Thursday, August 14, 2014

Academic freedom for folks who don't yet have jobs at an institution.

I've been reading the back-and-forth on Professor Steven Salaita, and I've just finished reading a piece on David Frakt in The Atlantic.  According to the article, Frakt was the person who was thrown out of his deanship interview at Florida Coastal (by the President!) for talking about Coastal's students' likely success rate and the relationship of the success rate to the students' debt load.

From what I've read about Salaita (including reading his own tweets myself--some of which made me physically ill), his "uncivil" comments are not merely "uncivil."  Some of his comments are extremely vicious, and I think that some of the comments are also anti-Semitic.  So this professor is not a hero to me, by any means.  

Salaita has a complete right to say what he wants, thanks to freedom of speech.  I don't have to like him.  I don't have to listen to him.  But he has every right to say what he wants to say, and to say it in the way that he chooses to say it, even if I perceive some of what he's saying as exceptionally nasty.  The First Amendment protects him, and I'm glad that it does.

Whether academic freedom does, though, is not as easy a question.  (I've written a little something on this:, which reviews Matthew W. Finkin & Robert C. Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom.)  I think that the issue is complicated.  "Academic freedom" doesn't protect every outburst.  It protects statements that people make while teaching and writing in their fields, but (to take some extreme examples) it won't protect someone who insists on teaching that the world is flat or that babies come from storks.

The more I spend time on social media, the more I think that people show their real selves there, and they show their real selves yet more when they post anonymously (though, of course, it's impossible to track down who the anonymous posters are).  Salaita's "real self" seems to me to be that of a bully--and a bully who would make his Israeli and Jewish students very, very nervous about whether he could be fair to them.  I would be as nervous about hiring him as I would about hiring a professor who posted screeds against any other group:  Arabs, Catholics, Mormons, single mothers (the list goes on and on).

But what interests me more is the difference between the outcry about Salaita and the absence of much outcry about Frakt.  Both people were prevented from getting their jobs because certain people didn't like what they were saying.  Frakt was, from what I've been reading, saying some perfectly sensible things about law schools and should have--at the least--been allowed to finish his deanship interview.  Salaita was saying some horrible things, but because they were rants against Israelis and Jews, his statements were more "socially acceptable" to the people who are aghast that the University of Illinois didn't approve his hiring.  That's a pretty awful contrast, in my opinion.

So I have to wonder:  where was the anger about cutting off Frakt's interview, and what is the difference between the two stories?

UPDATE:  I really liked this commentary.

1 comment:

Ted Herrlich said...

I think people cry out when something or someone aligns with their personal philosophies. For example the Discovery Institute in Seattle is quick to cry when a teacher is disciplined or fired if that teacher is a proponent of Creationism/Intelligent Design. Yet for all their defense of people like John Freshwater and Guillermo Gonzalez, where were they in the cases of Chris Comer, John Schneider, or Karl Giberson?

The answer is Freshwater and Gonzalez subscribe to the Discovery Institute's pet religious concept of Creationism/Intelligent Design. So they cry out in their defense, complaining of Academic Freedom and Free Speech issues, but when actual Academic Freedom is abridged or Free Speech curtailed, they are no where to be seen.