Monday, August 11, 2014

Is this an issue of Academic Freedom?

Just recently University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rescinded a job offer to Steven G. Salaita.  While I understand rescinding a job offer, especially one made after a pretty significant selection process, is pretty rare -- but my issue is whether or not this is a matter of academic freedom.  I'm confused and hope someone can help me out.

First off, I've written about Academic Freedom before and I have always separated the issue from Free Speech.  Professors, in the conduct of their work, do not have free speech.  What they have is the right and, in my mind the responsibility, to present all facets of a subject area, even the controversial ones.  Academic Freedom means the academic organization cannot take negative action when teachers are doing their jobs.  What teachers do not have is the right to bring in unrelated topics into the classroom under the guise of academic freedom.  So, in other words, bringing Intelligent Design/Creationism into the science classroom as science does not fall under academic freedom because ID/Creationism is not science and therefore not in the subject area.  I know the Discovery Institute disagrees with me on that, but then they will use any tactic no matter how dishonest or reprehensible to push their pet ideas.  Remember the DI is the place who defended John Freshwater and failed to defend Chris Comer!  One was fired for not doing his job and one was fired for doing theirs.  Their idea of academic freedom is not the one shared by:

The American Council on Education (ACE) issued a statement endorsed by a pretty impressive list of collegiate organizations. It's called "Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities". Here are a few highlights:
  • Colleges and universities should welcome intellectual pluralism and the free exchange of ideas.
  • Academic decisions, including grades, should be based solely on considerations that are intellectually relevant to the subject matter under consideration.
  • The validity of academic ideas, theories, arguments and views should be measured against the intellectual standards of relevant academic and professional disciplines.
  • Application of these intellectual standards does not mean that all ideas have equal merit.
  • Government’s recognition and respect for the independence of colleges and universities is essential for academic and intellectual excellence.
I posted about this before here. check out the 4th one, all ideas do not have equal merit.  Certainly explains the inequalities between Scientific Theory of Evolution and Religious concept of Intelligent Design/Creationism, doesn't it?

Now Professor Salaita was the associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, he resigned his position to accept a new one, starting this fall, as a tenured professor of American Indian studies at Urbana-Champaign.  So we have basically an English teacher becoming a teacher in American Indian Studies.

After receiving the job offer last year, it did say is still had to be approved by the Board, but it also said that was usually pretty perfunctory.  It became an issue when the professor tweeted some seriously inflammatory comments about Israel and the recent things going on in the Middle East.

Here is my thing.  Is this a matter of academic freedom?  I think not!  I'm not trying to defend or attack Israel or the professor, I'm trying to focus on the actions of the professor and the University.  Professor Salaita has the right, under free speech, to tweet whatever the hell he wants.  The University has the right to hire whoever the hell they want. 

The professor wasn't being hired to teach anything about Israel or the Middle East, so how is this a matter of academic freedom?  To me it's a matter of free speech.  Tweeting, like any form of communication, comes as a right and it also comes with some responsibilities.  You are free to yell 'Fire!' is a crowded theater, but afterwards, you will be held responsible!  There had better have been a fire or you will be help accountable for your actions, including any injuries as a result or even the lost revenue from the theater.  A few years the Dixie Chicks made a few political comments about then-president George Bush at a concert in England.  While I disagreed with their comments, they had the right to make them.  The negative impact to their career is a direct response to their exercising free speech, and accountability.  Now the folks who threatened them and their children I think have serious mental health issues, but that's a different issue.  Was anyone going to tell me I HAD to purchase their music regardless of their political statements?   That if I refused to purchase their music I was violating their rights in some fashion?  Of course not.  But that seems to be what's happening here.

Maybe the underlying question is does a position as a professor of any topic automatically grant you freedom from any level of personal accountability for anything you might say in any forum on any other topic?  Put that way it sounds pretty silly, doesn't it?  But claiming that  Professor Salaita's right of academic freedom has been violated because the University rescinded a job offer because of his exercise of free speech sounds exactly like that!  He is and should be accountable for his tweets, whether the later ripples in the water are to his benefit or detriment.

Does anyone remember when William Dembski was nearly fired?  Back when he was working at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he caused a mild stir when someone realized that he actually suggested that the Bible might be less than historically accurate.  OK, he didn't actually suggest it, he out and out stated in in his book "The End of Christianity".  He went so far as to say Noah's flood was just a Middle-Eastern phenomena and not a global deluge.  He immediately came under fire by his bosses and recants incredibly quickly.  He even came out and said he was wrong!  No relying on 'academic freedom' for him because he knew exactly what was going to happen if he tried that route . . . it's called unemployment, so said Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson (about halfway down the article). 

Should the University be required to hire Professor Salaita ?  Maybe, but not because of academic freedom!  We are getting into a legal issue of acts and actions concerning job offers and offer-ers and who is entitled to what and when.  Complaining about academic freedom is, to me, just foolish smoke!  Be honest, if the University doesn't want to hire him because of his tweets, address the issue as one of free speech, not academic freedom!  If I were to post on Facebook or tweet comments that brought negative publicity to my employer, I would expect to get fired!  If between my acceptance of a job offer and the start of work something came up that would cause a negative reflection on me and my soon-to-be new company, I would expect to see the job offer fade into the dust.  I might not like it and would have potentially legal actions concerning it . . . it wouldn't be an issue of academic freedom!

I wonder if anyone from my current company pays any attention to this blog?  Imagine if the company owners were hard-core Creationists.  Could this blog get me fired?  That might be interesting, but not a fight I would want to get into.  I think as long as this blog didn't detract from me doing my job, my bosses shouldn't have an issue -- just like I shouldn't have an issue of their beliefs.  After all, what does their religious beliefs have to do with my being a computer programmer?  I think that's a lesson Nathaniel Abraham learned a few years back.  Do you remember him?  He was fired from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for refusing to do the job he was hired to do.  He tried the discrimination route to fight it and sued for all sorts of damages because he said his religious beliefs made it impossible to be an evolutionary biologist  . . . maybe he should have tried the 'academic freedom' complaint. 

Am I off base on academic freedom?  Let me know.  You can comment here or even email me direct at

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