Last year I served on an ad hoc committee of the American Political Science Association which, among other things, called for more support for public engagement by political scientists with the public realm. I've been a vocal advocate of such engagement, whether by writing accessible versions of academic articles for The Monkey Cage or more free-form blogging. Also, I blog and tweet and say controversial things and occasionally drop mixtapes.
I was pleased, therefore, when APSA yesterday released a letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the University of Illinois expressing its concerns about the controversial un-hiring of Stephen Salaita (full disclosure: I am a member of the APSA Council, but did not write the letter). For those who have not followed the controversy, Salaita had left a tenured position at Virginia Tech* to take a tenured position at the University of Illinois. Wise elected to not forward his candidacy to the Board of Trustees, evidently because of concerns about his "uncivil" tweets about Israel in the wake of a concerted campaign of outside pressure. (Corey Robin has been tirelessly documenting all of this on his blog.) APSA joins a long and growing list of academic professional societies, including the American Historical Association, the American Studies Association, and the American Association of University Professors, in expressing profound concerns about the implications for academic freedom.
I don't know Salaita. I probably disagree with many of his views and find his mode of expression offputting. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if he feels the same way about my writing and mode of expression. But so what? This shouldn't matter at all. Academic freedom is not about protecting your friends or ideological comrades -- it is about protecting the space within which all academics can engage, even on controversial and sensitive issues. As the APSA letter says: "Academic freedom in the United States is based on deep, longstanding political and legal commitments to civil liberties – especially when those liberties protect a content and manner of speech which we may find deplorable." This, to me, seems incontestible and foundational to what we do.
Public engagement on intensely contested, existentially important issues inevitably involves controversy. Hardly a day goes by that I'm not accused on Twitter of being a terrorist supporter or a Muslim Brotherhood apologist because of my writings on Egypt, or accused of enjoying the massacre of Syrian children because I oppose military intervention. None of it bothers me much. It's the price of being engaged on matters of intense, passionate concern to many different people of widely varying views. It's not difficult to separate out the legitimate criticism of smart, sincere people (which always demands a thoughtful response) from the trolling, stupidity, and malevolence which runs rampant.
I always encourage academics to try to model scholarly norms in their public engagement. But that's a personal preference and not something which Chancellors should be in the business of policing. Wise's decision, and the public discourse endorsing it, strikes at the heart of academic engagement with the public realm. Tenure and norms of academic freedom are designed precisely in order to give scholars the space in which to explore controversial subjects.
I'm glad that APSA has weighed in on this. I hope that the University of Illinois reverses its decision. An entire generation of academics eager to engage with the public sphere are watching to see whether it is still safe to do so. It must be.
* [not Johns Hopkins, sorry - aa]
** I have taken down the PDF of the APSA letter because it was messing with the blog template. It is available here on the APSA website.