Breaking News: BDS Intellectual is #HireFired for Social Media Crimes

August 6, 2014, 1:59 pm

housewife FBThis just in from Inside Higher Ed: a new chapter in the ongoing saga of BDS in American higher education begins with the #HireFire of a scholar who, like thousands of other people, used Twitter as his platform during the recent, bloody and undeclared war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

A major intellectual in the BDS movement, Steven G. Salaita (who is still listed as an associate professor in the English Department at Virginia Tech) appears to have had a job in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Chanpagne rescinded because of his tweets about Gaza. Although I hope this is not the case, it appears that Salaita may be completely unemployed. Because of tweets.

Scott Jaschik writes that confirmation of a newly hired scholar’s appointment by the board of trustees is usually a formality:

The appointment was made public, and Salaita resigned from his position as associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. But he was recently informed by Chancellor Phyllis Wise that the appointment would not go to the university’s board, and that he did not have a job to come to in Illinois, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation.

The university declined to confirm the blocked appointment, but would not respond to questions about whether Salaita was going to be teaching there. (And as recently as two weeks ago, the university confirmed to reporters that he was coming.) The university also declined to answer questions about how rare it is for such appointments to fall through at this stage.

We at Tenured Radical know nothing that you do not know, but I have the following initial reaction about the basic elements of this news:

  • No one should be fired for what they say on social media. Ever. This is an outrage, and regardless of your position on BDS or our political differences with each other, we should stand strong as a community against a slippery slope that puts us all in danger. This is bigger than Steven Salaita: what UIUC did has put every university professor, administrator and graduate student who is on social media in danger. Everyone reading this blog needs to be clear about that, regardless of our other politics.
  • The first thing people will talk about is that it is unwise and naive to resign from one job before an appointment is completed elsewhere, but few of us who change jobs presume that we will be #hirefired. We also do not know why Salaita ended up in a temporarily vulnerable position where he was tenured nowhere.
  • The contents of the tweets aside, punishing Salaita by not only taking away the promise of a great new job and a new life (were houses bought and sold?), but also putting his whole career in danger, sets a brutal example about the costs of  a scholar speaking out about anything remotely controversial before or after tenure.
  • But what about the contents of the tweets?  OK, I do not endorse tweets that advocate violence, even in jest, mostly because I think Twitter can be, and should be, better than that. I think people can, and should, be better than that. I have also written before about the ways I find #hashtagactivism problematic; in my view, it is performative, rather than substantive. My feeling is that #hashtagactivism occurs at the expense of Twitter exchanges that can generate edgy ideas, and it easily veers out of control into mobbing and bullying. In my view, a certain kind of social media behavior does call a person’s character and judgment into question. But I can’t say anything global about that, because some people I know who have a really unattractive social media presence are bright and engaged scholars. Some are not: it depends. Furthermore, some of the biggest #asshats I have ever met don’t use social media at all.
  • Twitter, Facebook and blogging are no longer a game. It has been clear since the Erik Loomis incident in fall, 2012 that, despite the fact that few schools count an active social media presence in a scholar’s favor, it can and will be used against you. Usually your own words will be turned into ammunition by people who don’t understand social media at all. Things to stay away from? Casually advocating violence seems to be a common lightning rod; personal insults and libelous allegations are not wise either, but this seems to bother universities a whole lot less.
  • If you are an administrator, before you hire someone recommended by a department, consider actually reading their work. Although the tweets that are being cited have to do with Gaza, anyone who had read Salaita’s Israel’s Dead Soul (2011) and The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought (2008) would have known precisely what he thought. If the Tweets are cruder and more performative, they are not fundamentally different in their ideas and political orientation than books that were presumably presented as part of the tenure dossier.
  • Professional associations need to pull themselves together to create recommendations about the role of social media in our hiring and evaluation processes. They are getting further and further behind a medium that is changing very quickly, in its form, uses and impact. Academics are basically making up the rules as they go along, and the people who have the most power over faculty lives (including many senior faculty, higher level administrators, and trustees) don’t understand social media cultures or practices. For example, if you are going to criticize someone for their Twitter feed, read it. The whole thing, not just snippets passed along out of context. You don’t just get to cherry pick one here, and one there. No one would read a book that way and be perceived as competent, would they?

I predict that this debacle at UIUC will be the beginning of one big, long ugliness unless somebody moves very fast to fix it.

Corey Robin has written about the Salaita case here and here.

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