Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 29, 2019

Steven Salaita on academic freedom

Filed under: Academia,Palestine — louisproyect @ 12:54 pm

(Rescued from behind a paywall)

Chronicle of Higher Education Review

My Life As a Cautionary Tale

Probing the limits of academic freedom.

By Steven Salaita

Photographs by Greg Kahn for The Chronicle

August 28, 2019

Academic freedom is inhumane. Its inhumanity isn’t of the physical, legal, or intellectual variety. It is inhumane because it cannot provide the very thing it promises: freedom.

Why? Because academic freedom can do little to alter the fine-tuned cultures of obedience that govern nearly every campus. I cannot venture a comprehensive theory of freedom or know for certain in what spaces freedom may be possible, but it won’t be in selective institutions possessed of wealthy donors, legislative overseers, defense contracts, and opulent endowments.

I know this from experience. In the summer of 2014, during a war between Israel and Gaza, I took to Twitter to express my outrage. “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” I wrote. In another tweet, I wrote, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” By August, I’d been fired from my tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After my lawsuit with the university had been settled but before I left academe, I visited another American campus to speak about academic freedom. The itinerary included a meeting with the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which opposes academic boycotts of Israeli universities but had intervened strongly on my side after I was fired. Rather than a discussion or even an argument about what academic freedom means for critics of Israel, the gathering ended up being a kind of inquest. The professor who had convened the roundtable read several of my tweets — without mentioning the horrors to which they responded — and then compared them against relevant sections of the AAUP manual. I confess to having been annoyed.

By that point I no longer thought about the tweets. I couldn’t recall my state of mind when I wrote them. More important, dozens of scholarly associations, various committees at the University of Illinois, labor unions, a federal judge, individual theorists of free speech, and the AAUP itself had already declared my case a clear-cut violation of academic freedom.

Listening to my words interspersed with itemized bylaws was jarring, but it helped clarify an ethic that’s normally implicit: When I make a public comment, I don’t care if it conforms to the etiquette of a speech manual. I’m instead concerned with the needs and aspirations of the dispossessed. Conditioning critique on the conventions of bourgeois civil liberties, and in deference to specters of recrimination, abrogates any meaningful notion of political independence. To ignore those conventions, to engage the world based on a set of fugitive values, will necessarily frustrate those in power in ways that require protection beyond the scope of academic freedom. The damnable comment is precisely what academic freedom attempts to protect, but it is incapable of preventing unsanctioned forms of punishment, regulation of the job market according to docility, or the increasing contingency of labor, which stands today as the greatest threat to academic freedom. Human beings are too complicated for rule books. Problem is, we’re also too unruly for freedom. In institutions like universities that reproduce social order, rule books will always win.

Academic freedom preserves democracy; academic freedom emboldens research; academic freedom facilitates faculty governance. These by now are truisms.

But academic freedom is no simple matter. We have distinct ways of understanding it, often according to class, discipline, race, gender, and ideology. At base, academic freedom entitles us, as both faculty and students, to say or investigate things that might upset others without fear of retaliation. As with any condition of speech, limits exist. And as always, complexity begins at the imposition of limits.

Many people, for example, are unwilling to protect a Nazi’s right to teach undergraduates. Others believe that the principle of free speech overrides the harm attending the Nazi’s presence. Let’s grant the argument that the Nazi has to go; we don’t want racism on campus, right? But what happens if a Jewish student says criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, or if a white student considers affirmation of blackness a form of racial hostility? We’ve been warned again and again that limiting reactionary speech will inevitably lead to the repression of all speech, including from the left. This is the absolutist view of academic freedom — the belief that protection ought to be evenly applied across the ideological spectrum. It’s a solid view. I have no fundamental problem with it. But I do question the wisdom of allowing a civil liberty to dominate notions of freedom. 

I’m not attempting to convince you to dispose of academic freedom. But it shouldn’t be the limit of your devotion.

In the end, we have to apply value judgments to balance speech rights with public safety. In a society like America, steeped in the legacy of racism, this task is remarkably difficult. No agreement exists about what comprises appropriate speech. As a result, there’s no way to prioritize a set of beliefs without accusations of hypocrisy (or without actual hypocrisy). The easy answer is to protect speech equally and let a marketplace of ideas sort the winners and losers.

There’s a catch, though. Value judgments don’t arise in a vacuum, and discourses don’t exist in a free market. Structural forces, often unseen, always beneficial to the elite, determine which ideas get a hearing. It’s a lopsided competition. Those who humor the ruling class will always enjoy a strong advantage, something aspiring academics are happy to exploit. Sure, academic freedom is meant to protect insurgent politics, and often does, but the milieu in which it operates has plenty of ways to neutralize or quash insurgency.

I focus on radical ideas because Palestine, one of my interests and the source of my persecution, belongs to the set of issues considered dangerous by polite society. Others include Black liberation, Indigenous nationalism, open borders, decolonization, trans-inclusivity, labor militancy, communism, radical ecology, and anti-imperialism. Certain forms of speech reliably cause people trouble: condemning the police, questioning patriotism, disparaging whiteness, promoting economic redistribution, impeaching the military — anything, really, that conceptualizes racism or inequality as a systemic problem rather than an individual failing.

Academic freedom doesn’t prevent sexual violence. It doesn’t disrupt racial capitalism. It doesn’t hinder obscene inequality. Academic freedom isn’t a capable deterrent to genocide. The devotee of academic freedom will say that it’s not meant to do any of those things. This is correct. Academic freedom has humbler ambitions. The fact that academic freedom has a specific mandate doesn’t detract from its importance. I’m not attempting to convince you to dispose of academic freedom. I’m suggesting that it shouldn’t be the limit of your devotion.

So what does freedom mean in an academic economy structured to reward obedience? No thinking person buys the myth of merit. Academe is filled with mediocrities who achieved stardom by flattering the ruling class. Already, then, freedom is tenuous because livelihood is contingent on respectability, itself contingent on pleasing the ruling elite. Cultures of online exchange promise a kind of freedom, but more than anything they illuminate the preponderance of coercion. Nobody who covets white-collar stability will make a comment on social media without considering the possible fallout. Every hiring committee you’ll ever encounter staffs Twitter’s electronic panopticon.

Once a narrative about an academic’s offensive social media profile takes hold, it becomes a permanent demerit. I can’t find a single university president who will affirm my right to extramural speech. I can’t get an office job with any campus or corporation that has access to Google. I now drive a school bus.  Civil liberties can offer recourse against governmental repression, but they’re helpless against the capitalist impulse to eliminate disruptors.

Tell me, then. What opportunity? What autonomy? What freedom?

The primary muscle behind academic freedom, at least in America, are the courts and labor unions. The AAUP, for example, functions as a union on various campuses, including the American University of Beirut, where I worked for two years. Unions have a mandate to do more than observe and document violations of academic freedom. They attempt to strengthen faculty governance, which is obliged to serve the interests of underrepresented students and instructors, along with fighting the growing tide of precarity. It’s not at all clear, then, that concern with justice is beyond the purview of academic freedom.

As to the courts, they can sometimes provide recourse, but we should consider the timing of litigation and the nature of the restitution it offers. Administrators certainly consider these things. When a professor generates controversy, university leaders will undertake a cost-benefit analysis wherein they measure the damage from a broken contract or violation of academic freedom against the losses they might incur from unhappy donors and politicians.

I sued, and the courts, as the university’s leadership expected (saying so in private emails), took my side. Academic freedom provided recourse. Case closed, right? Not quite.

The fallout for me was permanent. I think about it when I’m inspecting my school bus on a 20-degree morning.

No amount of money, no legal recognition that I was wronged, will replace the loss of my academic career, to which I devoted the majority of my life. Academic freedom can’t make any university hire me, no matter how strong my CV. Everybody involved in the imbroglio at Illinois got to pick up the pieces of their vocation and move on to different pastures. I didn’t. The fallout for me was permanent. They can put the ugly situation behind them. It’s always right in front of me. I think about these things when I’m inspecting my school bus in the dark of a 20-degree morning.

It’s important, then, to avoid treating academic freedom as sacrosanct and view it instead as a participant in material politics. Academic freedom cannot function without tenure, worker solidarity, and an adequate job market, which are all in decline. “Can academic freedom be saved?” is a less pertinent question than, “Is there any longer a marketplace for academic freedom?” The corporate university is disarming academic freedom by diminishing the circumstances in which it can be effective.

Let’s not shy away from the complicity of the tenured professoriate in this sorry state of affairs. Tenured positions are down. Government funding has decreased. The managerial class is a bloated monstrosity. Some instructors work multiple jobs without adequate benefits. Sexual violence is common. Racism appears poised for another golden age. The humanities are barely surviving. Student debt is outrageous. And those with job security did little to prevent any of it.

This is the kind of comment that gets me into trouble. “What evidence is there for the claim?” tenured faculty will want to know. Well, my evidence is simple: Everything occurred while you were on the clock. This fact creates a paradox for anybody who would disavow responsibility. You either claim helplessness, in which case academic freedom is unnecessary, or you acknowledge that academic freedom is a limited commodity available to those who enjoy some level of institutional power.

I was a tenured faculty member for 12 years and count myself among the complicit. I didn’t do nearly enough to support my contingent comrades — because I didn’t properly see them as comrades, something my position informally demanded.  We all know, in personal moments of brutal honesty, that radical devotion to lesser classes is almost always just professional branding — that deep down we’re scared of the punishment that awaits if we offend the wrong people. Academic freedom doesn’t take away the fear because we know that management can always find ways around it. 

The problem ultimately isn’t only individual. Professional associations talk a lot about this crisis or that emergency but do little to organize their members. Departments and colleges consent to divide and conquer strategies rather than uniting across disciplinary boundaries. Prestige triumphs over solidarity. The damage may be irreversible.

I can be accused of speaking from a sense of pessimism cultivated by ostracization. I accept that criticism. I’d respond by pointing out that useful critique often comes from people who suffer the worst tendencies of a culture or profession. I can’t feign objectivity or claim to speak for any collective. Academe is a large profession, with thousands of disciplines and subcultures. Its inhabitants have vastly different experiences and impressions.

But this much I know: My ouster from academe brought into focus problems I scarcely noticed when I was still on the inside. College students often talk of unlearning the dogmas they internalized from their homes, secondary schools, and places of worship. I’m constantly unlearning the strictures of being learned, exorcising the finely tuned customs of obedience into which I was so carefully socialized. Now I instantly recognize when putatively radical scholars reproduce the imperatives of power through a compulsion to find nuance where old-fashioned outrage is more appropriate.

I didn’t do nearly enough to support my contingent comrades — because I didn’t properly see them as comrades.

Academic freedom is critical to a functional university. But it shouldn’t be an end in itself. It is only one instrument among many that can help us realize a world unlimited by the stagnant doctrines of pragmatism.

Let us then imagine what a truly free campus in a free society would look like. Let us not wait for institutions to authorize our imagination. Let us redefine disrepute. Let us harbor intellectual fugitives.

Let us, above all, embrace the painful but liberating recognition that optimizing our humanity depends upon the obsolescence of civil rights, for they are necessary only in societies that profit from repression.

For five years, I’ve had to consider whether my sharp criticism of Israel and subsequent recalcitrance — my unwillingness to grovel my way back into academe’s good graces — were worth it. I wouldn’t change anything, nor do I entertain regret. I endure the punishment not because I’m a sucker or a martyr — I have no illusions about the ruthlessness of capital, and I despise the lionization of public figures — but because I want the vision of freedom ubiquitous among the dispossessed to survive. 

That’s how we win. That’s how the downtrodden have always won. By defying the logic of recrimination. By depleting its power through unapologetic defiance. We have to be willing to drive buses, sweep floors, stock groceries, wait tables, whatever allows us to feel intellectual freedom.

They took my career. They took my health insurance. They forced me into hourly labor. What do I have left? The one thing they can’t extinguish: a fixation on equality, recorded in steady rhythms with an uncapped pen. In other words: freedom.

Steven Salaita is the author of Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Haymarket Books, 2015). This essay is adapted from his 2019 TD Davie Memorial Lecture, delivered in August at the University of Cape Town.


  1. There can be little question that, whatever inroads on “academic freedom” the “professoriate” (jpompous term) may be experiencing now, they as a body–like the Democratic Party in politics–have been instrumental in bringing it about. The appalling inhumanity of the academic “gig” economy–the ruthless exploitation (sexual and otherwise) of graduate students, junior faculty, and adjunct faculty, among other things–is one of the most appalling expressions of social inequality that now exist. There is not now and has perhaps never–certainly not in the decades since 1970–ever been any academic freedom in the university that did not rest squarely on the foundation of academic slavery–setting aside the cruel and corrupt capitalistic moneymongering that underlies all those “academical villages” full of moderately well paid village explainers who yearn to breathe the air of privilege that wafts in so temptingly from the vicinity of the wealthy scum who keep it all going.

    The universities are without exception utterly corrupt. There are few or no good ones any more than bourgeois society contains many truly functional families.

    The wonder is that anyone is ever surprised by any of this.

    This IMO is one of the strongest arguments there is for revolution as opposed to reform.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 29, 2019 @ 2:30 pm

  2. Hate to sound cynical here, but c’mon!

    Academic freedom? Are you kidding me? I was laid off from my job of fourteen years (teaching general principals of applied linguistics, composition, grammar, etc.) NOT for stating any overtly political ideas. I just criticized the newly proposed *curriculum* by the new management at our school (it’s an Extension Center at a major state university), and all they had to do was just not schedule me for any classes. They didn’t even notify me in advance that they were refusing to give me any courses. They just didn’t put me on the schedule. That’s academic freedom for you.

    I sympathize with professor Salaita, but I concur with Farans: the whole institution needs to be overthrown and its resources put to use for free to educate the people.

    The larger society shapes the educational system, and to expect the higher education system to be more democratic than the society at large is a convenient illusion that only those with a tenured position can afford. And those tenured positions are disappearing fast. So, just as even doctors (physicians) are realizing that they need to organize, more and more instructors, adjuncts and professors will find it necessary to organize against their administrations, HR departments, etc.

    Comment by Reza — August 29, 2019 @ 4:37 pm

  3. I agree with the comments above. The “university” today is a system to monetize knowledge for the benefit of the ruling class, and a filter on youth to strain out the acceptably reliable (for the advancement of the careers of their superiors) servant-factotems to the system (see the book “Disciplined Minds”). The lure for the admitted lackeys is the possibility of ascending into the ranks of the academic-techno-bureaucracy. I found that the shortest way to an early retirement (in a science-techno hub) was to champion racial diversity and be a union organizer. Revolution is indeed the answer, but at the moment a very improbable one.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — August 29, 2019 @ 8:53 pm

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