Monday, September 15, 2014

Putting The Salaita Case In Proper Context

I have been following the case of Steve Salaita in large part because I have a personal connection to the University of Illinois.  It hurts me to see an institution that I deeply care about in the news for essentially firing a professor over his political beliefs.  You can talk "civility" or "pre-fired" as much as you want, it doesn't change that fundamental truth.

As distressing as the university's behavior is, I can't say I'm surprised by it.  Salaita's case is one of many that point to the growing authoritarianism of university administration and the fast dwindling power and privilege of university faculty.  His case is well known due to his prominence and the unusual nature of his firing, but it is hardly unique.  He had the unfortunate experience to be without tenure protection, the same boat that contingent faculty, now the majority, find themselves in.  I can tell you that I know of multiple people who have lost contingent positions essentially for "getting above their station."  These folks were great teachers who took pride in their work, but exhibited far too much independence.  They, unfortunately, did not have a public campaign at their back, nor were their institutions held up to ridicule for their capricious behavior.  I can guarantee you that every large college or university every year is firing a contingent faculty member for such political (internal or external) or personality reasons.

There is speculation in the Salaita case that the chancellor and board were moved to go after him by wealthy donors to the university called for his ouster.  If true, it illustrates the fact that today's universities, even publicly supported ones, are now controlled by monied interests.  Universities have become just another business, and their faculty, mere employees.  Adjuntification is part of the same casualization and temporization of labor crushing the prospects of workers across America.  As far as tenured faculty go, their privileges and freedom to speak are being curtailed, so that they may become just as vulnerable as any other corporate employee.  At most universities they are given a feeble faculty senate where they can air their grievances, which administration will politely, but pointedly ignore.  Salaita had support at the departmental, college, and even university level, but if the donors and board have a problem with him, that's simply not good enough.

I am glad to see a lot of anger and protest about this case, but I would like to see it go broader and deeper.  We are not dealing with one university that has fired one scholar for political reasons, we are dealing with a whole system that has brutally casualized labor and made even tenured faculty into mere employees to be forced to toe the company line.  This didn't happen overnight, but is the result of decades of corruption, rot, and neglect.  Until something is done to challenge the new order at its roots, there will be more Steve Salaitas, both the famous ones on the tenure-track, and the nameless ones on the contingent track.

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