Tweeting without Tenure

August 8

How should faculty hiring committees or university administration view Twitter?  Should a professor’s intemperate tweets affect his or her job security?  Is tweeting only safe for those of us with tenure?  These questions are raised by the decision of the University of Illinois to rescind a job offer to a lateral faculty candidate, Steven Salaita.  The decision, noted by Dan Filler at The Faculty Lounge and reported on at Inside Higher Ed, was reportedly prompted by a series of inflammatory and vitriolic tweets concerning Israel and Gaza.  Apparently some university officials believed these tweets crossed the line from pointed commentary to uncivil attacks.  In the university’s view, it did not want to hire the author of tweets that could be seen as abusive and potentially even threatening to future students.  For examples of some of the tweets at issue, see here and here.

Because Salaita’s tweets were particularly critical of Israel, some view the episode as an example of the political persecution of “anti-Zionists” in academia.  Others, including former AAUP President Cary Nelson, see this as a reasonable effort to ensure a degree of minimal degree of civility.  Nelson, an Illinois professor himself, has defended the University’s move and wrote an essay explaining why, in his view, Salaita’s tweets would not justify revoking tenure, but would justify refusing to hire someone in the first place.  Writes Nelson:

Although I find many of his tweets quite loathsome — as well as sophomoric and irresponsible — I would defend without qualification his right to issue most of them. Academic freedom protects him from university reprisals for his extramural speech, unless he appears to be inciting violence, which one retweeted remark that a well-known American reporter wrote a story that “should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv” appears to do. His June 19 response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers — “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” — also invokes a violent response to the occupation, since “go missing” refers to kidnapping.

But his right to make most of these statements does not mean I would choose to have him as a colleague. His tweets are the sordid underbelly, the more frank and revealing counterpart, to his more extended arguments about Middle Eastern history and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They are likely to shape his role on campus when 2015’s Israeli Apartheid Week rolls around. I am told he can be quite charismatic in person, so he may deploy his tweeting rhetoric at public events on campus. Faculty members are well within their rights to evaluate someone as a potential colleague and to consider what contributions a candidate might make to the campus community. It is the whole Salaita package that defines in the end the desirability and appropriateness of offering him a faculty appointment.

It should be noted that the AAUP’s current leadership takes a different view.  Underlying this controversy is a longstanding debate over whether it is appropriate for university’s to consider “civility” and “collegiality” in hiring and promotion decisions, or whether such criteria are inevitably used to justify decisions based on other considerations (e.g. politics, race, gender, etc.).  However intemperate Salaita’s remarks, some fear they would be tolerated had they expressed a different view.  More here.  Then again, if someone is not capable of expressing strong opinions without resort to vulgar and abusive language, this may say something about their fitness as an educator and academic.

UPDATE: A few more tidbits:

FIRE is concerned about this case.  Among other things, FIRE notes that the University of Illinois was apparently aware of the controversial tweets when the initial offer was made.

According to this Chronicle of Higher Education report, Illinois may have breached its contract with Salaita.  Someone call the lawyers.

There’s some irony in seeing those who support the BDS movement academic boycott of Israel now seeking support for Salaita on grounds of academic freedom.  See also here.

And as for Salaita’s tweets, a reader forwarded this gem from June 19, shortly after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” Salaita has a right to say such things, but just imagine how it would feel to be an Israeli student in one of his classes.

 

 

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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Jonathan H. Adler · August 8