The Absurdity of Academics Boycotting Academics

This week, the American Association for University Professors, better known as the AAUP, voted to censure the University of Illinois because the group disagrees with the university's decision to rescind a job offer to Steven Salaita, a professor of American Indian Studies.

The decision was based on Salaita's virulent tweets denouncing Israel. During Operation Protective Edge last summer, Salaita tweeted:

At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised?


Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.

Whether Salaita should have been hired or not is a question worth asking. I don't agree with Salaita's sentiments, but like most academics, I welcome a diversity of views. It's not what he said that irks me, and the University of Illinois; it's how he said it.

Professors like myself spend a lot of time in the classroom teaching our students how to think critically about the world. We demand our students look at the evidence and articulate their ideas in a respectful and intelligent way. It's what distinguishes an academic debate from a panel on a TV program like Crossfire. It is fair to ask whether Salaita's violent tweets reflect his teaching style, which goes against the collegiality and respectful discourse we want to model for our students. That said, while I don't agree with the content or the tone of Salaita's speech, and while I wouldn't want him as my colleague, the decision to rescind his job offer is questionable. It is reasonable, necessary and important that AAUP debate the matter.

Debating, however, is not the same as censuring.

In a statement about the vote, a representative from the AAUP noted that the University of Illinois, "violated Professor Salaita's academic freedom".

Academic freedom is a phrase that is tossed around recklessly these days. The idea behind it and the tenure system is that academics, who are public servants, should be able to research and speak about issues without fear of repercussion. This is especially important when researching controversial topics that may challenge the government, such as in the case of climate change, where evidence has policy implications. For example, Canadian academics who work for the government are barred from speaking to the media about their work. This is a clear instance of violating their academic freedom and we should all be worried when this happens.

Academic freedom, however, does not mean the right to insult, inflame, or use hate speech in the university, on twitter, or elsewhere. To be sure, according to hard and dry rules, Salaita's case is in the grey zone, but it's not about the right to free speech.

Censuring academics and academic institutions is even more absurd than arguing academic freedom. These principles contradict one another. The boycotts against Israeli academics are a case in point. Boycotting Israeli academics means taking away their right to academic freedom for acts they are not responsible for and that they often disagree with. Boycotting and censuring violates the very principle on which academic freedom is based on: the right of academics to think, speak, and debate openly about the issues of the day. Ironically, the AAUP's decision to censure the University of Illinois is a violation of academic freedom of the thousands of faculty and students who work and study there because of an administrative decision they did not make.

One of the main purposes of the academy is to encourage educated dialogue and debate, especially with those you disagree with. In this ideologically driven world, it is one of the only places left where intelligent dialogue is supposed to flourish. Boycotting and censuring shuts down the conversation instead of opens it up. This is happening so frequently these days, it seems our society is heading into the dark ages of the McCarthy era. Whether you agree or disagree with the University of Illinois' s decision about the Salaita case, one thing is for sure, we need to keep talking about it and to each other.