Academic Freedom, Except When I Disagree

Former AAUP president Cary Nelson had some things to say about the case of Steven Salaita, recently fired from UIUC for criticizing Israel on social media. Since Nelson is known as one of the staunchest defenders of academic freedom against right-wing bogeymen like David Horowitz, one might have expected him to rush to Salaita’s defense. Alas, the mask has slipped, as Nelson’s commitment to academic freedom has proven less strong than his desire to defend the state of Israel.

Still, it’s worth re-examining some of Nelson’s statements in defense of academic freedom alongside his more recent commentary on the Salaita case. Nelson’s self-contradictions demonstrate that it is no longer possible for him to disguise his pro-Israel stance as a defense of academic freedom, as he has done in his public opposition to the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

2010: “Academic freedom must protect instructors from reprisals for challenging their students.” No University Is An Island, p. 10.

2014: “When Salaita tweets, ‘If you’re defending Israel right now, you’re an awful human being’, he issues a judgment about his future students that would justify them believing they would be academically at risk in expressing pro-Israeli views in class.”

Students must be challenged, but never about their support for Israel.

1999: “Academics were to be protected not only for speech directed internally, at the university community and the discipline, but also for speech directed toward the world of politics and public policy, at least when events in that larger world pertained to their expertise.” Academic Keywords, A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education, p. 23.

2010: “Institutional reprisals for faculty members’ political speech in the public arena have to be prohibited by academic freedom, save instances when extramural speech demonstrates faculty ignorance about areas of professional expertise and thus demonstrates an inability to do their job adequately.” No University Is An Island, p. 12.

2014: “It’s not a violation of academic freedom, to decide you don’t approve of someone’s publications or their public use of social media. It’s not a violation of academic freedom to decide not to hire someone with a deplorable role as a public intellectual.”

Academic freedom extends to public speech, except when someone criticizes Israel, at which point such speech becomes “deplorable.”

1999: “As the areas of enforced silence pile up, it becomes more and more difficult to think of the resulting institution as one where adequate intellectual debate and inquiry can take place.” Academic Keywords, A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education, p. 26.

2014: “Academic freedom does not require you to hire someone whose views you consider despicable. It prevents you from firing someone from a job for their views.”

The ability to speak one’s mind is important for “adequate intellectual debate and inquiry,” except when it comes to Israel, in which case such opinions are “despicable.”

It’s worth noting, in passing, that Nelson’s Academic Keywords isn’t a “devil’s dictionary” at all, but rather a simple (and tedious) glossary of terms. It has none of Ambrose Bierce’s sarcastic wit and does nothing to expose the gap between the terms we use in academic discourse and their true meaning in academic practice. Nelson, since he is suddenly an advocate of CIVILITY in academia, may wish to consult Bierce on POLITENESS.

Update: In January of this year, Phan Nguyen published an exhaustive critique of Nelson and the AAUP’s selective defense of academic freedom.

Israel demonstrates its commitment to academic freedom / Flickr

Israel demonstrates its commitment to academic freedom / Flickr