© 2015 Robert Osburn

When most of us turn 60, or thereabouts, memory fires up at thoughts of college days: romantic walks about campus, inspiring professors and books that opened our eyes, big games against rivals and stirring calls to “come help change the world!”  A recent symposium at the University of Minnesota sparked the same urge to reminisce, but this time the thoughts were entirely different.  It was a sad, weary, frustrating stroll down a memory lane made for old radicals.

The unlikely venue was a large meeting room in the campus recreation center where undergrads blissfully tone their bodies on expensive machines.  Last fall, more than 100 professors, administrators, and students sweated and strained the meaning of academic freedom and civil discourse.   It was cast by our provost as a version of the 60s-era “teach-in.”  The impetus behind the event was the sudden decision by academic administrators at the University of Illinois to rescind the hiring of Steven Salaita as a new faculty member.  Although a scholar in the area of Jewish-Palestinian relationships, Salaita had been offered a position in the American Indian Studies program. Apparently, the academic justification for his appointment was the idea that the oppressed of the world (American Indians and Palestinians) must unite over their shared victimization at the hands of colonialists. When his blogs attacking the Israeli government’s handling of the most recent Gaza war surfaced, however, Jewish donors threatened to withhold donations to the school if he was hired.  Or at least that was the story we heard.  The threats worked, and his job offer was terminated.

“Academic freedom is at stake!” was the battle cry at our event some 500 miles away.  Several American Indian Studies faculty members on our campus opened the 12-person panel discussion with charges that the Salaita fiasco “evoked McCarthyism.“  Perhaps as a salve, an administrator on the panel offered an earnest defense of the “obligations and responsibilities” of campus civility. At that point, several 60- or 70-something professors (including one who described herself as “pathologically charming”) launched into rambling rehearsals of a restive, exciting time of activism and self-expression when 60s-era radicals nearly ruled academic roosts.  We listened to ginger accounts of speakers shouted down, institutions crippled, and letters that cajoled a public too comfortable with the military-industrial complex. “We’re here to be disruptive and to speak truth to power!” one bellowed in the time-warp. Old Testament prophets emerged, as it were, complete with earnest scowls, not a little finger-wagging, and requisite helpings of righteous indignation.

Were they trying to foment another campus revolt, or release steam that was bottled up since the 1970s?  Was this, after all, an exercise in the anachronistic or was this an exercise in mere window-dressing, giving agitants their day in the sun before they crawled back in their academic warrens?  I suspect that in their minds they were justifiably attacking a gross injustice. Academics to the barricades!

Notably absent, so it seemed to me, were representatives of science and engineering faculty who probably felt they had no skin in this game, and, besides, they have research to conduct.  Time is short, faculty have grant proposals to write, students to advise, and research to conduct.  For them, ideological theater took second or third place, I suspect, to solid empirical research where hypotheses are either null, revised, or fully supported by evidence that trained researchers can plainly see. 

After the panel, earnest small-group discussions ensued.  At one table, an African-American faculty member framed the faculty’s concerns for academic freedom in terms of the search for truth.  In response to his assertion, another faculty member at our table worried that her colleague may not sufficiently realize that our perspectives condition the search for truth.  While she walked the familiar “there are no facts, only interpretations” path, I silently cheered that at least one faculty member thought that truth was at stake in academia, let alone in a discussion of academic freedom.  For their part, several administrators shifted uneasily in their chairs, as if discussions of epistemology were hardly relevant to civil discussions of academic freedom.

When the participants re-assembled, the phrase du jour over which we spent 40 unsatisfying minutes of debate was the word civility.  That anodyne specimen most likely stirred the verbal pot because Salaita’s tweets and statements about Israel during the 2014 Gaza conflict were vulgar and crude (including reference to “hatred” for Israel), and thus uncivil.  At a recent meeting of the American Studies Association, Salaita asserted that “civility is the language of genocide,” thus claiming that civility is verbal cover for those who want to destroy other peoples. One aging radical at our meeting struggled to frame our discussion in the same terms, but the  meander left most of us wondering whether we had in fact engaged in discussion of academic freedom, or whether we had merely provided an outlet for radical passions.

The meeting ended abruptly and without resolution. The administrator tasked with fostering civil conversations on campus had played defense while radical members of the symposium defended those “who lack social power and skills to express themselves civilly.”  Were the radicals giving cover to those who would rather not cultivate the rhetorical and logical skills, along intense pursuit of truth, fitting for an institution of higher education?  Emotions, a few of them raw, and plenty of aspirations found their voice in that room, and so the radicals probably went home morally justified.  But, for those in search of definitive resolutions about and earnest discussion of academic freedom, the search goes on.