Librarians & Academic Freedom

The last month or so my own institution, the University of Illinois, has received a lot of publicity due to the Salaita case.  For those who are unaware of the basic facts, here is a brief summary:

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Photograph taken by Dori - dori@merr.info)

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Photograph taken by Dori – dori@merr.info)

Steven Salaita, a professor at Virginia Tech, applied for and was tentatively offered a tenured position in the American Indian Studies department at the University of Illinois, to start in August 2014. This offer was pending the approval of the Board of Trustees, who ultimately have the final say. Salaita and his wife quit their jobs at Virginia Tech and arranged to move to Illinois. Salaita worked with the department throughout the summer of 2014 to arrange which courses he would teach and what books his students would need for the fall semester. This is standard practice at most large institutions – many new hires start in August and do not receive official Board of Trustees approval until November. On August 1, 2014, the University of Illinois Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, contacted Salaita to let him know that his appointment would “not be recommended for submission to the Board of Trustees in September, and we believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely. We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” Once word got out about the rescinding of the offer, many speculated that it came from alumni/donor pressure due to Salaita’s Twitter presence, which is strongly political, very anti-Israel, and at times quite aggressive (bordering on what some have termed “hate speech”), particularly in light of the most recent Israel/Palestine conflicts. In an email to the entire campus on August 22, 2014, Wise suggested that the rescinding of Salaita’s offer was not due to his political opinions, but rather in concern for the expression of viewpoints on campus: “The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel[…] What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.”

This has raised a lot of concern on campus and across the country about academic freedom. While Salaita was not technically a university employee yet, many assert that his personal views as expressed through social media should not be a justification for rescinding his job offer. Many conferences and speaking events have been cancelled as a result of the controversy and the American Association of University Professors wrote Wise a letter expressing “deep concern” over the university’s actions towards Salaita. Word of the Salaita incident reached the international library sphere quickly (with two HLS weekly roundup mentions). It has also received a lot of attention from librarians and library employees on our campus. A debate sparked up on the library employee email listserv that included links to petitions (both in support of Salaita and in support of Chancellor Wise), some lengthy discussion, and even a quote: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” (John Milton, Areopagitica). At one point on the listserv an employee lightheartedly tried to get everyone to cool off and suggested that the listserv was not a place for such discussions, that we should instead be focusing on books. This was met with disapproval, with multiple others suggesting that academic freedom very much affected librarians.

All of this has had me thinking a lot about the entire situation and how it relates to us as LIS students/aspiring professionals. Rather than give my own personal opinions/conclusions, I’d love to pose a few questions/topics and see what you all think. So please engage in the comments!

  1. Should academic freedom matter to librarians? Even at institutions where academic librarians aren’t awarded tenure (at the University of Illinois subject librarians are tenure-track positions)?
  2. What is the role of librarians during events like this? Is it appropriate to take a personal stand, either way?  Is it appropriate to take a stand as a group (e.g. at the university or national association level)? Are we to remain impartial?
  3. How can librarians help patrons see through the clutter and noise around controversies like this one? Do we have a duty as professionals to enhance access to information about an event like this (e.g. to initiate FOIA requests)?

 

3 replies

  1. Librarians have an accepted role as champions of intellectual freedom and the right to access, read, use, and voice unpopular or dissenting opinions. So I think, while the profession has made a commitment to neutrality, impartiality is a different stance altogether, and perhaps not a constructive one. If anything, librarians taking a stand—even if that leads to opposing stances within the profession in this particular case—is the best way to bring professionals experienced with issues of intellectual freedom into the conversation!

    Like

    • Love your distinction between impartiality and neutrality.
      And yes, I absolutely agree that “professionals experienced with issues of intellectual freedom” should be brought into conversations like this more often. I wish some of the *many* news articles I’ve read about this case had sought out a quote/soundbite from a librarian!

      Liked by 1 person

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