The first part of June has awarded back-to-back victories to a professor who last year was dismissed from his post at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Nearly a year ago Steven Salaita was fired for posting some tweets that were considered by some to be beyond the pale of proper academic discourse; the context for many of these tweets was the ongoing, devastating attack on Gaza by Israel. What makes this case especially interesting, and what the recent court decision and a critical vote by the largest confederation of U.S. professors in the country shows, is the undue and improper interference of wealthy donors on the internal affairs of public educational institutions.
Before getting to the specifics of what has happened in the past week, it’s important to set this issue within the context of the intimate relation between neoliberalism and education, outlined well by Elias Isquith’s recent Salon interview with the political scientist Wendy Brown. Brown gives a useful baseline definition of neoliberalism: It is a “radical free-marketeering that comes to us in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the Reagan-Thatcher revolution being the real marker of that turn in Euro-Atlantic world. It means the dismantling of publicly owned industry and deregulation of capital, especially finance capital; the elimination of public provisions and the idea of public goods; and the most basic submission of everything to markets and to unregulated markets.”
The aspect of neoliberalism that we find in the Salaita case is the power of donors to override both the professional procedures and ethos of faculty governance, as well as the academic independence of a public institution of higher education. Even without getting into the specific and critical issue of the censorship of critics of Israeli state policies, what happened at the University of Illinois, and in a separate case at the University of Wisconsin, is drawing the concern and criticism of even “non-political” bodies, such as the courts and mainstream academic organizations.
The issue is: How much longer will public education be “public”? How much longer can mainstay features of the academy — academic freedom and tenure — be able to withstand the heavy-handed influence of the market and rich benefactors who have their own agendas and priorities?
- Read more: Win for Academic Freedom: Steven Salaita Awarded Back-to-back Victories against University that Fired Him – David Palumbo-Liu, Salon