Professors see high stakes in battles over campus limits on open expression

Is academia still a bastion of free expression? That was the question considered by a panel of professors who expressed concern that as universities emphasize civility in academic discourse and hire administrators in greater numbers than faculty, the American academy is taking on an increasingly corporate identity.

“Civility is the new code word to rein in free speech in the name of academic freedom ... it is part of a larger attack on the university as we once knew it,” said Joan Scott, professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study. “What is at stake in this new culture of civility ... is the pride we once took in higher education.”

The panel was convened Oct. 6 to discuss the revocation of a job offer to Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign following a series of tweets he made that were critical of Israel’s actions during the recent Gaza conflict. 

Also participating were Princeton professors Anthony Grafton and Eddie Glaude Jr. *97 and Columbia professor Joseph Massad. (The event was moderated by history and Near Eastern studies professor Max Weiss, who a few days later was immersed in his own controversy related to speech and Israel; he said that his name had been vetoed as a possible panelist addressing the Israel-Gaza war because of his views.) 

The Salaita panelists agreed that the University of Illinois mishandled the case and that the incident, as Glaude put it, offers “a point of entry to a broader set of issues.” He maintained that the line between civil and uncivil discourse was ambiguous. “Being an African American,” he said, “I’ve consistently encountered noxious views about race within the academy.” 

A sharp rise in the number of college administrators relative to faculty members is partly responsible for the way the American academy now is perceived, Grafton said. The university has come to be seen “as a corporation rather than an institution with its own traditions of autonomy,” he said. 

While the panel acknowledged the difficulty of reversing these trends, Grafton suggested that those in higher education must begin by explaining “why we need freedom. If we don’t make that case, I think we can see the shape of the future.” 

An audience member asked why no professors had been invited who disagreed with the panelists’ views on the Salaita case. “Fair and balanced isn’t always the way,” Scott said. “It isn’t always ideal.”