Last July, I attended the Council of Writing Program Administrator’s annual conference in Normal, Illinois. While there, I watched a keynote address given by Duane Roen, a vice provost and professor at Arizona State University. Roen’s speech addressed the great need for academics and scholars to be publicly engaged, to share their work with a general audience and to endeavor to make the work we produce in our universities more accessible to the public. Roen referenced Nicholas Kristof’s famous (or notorious) column complaining that academics are too cloistered, our work too obscure to be of use to the general public. At the time, I and others complained that Kristof’s perspective was willfully narrow, failed to recognize a whole host of academics who make their work public every day, and ignored structural economic reasons for why academics can’t or won’t engage publicly. But Roen’s speech made clear that, despite these real reservations, we must continue to press ourselves to be more engaged, accessible, and open in our teaching and our research. Whether the perception that we are inaccessible and secluded from public life is fair or not, that perception must be combated through rigorous public engagement. Roen discussed academics who had, he felt, done an exemplary job of making their work available to a wider audience, and laid out the many benefits of this type of scholarly work.
Roen was the perfect figure to deliver such an argument, given his long history as a leader and mentor within the WPA world. The night before his speech, my friend Marcy and I talked with Dr. Roen at length at a gathering for graduate students, and I was struck by his warmth and approachability. This, too, is a form of public work, engaging with early-career academics and making them feel like part of the scholarly conversation. I was happy to see that Roen’s speech displayed the same friendliness and openness.
But while I felt energized by Roen’s keynote, I also felt concerned. I had noticed that all of the academics Roen listed were late career, and enjoyed the benefits of both tenure and prominence. During the Q&A, I asked Roen about the dangers of engaging publicly as a grad student or untenured academic, given that public speech tends to be political speech. Roen admitted that the question for the untenured was complicated, and advocated a cautious approach. Afterwards, several other faculty members in the audience addressed the question, and argued that grad students should not fear political engagement. Why would someone want to join a department, one asked, if that department had such little regard for intellectual and political freedom that it wouldn’t hire someone with controversial views? I felt encouraged by that support. But it’s also the case that, after I spoke, I was approached over the course of the next day by perhaps a half dozen grad students, who confided in me that they, too, feel constrained in what they can say, and fear speaking out in public about issues of controversy. They appreciated the support of the faculty in attendance, as I did, but said that with the academic job market as demoralizingly competitive as it is, they could not help but feel pressure to keep their opinions to themselves. They want to engage publicly, but the risks seem to outweigh the rewards.
These questions have taken on particular salience recently. Dr. Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American scholar who studies indigenous history and post-colonialism, had a tenured job offer rescinded by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, thanks to a series of tweets he had sent regarding Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza. To make matters even worse, Salaita had already resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, as his appointment at Illinois had already been confirmed. Adding insult to injury, Cary Nelson, a professor in the department Salaita was to join and the former president of the AAUP faculty union, vigorously defended the school’s decision, despite being a self-identified defender of academic freedom. (In fact, Nelson has displayed such intimate knowledge with Salaita’s tweets that it is fair to ask whether he had a hand in the decision.) I wrote a letter to UIUC’s chancellor to protest, as did many others, and as Corey Robin has documented at length, a great number of academics and public figures have condemned this action. (Robin’s blog, in general, has been an indispensable resource in covering this story.) But while I hope and pray that Salaita lands on his feet in a secure tenured job, the damage to academic freedom has been done no matter what the outcome: the millions of academics observing this situation, particularly those who are in the precarious position of being untenured—the vast majority—cannot help but be less likely to speak out on matters of controversy. Those at UIUC who are responsible for this decision are culpable for this chilling effect on free political and intellectual expression.