Biography

RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he really missed girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Thoughts on Salaita

Let's say you had a colleague at another institution whose public nastiness was legendary. Let's say he had retweeted that one of your articles should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv. Then you learned that your own institution was planning to hire this guy. Would you say "Oh well, his public posting of violent threats is of no concern, because Academic Freedom."

No, you wouldn't. And even if you yourself were not directly threatened, I doubt you'd take the position that a faculty member has absolute liberty to post anything he likes that isn't actually illegal (which, in the US, is almost anything), and expect it not to be taken into consideration in a hiring decision. There is a category of expression that, while not criminally prosecutable, will and should be considered a negative in a faculty hire. This is more to do with the manner of the expression than its content. If you express yourself like a thug, don't expect people to ignore that.

(Though, for example, if you've openly expressed overtly racist views,good luck with the job hunt. Some content is strenglich verboten.)

You can read a nice collection of Professor Salaita's tweets here. And, in case you haven't been paying attention, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at the final stage of the hiring process, refused to employ Salaita in a tenured position in their Department of Native American Studies, because of voluminous complaints about his online nastiness. He had, unwisely, resigned his previous position in the Department of English at Virginia Tech. VT don't seem to be in a hurry to lure him back, by the way.

(It's a nice reflection on the chaotic and decayed state of the Humanities that neither position seems to particularly reflect Salaita's 'scholarly' output as a writer of anti-Israel polemics)

The most norotious tweet, in which he retweeted that "Jeffrey goldberg's story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv", is not here (it's been deleted) but the original is.

It has been argued that if this tweet relates to his academic work, it is protected by academic freedom; and if it does not, it is not pertinent to his job. I posit that neither contingency is valid. Academic freedom does not protect violent threats to others who write in the same area; and if one's twitter output about one's field includes a series of ill-tempered violent outpourings, that surely needs to be considered along with one's more conventional academic work. On the other hand, if these are academically-unrelated private opinions, they are hardly completely irrelevant. Would we hire a physics professor who very publicly opined that African Americans are genetically inferior, or that pedophilia should be legal? Not in a New York picosecond!

I would happily sign on to the idea that one's expression as a private citizen should not be considered in hiring, tenure, evaluation or retention, but that isn't the world we live in. My friend and colleague, Martin Gaskell, was denied a job as an astronomer at the University of Kentucky based on his evangelical Christianity, reports of some long-past-expressed opinions that evolution might not be the only source of life on earth, and unfounded rumors he might be creationist. He mentored my daughter's undergraduate research. I know he's not a creationist.

(I've heard determinedly atheist physicists say the same thing about evolution, by the way. Physicists are often quite contemptuous of biologists and often suspect they've missed something important.

A feminist law blog publicly debated if I should be fired on Title IX grounds, based on some derisive comments I posted on a 'potty parity' survey in STEM fields, which implied that women's underrepresentation in those fields was partly caused by inadequate provision of women's toilets. And there are plenty of other examples of conservatives being fired for political or other expression. In all these cases, the same crowd loudly proclaiming that Salaita's sacred academic freedom is being violated were completely absent.

I defended Dan Guth at Kansas when he tweeted nastiness about the NRA, but don't sign me up for this crusade (so to speak). Salaita is being treated in a way consistent with standard practice in academia. Whether or not you should be able to, you can't get away with publicly saying anything you feel like, and his is not a hill I feel like dying on. From what I've seen of his public effusions, Salaita's a nasty peice of work, and I wouldn't want him as a colleague.

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