Late Friday afternoon (August 22), the University of Illinois broke its three-week long silence on the controversy regarding the Chancellor's revocation of a tenured offer to Steven Salaita, who had accepted a faculty position in the American Indian Studies Program at the flagship campus at Urbana-Champaign. Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy both issued statements explaining the revocation, but in terms far more alarming than the original decision itself. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees have now declared that the First Amendment does not apply to any tenured faculty at the University of Illinois.--Brian Leiter, Huffington Post.
I kept quiet on the Salaita affair because while I felt that Prof. Salaita was treated unjustly and I recognized that this was a genuine academic freedom issue, I was not especially eager to strengthen the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (see this petition [about that some other time more]). So, forced to choose between two bad choices, I was happy to have others do the legitimate protesting. But I have asked John Protevi to include me in the philosopers's boycott of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Right now my participation is largely symbolic -- I have not been invited to the UIUC --, but to be frank: Brian Leiter, who is not known for mincing his words, understates the significance of the situation. To be clear: Leiter is absolutely right that this is a classic first amendment case.
In addition, The Chancellor and the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois are changing the nature of academic employment in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and -- in the process -- redefining the nature of tenure.* If you read the statements by Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy, it is no less an attempt to intimidate and regulate faculty so as to tame them thoroughly and bring faculty into the orbit of the surveillance state. For if some polemical tweets can cost a professor his job in the name of a non-existing and non-desirable "civility," (see here for analysis), then basically it says, we're watching you and we can strike at you whenever we choose (see here). In effect, Salaita has been made an exemplar; and because he defends an unpopular cause -- and it is not my cause at all -- he is an easy target to send a wider message to the rest of us. If this decision is allowed to stand, then the privileged few tenured (I return to this below) are at-will employees, subservient to the whims of technocratic, university management and its ability to monitor approved behavior.
UIUC is one of the world's great research universities. It represents what's finest of the American heartland. (I lived in the Midwest for nine years, seven of which in Illinois.) It, and its sister institutions (the land grant universities and, especially, the "Big Ten"), are engines of upward mobility, the backbone of lots of research and development, job creation centers, and -- to be romantic for a second -- a glorious symbol of civilization that nurtures the arts and sciences (for example, read Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, who spent a good chunk of his writing life at UIUC). They are also the acknowledged havens for the talented and hardworking misfits (the eclectic, the original, the idiosyncratic, the unpopular, etc.) in society. These institutions are, due to their size and flag-ship status, a key part of the enduring social compact between society, citizens, and academics. But all humane institutions decay if not nourished and cultivated with spirit of generosity.
I know that a lot of folk who are not tenured think of the tenured as spoiled brats and privileged parasites. But if you want to destroy what is arguably one of the ongoing success stories of the American economy and higher education -- and the best kept secret in higher education is that the humanities/social sciences are also extremely profitable at a lot of universities+ -- this decision, if emulated by other institutions of higher educations, is the way to go. In the long run it will reduce innovation and academic talent will be lured abroad (helped by a low dollar and growing demand for higher education in the growing and young economies of Asia, and Brazil). It will also increase the cost of recruiting and hiring academics that are in demand; these will demand better pay and more secure contracts.
Now, I recognize that in many places the privileges of tenure are grounded in the cheap and relatively unprotected labor of adjuncts, graduate students, and temporary faculty. But such systemic problems are not resolved by a further leveling down of working conditions. Finally a skeptic might think that I am just engaged in special pleading to protect my own supposedly outdated, labor market privileges. But while I have deep roots in American higher education, I am not employed Stateside. Rather, I worry that if even America's institutions of higher learning voluntarily turn their backs on the inquisitive spirit of freedom, the American century will shade into every gloomier forms of darkness.
*I am deliberately excluding the so-called STEM disciplines; for there 'tenure' tends to mean you are as privileged as your last grant.
+Humanities and social science professors tend to have low overheads and relatively low salaries.