Boycott the US? Academic freedom and the old game of hypocrisy

In 2012, based on a promotion and tenure case in Singapore, a number of US academics, many of them who had served on the promotion and tenure review committee of a Singapore academic, had initiated a petition observing what they felt as violations of tenure and promotion processes. The petition was organized around the concept of academic freedom, powerfully suggesting the importance of upholding the principle of academic freedom in the context of Universities and the important role that can be played by faculty. A number of Singapore academics had initiated another petition requesting the University administration to reconsider their decision.

Along the same time, a number of US academics had raised their voices on the case, suggesting that the decision-making processes reflected the lack of academic freedom in Singapore and had called for a boycott of Singapore universities.

In response to these calls for the boycott of Singapore universities based on this one case, I had penned my thoughts here.

In my blog response, drawing upon multiple cases of violations of the principles of academic freedom in the US in the post 9-11 climate, I had suggested that academic freedom is performed, constituted amid relationships of power, and socially constructed.

Underscoring the socially constructed processes that are intertwined with questions of academic freedom fosters spaces for academics to continually work toward securing spaces for conducting scholarship and challenging the normative structures that constrain the performance of academic freedom. Noting that academic freedom is performed structurally and therefore is situated amid the politics of structures fosters spaces for academics to work collaboratively on enabling climates that promote freedom.

The question of academic freedom is once again brought to the foreground in the recent decision by the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, to de-hire a renowned American Indian Studies scholar Dr. Steven Salaita, who had been made an offer as an Associate Professor in the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. The alleged reason for the University decision to de-hire Professor Salaita was tied to his social media presence and the supposed lack of civility in some of his twitter posts about the Israeli attack on Gaza.

The UIUC decision to de-hire Prof. Salaita in the apparent context of incivility in the social media sphere is an example of the old game of American hypocrisy.

For too often that American academics call for boycotting of Universities elsewhere under claims that these universities violate principles of academic freedom, they conveniently forget the long history of violation of academic freedom that is performed at US universities. As in the case of Prof. Salaita, the language of civility is deployed in order to fire tenure faculty, deny tenure, or de-hire a faculty member.

Should then academics elsewhere draw upon the case of Prof. Salaita to call for boycott of US universities?

Civility becomes a trope, much like US rhetoric of democracy, that performs an American identity of exceptionalism that is quite far from reality. The rhetoric of civility is offered as the basis for violating academic freedom, oblivious (or perhaps keenly aware?) of the dominant structures, power relationships, and status quo agendas within which notions of civility are constructed. What is uncivil to someone in a dominant structure is tied to structural ideas of norms.

Civility therefore is an excellent facade for silencing difference. To the extent difference challenges the status quo, the argument about civility can be deployed to terminate a faculty member while at the same time maintaining the facade of academic freedom.

It is in this backdrop of acknowledging the communicative processes that constitute academic freedom that academics participate in processes of organizing that  seek to foster spaces for academic and public exchange. By noting the ways in which articulations of incivility are deployed toward silencing difference, academics actively co-create possibilities for participating in the politics of knowledge production.

An entry point to the politics of academic struggles is to critically engage with the language of objectivity and neutrality that is deployed by dominant structures that govern universities. By acknowledging the politics of academic objectivity scholars can start working toward critically engaging with dominant institutional structures that limit opportunities for academic expression.


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