Academic Freedom Expert Doubts Salaita’s Tenure Status
Was Steven Salaita's University of Illinois faculty appointment protected when he posted controversial Twitter posts criticizing Israel? Cary Nelson says yes, but only if Salaita was already protected by tenure.
The Professor Emeritus in the University of Illinois' Program in Jewish Culture and Society believes Salaita was not protected by tenure, because his tenured faculty appointment had not been finalized by the university board of trustees.
In an interview with Illinois Public Media’s Jim Meadows, Nelson says if trustee approval had been granted, Salaita would have been shielded from university sanctions for his remarks, because they are in the area of his field of study as a long-time scholar of Mideast affairs, and they do not indicate professional incompetence on his part.
“We only can raise those questions for a tenured professor, if the remarks he makes suggest or demonstrate he’s incompetent, but not if they’re outrageous” said Nelson. “If they’re racist, if they’re anti-Semitic, as a tenured professor he can say those things and he’s fully protected”.
Salaita has announced intentions to fight for reinstatement at the U of I in court. But Nelson believes a court is unlikely to rule in his favor, and that Salaita’s controversial tweets would not go over well with a jury. However, Nelson believes the university has “not a legal but a moral responsibility” to reach a “serious” financial settlement with Salaita, in exchange for withdrawing his appointment at the last minute.
As for the University of Illinois’ practice of delaying final board approval of appointments until after faculty members start their work, Nelson says the practice is “completely unacceptable”, and that trustees should act on appointments several months before they’re scheduled to begin.
Nelson believes that if such a practice had been in place for Steven Salaita, his controversial tweets over the summer would have been protected by the rules of tenure.
Nelson is a past president of the American Association of University Professors, and the author of a book on academic freedom, “No University Is An Island: Saving Academic Freedom”, published by New York University Press in 2011.
Columbia University Law Professor Katherine Franke has a different view on the Steven Salaita case, available on our website here.