Defend Principles, Not People

By Kindred Winecoff

Steve Salaita resigned from a permanent position at Virginia Tech to accept an appointment at the University of Illinois. Then, this week, his offer from Illinois was rescinded. Neither the university nor Salaita has divulged the reason for this reversal, but Inside Higher Ed has speculated:

The sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.

For instance, there is this tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” Or this one: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”

Salaita’s appointment to Illinois was thus apparently canceled because of the opinions he expressed concerning a current event. There are questions about whether this constitutes a violation of academic freedom — in the article linked above a professor at U of I suggests that protection is limited to academic work — but I am on record defending academics in similar cases from institutional reprisals. In other words, I think Salaita’s appointment should have gone through. The fact that I disagree vehemently with some of his expressed views, particularly the allegations of genocide and statements that Israel has earned any anti-Semitism it experiences, is immaterial. If the university was concerned with Salaita’s opinions, which were not a secret before this week, then they should not have given him the offer in the first place. Given that they did, and he gave up his previous (tenured) employment to accept this offer in good faith, it absolutely should be honored.

But I wonder on what principle folks like Corey Robin can object. Robin strongly protested the appointment of General David Petraeus to a temporary teaching position at his own university. While the content of Robin’s protests were primarily about the fiscal cost of hiring Petraeus, given Robin’s advocacy efforts (and the fact that he uttered not one word of disappointment when Paul Krugman was later given a permanent position at a higher salary for less work than Petraeus) it is difficult to believe that ideology wasn’t a part of it. Robin is also a visible proponent of the BDS movement and supported the American Studies Association’s proposed boycott of all Israeli academic institutions. It appears, in other words, that Robin believes in politicizing academic hiring and promotion decisions except when he does not, and that there is a perfect correlation between his political attitudes and his attitudes on such decisions.

This is the abrogation of principle. If the university is to be politicized, and Salaita seems to believe it should not be, then it is disingenuous to express outrage with a political outcome. The fact that university administrations appear to be reflexively pro-Israel is why actions such as those taken by the ASA are counter-productive and a defense of principles is so important.

2 thoughts on “Defend Principles, Not People”

  1. How long do you think before the academy pulls its head out of its ass and stops selecting appointments based on politics under the banner of ensuring the emotional safety of students and faculty in the name of “academic freedom” and “scientific dispassion?” This shit is the equivalent of liberating people with degraded nuclear materials and remote controlled airplanes.

    Only the deepest, most sincere, completely unselfconscious, and mutually congratulatory arrogance can create the kind of culture where people feel like these decisions are in any way principled. And bravo for saying so beforest thou haveth thine Union Card ensuring your academic freedom to say things that are in line with mainstream American foreign policy positions.

    Please allow me to refer the interested to some of my thoughts on how this kind of dumbfounding hypocrisy gets built up


  2. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here: From my own (brief) look into the Petraeus/CUNY affair, it looks like some of the protest comes specifically from his actions/associates while General in Iraq (sorry, long url):
    Robin more or less echoes this sentiment when he points out on his website that Petraeus ran “two brutal counter-insurgency campaigns”.

    One could take the position that while Salaita’s (and Krugman’s) views may be rather unpalatable, he’s ultimately just some armchair tweeter with no real authority, whereas Petraeus may have had an active role in promoting/ordering unsavory activities of the US Military during his time there – activities that resulted in actual physical harm of human beings.

    Ultimately though, I think your point stands – I don’t believe for a minute the reaction would be as strong if some former left-of-center Democrat who made the unfortunate decision to support OIAF landed a cushy job at CUNY, even though their “yes” vote bears as much – if not more – responsibility for the debacle than Petraeus’ actions.


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