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Campus Democracy

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently rescinded its offer of a tenured professorship to Dr. Steven Salaita, due to his Twitter posts that disparaged Israeli military tactics during its conflict with Hamas.

A quick and furious public backlash necessitated a response from Chancellor Phyllis Wise. In it, Wise claims to respect the principles of academic freedom, codified by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1940, but seemingly she does not fully understand them.

For while Wise claims that Urbana-Champaign “is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy,” she dubiously asserts that the ultimate decision to release Dr. Salaita “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.”

Chancellor Wise, like many corporate-minded CEOs in today’s neo-liberal academy, cites “civility codes” at her institution in defense of her decision:

“What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

Such attempts at policing thought and prohibiting its expression have not faired well when challenged in American courts of law. As AAUP would remind Chancellor Wise, “institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

The Board of Trustees continuing support for Chancellor Wise’s decision not to submit Dr. Salaita’s signed Letter of Appointment for approval suggests that it does not fully comprehend that tenure was designed in part to prevent retaliation against faculty members for expressions of unpopular viewpoints, and it preserves thereby the integrity of the university.

Tone deaf and out of touch, however, the Board of Trustees at Urbana-Champaign, insist:

“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.”

In other words, free speech no longer applies to tenured faculty members at the University of Illinois, if it grates and irritates; in its place, restrictive conventions of civility must be observed in public debate and discourse. In this brave new world of the intellect, heterodoxy is punishable by termination.

Brian Leiter, professor of law at University of Chicago, calls it “a national embarrassment that a public official, the Chairman of the University of Illinois’s Board of Trustees, apparently does not know even the basic facts about the American constitutional system.”

Traditionally, the mechanisms of American campus democracy protected not only free speech, but also guaranteed meaningful faculty governance throughout the nineteenth century. Shared-governance emerged only when the entrepreneurial activities of the American university—such as running hospitals or state of the art research laboratories—became too cumbersome for faculty to oversee unassisted.

Following that trajectory of generational divestment, today university governance in the United States mimics corporate structures, which increase “the power of administrators at the expense of faculty, reducing faculty to a mostly temporary and low-wage workforce, and reducing students to customers.”

A majority of faculty members across the United States now work part-time for fast-food wages, and a full three-quarters of all professors on American campuses lack the tenure protections needed to challenge administrative prerogatives, safely express heterodox notions, and to speak freely in the classroom.

Such sustained attacks on tenure, together with the appropriation of the tradition of shared governance by overzealous administrators, is symptomatic of what Stanley Aronowitz calls the “incorporation of America.” On too many campuses across the nation, power has shifted from the faculty to the administration, and this new managerial class has successfully co-opted final determination over nearly all university issues.

The decision by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor and Board not to honor their appointment of Dr. Salaita, due to the written expression of his views, exemplifies a moral crisis in the American academy. Such intolerance of freedom of expression by corporate-minded university officials is antithetical to the democratic spirit—and it imperils the ability of higher education to protect American civil liberty and democracy.

In fact, campuses across the country are experiencing the same creeping authoritarianism and loss of traditional mechanisms for faculty governance. On the State University of New York (SUNY) campus in Oneonta where I currently teach, the “faculty senate” was long ago rendered innocuous (following a vote of no-confidence against a former President) by adding non-teaching professionals to its ranks, and then reducing the renamed “college senate” to the role of an advisory body only.

Much more recently, the new Dean of the School of Social Science overturned a faculty search—despite student and faculty protests. Were that not troubling enough, our Provost stealthily appoints two associate provosts at the end of the semester, without even the pretense of national searches.

That one of these appointees failed a national search for a deanship the year before, and the other has little upper-administrative experience (past a few months as a provost-appointed interim dean) speaks directly to the corporate-style reward system now in place for faculty members who exhibit unblinking support for, and complicity in, administrative prerogatives that erode campus democracy.

These recent developments at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the State University of New York at Oneonta simply illustrate broader national trends. If left unchecked, they threaten to systematically dismantle the principles of free speech and liberty upon which American democracy is founded—and to subordinate them to the pedestrian values of the marketplace.


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