Conversations on academic freedom return to Columbia

Several dozen Illinois residents filled Ferguson Hall, 600 S. Michigan Ave., on Oct. 8 for a panel discussion on academic freedom.

Hosted by the college’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the event included a panel that consisted of Iymen Chehade, adjunct faculty in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences department, Peter Kirstein of St. Xavier University and Steven Salaita, formerly of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Each speaker claimed to have experienced violations of their academic freedom. While the event touched on recent events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-—the subject of Chehade’s and Salaita’s cases—it largely focused on issues of advocacy for academic freedom. Salaita, an independent scholar who has taught Arab and Muslim studies, was the main speaker. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rescinded Salaita’s job offer in August following a series of fiery tweets he posted during the summer about issues in Palestine and Israel. Although his account is public, he said he did not expect it to affect his career.

“I’ve never heard of an instance of somebody’s tweets getting him or her fired from an academic appointment,” Salaita said. “This is one reason why this case is so interesting—because it’s a new phenomenon. It’s just something that hasn’t happened before.”

Since the beginning of September, Salaita has been vocal about his ordeal at various speaking engagements. Salaita said he feels compelled to speak about his situation because it is representative of a larger issue.

“I’m symbolic of a larger battle over the issues of free speech and academic freedom,” Salaita said. “It’s important that we talk about these issues because what happened to me didn’t happen in a vacuum—there’s a really important set of political context there that we need to examine and continue discussing.”

Ultimately, Salaita said he would love to have his job back at the university, but his desire to see support of academic freedom is stronger.

The Association of American University Professors, an organization that supports faculty and the pursuit of academic freedom, opposes institutional censorship and discipline when professors write or speak out as citizens.

Kirstein, vice president of AAUP Illinois and a professor of history at Saint Xavier University, said higher education is for students, and if professors do not feel free to explore and engage in critical thinking, then the students’ education will be severely compromised.

Kirstein said threats to academic freedom will never stop because there will always be some effort to limit what can and cannot be taught or published by professors.

“There are always going to be some professors that want to break new ground or challenge the narrative that those in power insist on imposing,” Kirstein said. “Salaita was fired because he dared [to] cross the line and get into areas that the ruling class found unacceptable.”

Steven Lubet, a professor of law at Northwestern University, responded to Salaita’s case in an August Chicago Tribune op-ed article. Lubet wrote that although Salaita’s tweets have included controversial topics and statements and his legal position on the matter is weak, Salaita’s political opinions should not affect his job security at the university. He also wrote that although Salaita’s tweets do not disqualify him from teaching, people cannot be naive about the enormous characters of sour of his tweets.

“Twitter is by nature non-contextual,” Lubet said. “It’s a stream of 140-character statements, so it’s unreasonable to say that people have to read all of his tweets in order to have an opinion about some of them.”

Lubet’s response discussed both the academic freedom and legal issues involved, and he felt it was necessary to respond in such a way, he said.

“Questions of academic freedom are important, and I think it’s also important to be clear and honest about the circumstances,” Lubet said.

Chehade said his academic freedom was violated in March when a section of his “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” course was canceled after a student claimed Chehade’s teaching was biased. His course was later reinstated after nearly 6,000 students signed a petition on his behalf. As reported March 31 by The Chronicle, the college denied the cancellation has anything to do with the complaints.

Chehade said academia should be a safe place to share ideas and have the opportunity to discuss controversial issues, especially for students who pay a lot of money to attend.

“I think that it’s important for students to be given an opportunity to learn in a way that is unfiltered by anybody outside of the classroom, and in academic freedom, that’s what typically happens,” Chehade said.

Although no one can predict the future, it is important to stand up for academic freedom to make sure concerning issues and particular perspectives are not stifled, Chehade said. It is important for students, professors and institutions to stay active in defending academic freedom, he said.

Academic freedom comes down to the rights of people in America and the values of the country as a whole, Chehade said.

“A threat on academic freedom … really affects a larger segment of not only the university but the population because this is one of the core values of America, which is to be able to speak about things in a free way without being threatened in any way shape or form,” Chehade said.

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