then I would think we should not discriminate against people who hold such views when it comes to our hiring practices. Is your view that anti-gay views should not be used as a basis for discrimination in our hiring practices because of academic freedom? Isn’t this the argument such people give in defense of their views? Or perhaps I am missing something.

  16. I believe what you are missing–one of the things you are missing– is that the institutions in question were not censured for having anti-gay views–say a public statement on behalf of the university that being gay is sinful, or like the former president of a well-known Catholic university, expressing the view that lesbians don’t really exist. They were, rather, denied access to advertise in the JFP for refusing to hire gay philosophers, for being willing to fire gay philosophers on ‘grounds’ that they are gay. You are missing the crucial distinction between advocating a horrific bigoted, offensive view, such as that being gay is a fireable offense for a philosopher, and on the other hand, actually firing philosophers who are gay for being gay and having a practice and policy on which that is licensed. Of course, those of us who are gay and have to deal with folks who advocate such views live in terror that they will act on them in precisely the way that the institutions in question do. But that doesn’t stop us from being able to draw the distinction.
    (and the person the department in question voted to hire, for the record, said things even worse and far more offensive than that about gay people, publicly)

  17. I think that what UofI did in this case is completely unacceptable (what they did is, but for a technicality, equivalent to firing a tenured professor, and I doubt many universities would fire a tenured professor for making racist comments on twitter – at least not without a very elaborate process).

    But I do find it depressing to see how many philosophers discussing this are actually supporting the contents of Salaita’s tweets. At least one of the tweets (the one about the teeth mentioned in the discussion above) is not just a criticism of Israel or of Netanyahu’s policies: it’s a blatantly anti-Semitic (read: racist) statement. (If you think it isn’t, I suspect you simply don’t know enough of the history of how precisely such statements were used in the past…) I also find it depressing how many philosophers think it’s relevant to the discussion that Salaita is (so it is claimed) a nice guy/had good teaching evals/is a qualified researcher. (Really? If we were discussing the case of hiring/firing a professor charged with sexual harassment would you say that students had nothing do worry about because he had good teaching evals or his colleagues think he’s a good researcher?)

  18. I think #18 makes a good point, as defending the content of Salaita’s tweets aren’t at all necessary to take the position that Salaita should not have been fired. Whether or not that particular Salaita tweet is anti-Semitic is an issue I’m not wading into, because I’m not really in a position to make that sort of judgment. I’ve seen lively debate elsewhere on that issue, and I’ve heard good arguments presented for why and why not that particular statement is anti-Semitic.

  19. Why do Salaita’s tweets have to be anti-semitic to be deplorable? After the three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped, Salaita tweeted “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” It’s appalling to be so indifferent about kidnapped children, whether you’re indifferent because they’re Jewish or not. Here and in many other tweets, Salaita seems to speak out of uncontrolled fury, which does seem relevant to whether he’s the right person to teach on a college campus.

  20. I don’t think anyone has claimed that a tweet has to be anti-Semitic to be deplorable. I’m sure all of us could brainstorm a million examples of tweets that are both deplorable and not anti-Semitic.

  21. But, Jean, I think a large part of what’s being left out is that we’re not talking about random, uncontrolled fury. Let’s look at that tweet you quoted. We’re talking about a member of an oppressed group being pissed off at the group of people (i.e., West Bank settlers) that act as oppressors. “West Bank settler” is a deceptively neutral term. West Bank settlers, merely in virtue of being West Bank settlers, are participants in a process of ethnic cleansing. That’s part of what it means to be a West Bank settler. I’m not a fan of that tweet, because those teenagers were put into a lousy situation by being placed in a settlement by someone else, but that’s the appropriate context. The proper comparison is NOT to a homophobic or racist remark. The proper comparison is to, e.g., a black man lashing out on twitter when he sees what’s going on in Ferguson. Salaita isn’t raging randomly or into the abyss. Would you take a black man’s rage post-Ferguson as worthy of canning him from a tenured position?

  22. Matt, A lot of the discussion above and elsewhere does center on whether Salaita’s tweets are anti-semitic, and the unspoken assumption does seem to be that this is a pivotal question.

    I totally understand why Salaita resents the existence of West Bank settlers. What’s bad about the tweet is not that, but the seeming indifference to the disappearance of the three teenagers. I would find a black professor’s tweets, post Ferguson, troubling if they included expressions of indifference about whether the rioting there resulted in violence against police officers (let alone their children).

  23. Thanks, Jean. That’s fair. I just wanted to see people making the right comparison and using the right frame on this issue. (For the record, I’d find nothing whatsoever problematic about a black professor who expressed indifference about violence toward the cops, but that’s an entirely separate set of issues.)

  24. I try to stay out of these discussions because I don’t know enough about the circumstances to judge (living in a country far away from where all this happened).

    But I do sometimes feel impelled to say, people, please think about proportionatility: the man made those tweets when he, like all of us, was aware that hundreds of Palestinian children were being killed, often in places that were supposed to be safe havens.

    Please try to keep that in mind when you pass judgement on how he expressed himself. It’s not to say he was “right”, but he might have been in despair.

  25. Val: compassion and taking in context cut both ways. Just like Salaita was naturally distressed by the events in Gaza, think how his comments were interpreted by friends or relatives of the murdered teenagers (cf. his comment about wanting settlers to disappear) or for that matter by the thousands of families of holocaust victims, who know where an atmosphere fed by comments not dissimilar to the one about the teeth had led in the past (and in fact is leading to concrete violence against Jews as we speak in Europe).

    When following the murder of the three Israeli teenagers (some) Israelis were shouting out racist slogans against Arabs in the streets, I assume (and hope!) you weren’t excusing these completely despicable actions by appealing to their completely understandable distress. I don’t see why we should excuse racism in this case either.

    (Though, as I said above, despite finding Salaita’s tweets completely deplorable, I don’t think any of this justifies the action U of I had taken).

  26. We’re reaching a stalemate on whether a judgment on the moral status of Salaita’s tweets should be passed, and, if so, whether it is neutral or negative.

    This discussion has been a model of a thoughtful disagreement. Let me suggest that we now have to agree to disagree.

    I note that the majority of comments do not approve of Ch. Wise’s actions.

  27. Wading in late, but I’d like to make a point:

    Academic freedom is not tantamount to freedom to use whatever language you please in support of your views. I find it strange that more people don’t acknowledge this.

    I don’t acknowledge it because I don’t believe it is true. I think academic freedom precisely entails very liberal freedom of speech and expression. I also think that while it thereby protects the vile, it is also important to protect key minority voices (who do you think is more vulnerable to diner pressure in the US, pro gay people or racists? 40 years ago it would have been even clearer).

    Now, we curtail academic freedom in all sorts of ways both formal and informal. Thus, while the freedom to teach according to our best judgement this has to be balanced by the rights and needs of students. This we put limits on “experiments” in the classroom (just as we put limits on research), define standards, insist on formal procedures etc.

    But as the AAUP statement says, extramural stuff should be more stringently protected. So I think I’m pretty within the standard, normative meaning of academic freedom. If you think that the UIUC board did right then you are advocating for a new restriction on academic freedom and a loss of shared governance. I think the consequences of this will be bad for us all, but likely worse for viewpoints I presume we all here share an interest in.

  28. Bijan, I’m happy to have the discussion move onto the vital topic of academic free speech.

    Everyone, could we not, please discuss this topic in terms of the scumminess or not of you-know-who’s tweets.

  29. Does no one see the irony of censoring posts (sorry, moderating…) so as to create “a model of a thoughtful disagreement” when we are discussing twitter posts that were anything but, and so many of the approved comments justify the use of strident language (for Salaita, that is, just not in the FeministPhilosopher comments section…)

  30. Anon,


    Different fora can and should impose different requirements. Academic freedom precisely allows for this sort of exploration.

    I think being critical, even strongly critical, of Salaita’s content and tone is perfectly reasonable — indeed central! — academic activity. Denying him a place at the table on the basis of those tweets alone is not (and certainly not on most…all?…models of academic freedom that had wide currency before this incident; at least to my knowledge).

  31. I was unaware that any comments had been removed; if I had been, I might not have remarked on the thoughtful disagreement. That said, only two were removed. One of them said “To watch this thread develop–or, better, unravel–is to see liberalism turning against itself.” I saw it and thought I might ask what was meant, since it didn’t seem to me that the discussion was unraveling; rather, it was just getting a bit repetitive. It didn’t seem to be a very big violation of our policies, and I wouldn’t have deleted it. However, this blog covers several continents, and sometimes someone in a different time zone thinks moderating is needed when the actual poster is probably asleep.

    The second was pretty awful and told a commentator off for being disgusting, among other things. We don’t provide a platform for such venting. I was actually really pleased that it didn’t seem to occur at all, and I’m not very dashed to find that one person tried it.

    I doubt our standards differ much from those of a well-run seminar. I know other people think there’s actual censorship going on, but they may not be right. Or a mistake may have been made. That does happen.

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