In early August, Inside Higher Education ran a story that sent a shock wave through the academy. It reported that at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an official offer of a tenured professorial appointment had been rescinded by a top administrative officer. That alone would have been unusual, but concerns grew after sources close to the decision-making process reported that Chancellor Phyllis Wise was responding to calls and e-mails about Professor Steven Salaita’s acerbic and emphatic anti-Israel tweets.
Once scholars heard of this, protests erupted. Within hours, nearly 2,000 signatures were gathered criticizing the decision; now the count is 17,000, and 3,000 professors are now boycotting UIUC. The American Association of University Professors issued a statement declaring that social media expression is private and protected speech, and that the use of “civility” as a litmus test—which the university now admits it has done in rescinding the hire of Salaita—is also not acceptable. The former is protected by the First Amendment, and the latter is not only an entirely vague and unmeasurable concept, but denying employment based on an alleged lack of “civility” narrows the wide range of expression and opinion upon which universities and colleges rely.
The University of Illinois board of trustees has now spoken on this case, echoing and giving support to Chancellor Wise’s decision. The board insists that speech is not entirely free:
Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.…
Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.
In so doing, the board seems to be evoking one of the basic principles of liberal doctrine as set forth by John Stuart Mill: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
There are three important issues to be considered here—and each one reveals the weakness and duplicity of the trustees’ decision. As we move through them, we see that this case reflects two disturbing trends: a campaign to silence critics of Israel, and the undermining of faculty governance at American universities in favor of corporate control.
First, universities are increasingly being asked to shut down criticism of Israel. This was indeed so with the Salaita case. As I have written elsewhere, some groups have attempted to use Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to wage legal battles against pro-boycott and pro-divestment protesters, precisely on the grounds that those protests “threatened” Jewish students. But in a determination letter to the University of California, Berkeley, the Department of Education: