Opinion | Our Collective Conscience, Under Attack

| October 14, 2014

Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor:

Chicago Tribune PhotoSteven Salaita was offered a position in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois. Following a slew of tweets by the former Virginia Tech professor which were overtly oppositional to Israeli military policy, the University of Illinois rescinded their offer to Salaita—which has prompted a firestorm of controversy inside higher education and in the mass media.

And rightfully so.

Salaita contends that as a scholar his academic freedom was unilaterally violated. The notion of academic freedom is the central tenant of academic life. Now, I’m not here to speak to the merits of Salaita’s argument—in fact, I may not agree with some of the things he tweeted; however, I believe that if we allow the University of Illinois, generally, and Phyllis Wise, chancellor of the university system, specifically, to debase the basic notion of academic freedom, the implications for society at-large are replete.

Academic freedom is the belief that university faculty should be free from reprisal in their academic pursuits; that if their views or research are controversial, they should be insulated from the discordant philosophies, and prevailing social and political winds of the day. Why does this matter? If the greatest minds among us feel compelled to hedge their arguments, refrain from certain avenues of inquiry, or placate to public opinion—we’re all the worse because of it.

For instance, I’m currently completing a manuscript concerning the impetus for reform and democratization in modern Iraq. I thought, hypothetically, what if I was in a tenure-track position and a moneyed donor had a problem with a criticism I may levy on the Bush administration? Academic freedom is supposed to insulate scholars from very situations such as these.

This doesn’t merely apply to that which is political. Sure, my research is rooted in both political science and sociology, but academic freedom also protects traditional scientists, mathematicians, medical researchers, and the like. I’m reminded of the seminal example of Italian physicist, Galileo Galilei. In 1633, Galileo was placed under house arrest for peering with his telescope into the heavens and resolving that the Earth is not, in fact, the center of the universe—it was the Sun (i.e., heliocentrism). A radical departure from conventional dogmas of the age; for this, he was convicted of heresy by the inquisition of the Catholic Church.

You see: our world, absent scholars who are willing to front the tough questions, would be a much different place. I’ve previously written that our universities are the repositories of humanity’s collective conscience. Scholars are tasked with asking the most difficult questions. These questions are asked for the betterment of our collective understanding of the world and, as in the case of Galileo, far beyond. What academic freedom seeks to prevent are other “Galileos” reproached for their scholarship.

In Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority of the court, reminds us that “our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”

We may not all agree with the philosophy Salaita espouses in his tweets, but we must understand why it is so important that he is able to say it. Academics are a different breed. Their words will echo long after the tenure of a college president or chancellor, dean or deanlet, or the likes of the average politician. We remember the words of Galileo, not those of the sacerdotal officialdom which sought to silence his scholarship.

I’m sure that the University of Illinois has a team of lawyers, armed with a panoply of legalese to levy against Dr. Salaita—but they offer us an argument undermining the spirit of academic freedom. And moreover, their arguments only reaffirm the very consternation which academic freedom has sought to insulate scholars against. In fact, the Illinois branch of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has stood by Salaita, his right to academic freedom, and the parallel “right to engage in extramural utterances.”

Yes, I’m sure that academic freedom has its limits. A professor tasked with studying x, cannot, on a whim, study y. But we must be vigilant in rooting out those cases where a scholar’s basic freedoms are violated. Inside academia, we must convene a rhetorical “inquisition” against functionaries of the Chancellor Wise-archetype and impose a permanent black mark on their administrative records. For when you violate academic freedom, you are also violating the public’s trust in the integrity of scholarship and our commitment to the betterment of humanity.
And that should never be taken lightly.


rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop. Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector. He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at narudnik@valdosta.edu. Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.

The author has contributed this article as part of Valdosta Today’s effort to provide local opinions to spur discussions and positive conversations related to improving our community. Comments and opinions are from the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Black Crow Media, Valdosta Today or our sponsors.


Editorial | Czars and Responsibility: Crisis Management by POTUS
Bad Weather brings Beautiful Skies
Filed in: Features, Opinion

4 Comments on "Opinion | Our Collective Conscience, Under Attack"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Ricky stewart says:

    sounds like the typical mentality of a DEMOCRAT politician…complain whine and complain. and when your out of work for complaining…..sue.

  2. Bill says:

    This is a case that is very disturbing. Ward Churchill’s is another. Still another, I would say more insidious, challenge to academic freedom is what might be called the “cult of assessment” that pervades higher learning in America. It purports to improve student learning, but its real aim (both intentional and not) is to control professors through a homogenizing and micromanaging regime. The idea seems to be to enforce a “learning” outcomes scheme in order to get voices of dissent and difference to shut up about ideas that challenge and diverge from the ideology by which students have been indoctrinated. The result of rescinding the hiring of Salaita is to silence. So, too, the distraction of chasing outcomes. If it continues, we’ll go deaf.

  3. Kevin Hughes says:

    This happened to a VSU Professor too. Mark George was retaliated by VSU Executives. If youre racist, youre racist and Dr George tried to prove that was the case and the Powers That Be in Atlanta GA made darn well sure he never see the light of day again. Good old boy system live and well in South Georgia. Glad South Georgia is a Flyover State. VSU ought to be ashamed also. Its a shame that people cant respect what others say even if they don’t agree with it. If you aren’t a bigot then prove it. If not then youre proving Dr Georges point.