For those of you who don’t follow university labor politics, Inside Higher Ed reported this week that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign apparently rescinded a job offer for a tenured professorship in Native American Studies to Steven G. Salaita, a Virginia Tech English professor. Well, not exactly rescinded. Rather, the UIUC chancellor decided not to advance Salaita’s appointment through a usually pro-forma approval process. Here’s Scott Jaschik for IHE:
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.
No news I’ve seen has included the actual cause, but all have cited “the tone of his comments” contra Israel on Twitter as having played a part in the outcome. The Chronicle of Higher Ed has observed that UIUC’s notice to Salaita came “just weeks after Mr. Salaita first came under fire on the popular conservative blog The Daily Caller for his incendiary criticisms of Israel.” The Chronicle reasonably speculates that some political feathers were rustled in the aftermath of this exposure. That rustling might have taken place among the Board of Trustees itself, or perhaps it came from a legislator. We’ll probably never find out what really happened.
In the aftermath of this news, most of the responses I’ve seen in both the academic trade and popular press have entailed either condemnations of UIUC in the name of “academic freedom” or defenses of UIUC in the name of public decorum. I’ll let you find those articles and blog posts yourself; there is no shortage of either (although the former is far more frequent). I know very little about Salaita or the details of what happened, and unlike some of my colleagues I’m not sure there is a simple and definitive conclusion to draw. (An aside that I’ll come back to: isn’t it interesting that scholars who spend so much of their time “problematizing” and whatnot also seem so willing to draw immediate and definitive conclusions?)
Instead, let’s think about the implications of this matter for academic faculty labor at a tactical level.
The loophole in academic hiring that allowed UIUC to de facto rescind an offer by refusing to forward the appointment for approval has always existed. I’ve seen some off-hand reports that such actions have in the past received censure from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), but it’s not clear if that censure offers more than symbolic meaning.
From the perspective of simple human empathy, perhaps the most distressing feature of the situation is that Salaita appears to be unemployed as a result, having resigned his position (and, presumably, tenure) at Virginia Tech to take the job at UIUC. Illinois classes start in two weeks, so one must assume that he’s also relocated, taking on all the strife and expense associated with such a task. But admittedly, nobody really knows the details; Salaita has not responded to requests for press comment and he’s not tweeted since August 2.
But from a more general perspective, it doesn’t really matter what actually happened, but just that all the above could have happened. And that reality has a number of implications for faculty hiring and appointment.
Previous instances notwithstanding, the process of trustee or regent approval of appointments is now clearly at risk of becoming less pro forma than it once was. Given the general trend to centralize university practice to campus and university system administrators, we should expect to see more of this—or at least, we should not be surprised if we do.
That means that faculty who receive offers must now consider the risk that the particular governing body that must approve their appointment might not actually do so, and that it might not even be presented with the opportunity. But professors are likely to have very little leverage in negotiating this loophole away. The approval usually comes after the start date, which is typically not a problem because the matter has always been pro forma.
Where faculty do have leverage is in negotiating unpaid leave as insurance against uncertainties in the job transfer process. This has always been very commonly done, mostly as a hedge against the possibility that a new job will not turn out to be a match. It’s easy to imagine all faculty considering a move feeling justified in requesting a leave before resigning (typically a year later).
But such acts also have implications for the institution from which the faculty departs. A faculty member on leave represents a frozen line that cannot be refilled immediately (even if its associated salary and benefits funds can be reallocated temporarily). Every professorship frozen in temporary leave means one less new job on the market.
In any case, such a leave is not automatically awarded anyway, and senior scholars with more perceived value to an institution are the ones likely to benefit from such largesse—and that’s indeed how such requests will be seen. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the very same upper administrators who might do something like refuse to advance an appointment to the board for approval are also those who might have to approve a departing faculty leave. Food for thought there, hmm?
But another factor complicates departure leave. While I’m not sure about the specifics at UIUC and VT, many institutions prohibit a faculty member from holding tenure at two institutions at once. This seems like a reasonable policy, since tenure is meant as a long-term commitment from both parties to one another. While it’s not uncommon for institutions only to award tenure after a certain number of years in service (even when hiring someone who already holds tenure elsewhere), few tenured faculty would be willing to give up a tenured post for a more tentative one. So, when hiring a professor with tenure, as was the case with Salaita, the tenure review and approval process would typically take place at an expedited pace, during the year prior to appointment. It’s possible (although not common) for such a tenure review to come back negative, and nobody would be foolish enough to resign tenure at a current institution before learning of one’s tenure status at a new one.
Some have speculated that Salaita should and will sue UIUC, and that he would win such a suit. I am not an attorney and I have no opinion on the matter, but I do know that avoiding lawsuits is a better way to go about conducing one’s business in the world. So, bracketing the question about what university faculty should or shouldn’t say on Twitter, what can faculty learn from Salaita’s situation from a more tactical (if less lurid and clickbaitable) negotiation and contracts perspective? And what are the implications of those lessons?
For one, to attempt to request leave when moving (and if tenured, if both institutions’ tenure policies allow it). I’m sure everyone learned this lesson very quickly today, and I’m also sure that we will see (without ever really seeing it) a negative change to advertised faculty lines as a result. Given that an empty line is the first step to a disappeared one, and given the overall adjunctification of higher education, the Salaita situation might have a cascading effect. But it’s impossible to imagine that faculty wouldn’t and won’t attempt to shield themselves from personal risk rather than act in the service of some ephemeral and speculative tragedy of the commons.
For another, to attempt to resign a position effective upon board or trustee or regent approval at a new institution, or even simpler, to do so with an effective date or a reversal clause that expires after the expected approval takes place. Admittedly, this is a bureaucratic unlikelihood, but it’s one of those in-the-weeds activities that an organization like the AAUP could help model and facilitate if they were willing to operate tactically in addition to ideologically.
And for yet another, to treat the period of transition between one institution and another (or into one for the first time) as one of very high risk. Academics talk a lot about the decline of tenure, but we sure don’t respect the perks of tenure in so doing. When giving up a job that’s guaranteed for life and taking on a new one, a sensible person should be aware that they are walking a tightrope. Make no mistake: I’m not saying that Salaita should or shouldn’t have tweeted the things he did. Nor am I saying that he deserved the result; what happened to Salaita is horrific and vicious. But I can’t imagine he isn’t kicking himself now, thinking thoughts about pragmatism rather than about idealism. Sticking your neck out doesn’t necessarily make you a freedom fighter or an activist or a saint, not all the time. Sometimes it just makes you a fool.
I’m sure I’ll receive a host of insults that include the word “neoliberal” for suggesting we think tactically about the reality of the organizational-political moil of academic job-seeking. But there’s a flipside to academic freedom. We might cheekily call it “academic paydom”: the need to tend to our own professional situations in a way that allows us to do the rest of our jobs effectively—including the idealistic intellectualism we shorthand with “academic freedom.” And to return to a theme mentioned above, there’s no simple answer to that situation, no tweetable platitude about academic tweeting with which to righteouswash the situation. It’s funny, isn’t it? For a group of people so concerned with politics and “the political,” academics sure are terrible at thinking politically themselves.