Below is the email I sent to the trustees at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in response to the firing of professor Steven Salaita over his controversial tweets. Corey Robin has done some heroic work combing through the latest documents that show intense outside pressure on the administration to fire Salaita because of his political views. Instructions for contacting the board are at Robin’s blog, and grad students should also sign this petition. Historians should also check out the AHA’s scathing letter to the UIUC from September 2.
Dear Trustees of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign,
No doubt at this point you have received many condemnations of Chancellor Wise’s decision to rescind Professor Steven Salaita’s appointment at UIUC. Like the thousands of other academics who have pledged to boycott your institution until the decision is reversed, I am gravely concerned about the precedent this incident sets for academic freedom, especially when it comes to expressing personal views in a non-academic context.
But I took the time to write because I wanted to emphasize what is particularly dismaying about this decision for today’s graduate students. Some of us are beginning our doctoral programs this week amid immense uncertainty about the future of our professions, and with no guarantee we will get the jobs we will spend up to a decade being trained for. We have been told time and again to prepare for alternative career opportunities, to use every available resource to make our work relevant to the public and to future employers. In light of that advice, and because most current graduate students grew up using the internet, developing a presence on social media has become virtually de rigueur in graduate programs. For many graduate students as well as faculty, Twitter especially is an invaluable resource for participating in informal discussions, floating half-formed ideas, making contacts, promoting our work to the public, and taking stands on important issues. The presence of academics on Twitter is one of the many facts that belie the facile prejudice that scholars are shut off from the world, engaged in pursuits that have no relevance to the public.
UIUC’s handling of the Salaita case is alarming because it raises the possibility—in fact, it all but guarantees—that universities will allow scholars’ social media presences to be turned into weapons by their political opponents, whether those be donors, administrators, other scholars, or students. For those of us who have had online profiles for most of our lives, this is a potentially devastating development; there is potentially no limit to what from our past lives could be deemed “uncivil” or offensive to people hold political views different from our own. Even if we were to shut down our social media presences immediately, comments we have made online would remain publicly accessible. The fate of Professor Salaita thus far has shown there is a real possibility that informal comments—perhaps years old—will be scrutinized, stripped of their context, and allowed to overwhelm our scholarly qualifications, our reputations in our fields, and even the decisions of academic departments that have hired us.
But that will only happen if institutions like your own allow it to happen. To guard against the destructive chilling effect such a situation will have, respectable academic institutions should side automatically with the vigorous and even rancorous exchange of ideas over vague, moralistic concerns that are mostly used to shut down debate. The struggle between ideas and interpretations, and the impact those have on political and historical events, is what the university is about. If graduate students have to be afraid to be passionately committed to our ideas and positions, both inside and outside its walls, it is fair to ask why we would risk our security to be a part of its future.
Department of History
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