Another take on Salaita: not an abridgment of academic freedom, but a failure to uphold academic standards

It is easy to portray Steven Salaita, whose job offer was rescinded by the University of Illinois, as the victim of a witch hunt resulting from his outspoken, ill-tempered anti-Zionist rants. Or, as a recent set of e-mails from the University of Illinois chancellor tells it, the university’s desire to sustain campus civility.

My reading of this dustup is different—it’s about the failure of the top University of Illinois administrators to defend intellectual standards against a faculty on the political march. Yes, the trustees eventually behaved correctly but for the wrong reasons.

The offensive tweets or incivility are irrelevant. Killing the appointment should have been about scholarly qualifications and why the American Indian Studies Program failed to uphold high standards. Deans and trustees should have asked why somebody who wrote six books on Arab and Middle Eastern politics but not a single opus on Native Americans is hired in American Indian Studies.

Or why excellent teaching reviews from courses involving the Middle East are taken as evidence for teaching courses on American Indians. And surely a trustee could have said that a web search for his vita uncovered just a single journalist rant about Native Americans—a plea that the United States should return all Indian land.

The trustees are not guilty of violating free speech; their sin is cowardice in overseeing the faculty. They did not perform their job.

Outsiders may wonder why universities require multiple layers of approval—typically two or three post departmental approvals—for a new hire or granting of tenure. These additional layers serve as quality control inspections, the last line of defense against obvious negligence, and smelling a rat here was not rocket science. Surely they must have encountered a cover letter in Salaita’s file explaining why a Middle East scholar was to be offered tenure in an American Indian Studies Program. I personally would love to see how the Illinois American Indian Studies Program finessed the question of how Salaita compares to comparable scholars in American Indian studies at this stage in his career, a stock question in such reviews.

This breakdown resulted from a dirty little secret well known in university life: rigorous scrutiny is less likely to happen when the candidate is a member of “an historically under-represented group” or is hired to fill a position in a department dedicated to such a group, in this case, Native Americans.

In most instances, as least as far I can tell, lowered standards are no impediment as the paperwork moves up the administrative hierarchy. Academics generally endorse “diversity” and do not personally have to suffer the consequences of a bad hire. And, thanks to privacy and confidentially rules, nobody will know if administrators abdicate their responsibilities. The only obstacle to this deception is if an administrator really believes in tough academic standards, smells a rat, and is willing to conduct his or her own inquiry by soliciting additional opinions or even reading the scholar’s publications. And then goes public.

Let me offer a first-hand example of how this “last line of defense” can work or fail (details are disguised). Professor X, a member of an “under-represented minority,” earned a doctorate from a prestigious research university and was promptly hired by an Ivy League school. After six years she was voted tenure by the department, then the college, but was unexpectedly, but justifiably, rejected by the school’s president (a world-famous foreign-born mathematician) in what was expected to be a pro forma decision.

The professor then applied for a position at another research-oriented school as an untenured second-term assistant professor. Her scholarly record was scrutinized and many concluded that it was a weak one—her one book was just her dissertation and it included dubious, unsupported assertions, displayed a profound ignorance of basic disciplinary concepts, and was filled with so many misspellings that nobody, from the dissertation committee to the publisher’s staff—could possibly have read it. Beyond that, the record included a few undistinguished small research notes. This scholarly record hardly justified an appointment at a top school but no matter, X was nevertheless hired and eventually received tenure despite doing almost nothing in the intervening years.

Dozens of academics probably knew that the fix was in and a few telephone calls to department members could have provided the embarrassing details. Clearly, however, professors (including myself) believed in omerta, the Mafia’s code of silence. When the files reached the board of trustees, her weak case should have been evident but given the overall political climate, why invite trouble? It’s hard to counter all the favorable reviews, all conducted by professionals.

To repeat, given Salaita’s record, it was unnecessary to hide behind a “noxious tweet” defense. Actually, even the American Indian Studies Program tacitly admits this lack of qualifications. In an on-line petition to reverse the chancellor’s decision he is described as “a leading scholar in comparative ethnic, Arab American, indigenous, and American studies, whose path breaking and prolific scholarship has put him at the forefront of these fields and led to the offer of employment at UIUC.” Notice the absence of a specific scholarly record in Native American Studies.

My personal guess is that today’s universities are so intimidated by the Left’s ability to demonize opponents (the on-line petition mentions “anti-Arab racism”) that administrators close their eyes to iffy appointments to keep the peace, particularly in departments (e.g., Native American Studies) on the periphery of the school’s core mission (for the University of Illinois it is science, engineering, and agriculture). Top administrators have trained themselves to not smell rats. The research conducted in the Indian American Studies program can be explored here.

The Salaita incident illustrates how an otherwise effective system can easily be manipulated if professors stand shoulder-to-shoulder to insist that expertise on Sheik Abdulla Ben Geronimo qualifies one to teach about American Indians. Everything is about departmental prerogatives to ignore professional standards and to willy-nilly act unencumbered. Interjecting “free speech” and “censorship” is just a smoke screen to smother debate when politically motivated professional irresponsibility is uncovered.

The University of Illinois is innocent of violating academic freedom—Salaita remains as free as ever to express his views. The university is guilty of being spineless in failing to expose the twisting of academic standards.