John K. Wilson has examined all of the emails that were released this past Friday: not merely the emails regarding the Salaita case, but also the emails dealing with two other cases, which Wilson makes a strong argument are related to the UIUC’s handling of the Salaita case. Wilson’s piece is long and well worth reading, but lest readers overlook three astonishing quotes that Wilson has uncovered, which together comprise a rough definition of what academic freedom at UIUC might mean, I thought I’d highlight them here.
First, education professor Nicholas Burbules, a real piece of work as far as I can see, has emerged in the last few days as one of Chancellor Wise’s close confidants on the faculty. He seems to fancy himself, in these writings at least, as a kind of Machiavellian consigliere. But where Machiavelli’s counselor knew how to mould the prince to his own purposes, Burbules reminds one of nothing so much as those hapless Cold War intellectuals who thought they were taming and influencing the American state—only to discover, after it was too late, that it was it that was taming and influencing them. Christopher Lasch aptly characterized the farce of these buffoons more than a half-century ago:
In our time intellectuals are fascinated by conspiracy and intrigue, even as they celebrate the “free marketplace of ideas”…They long to be on the inside of things; they want to share the secrets ordinary people are not permitted to hear.
What drives these courtiers of knowledge “into the service of the men in power,” Lasch concluded, is “a haunting suspicion that history belongs to men of action and that men of ideas are powerless in a world that has no use for philosophy.”
Enter Professor Burbules. On February 14, 2014, Burbules advises Wise:
A related policy might address the question of “controversial” hires—this is murkier, because people’s ideas of what is controversial will differ. But a crude rule of thumb is, if you think someone’s name is going to end up on the front page of the newspaper as a U of I employee, you can’t make that decision on your own say so. You need to get some higher level review and approval.
Notice that Professor Burbules doesn’t question the notion that controversial hires are bad or problematic hires. The only question he’s willing to entertain is how to define controversial. It’s a tough question. So he comes up with the front-page rule. But since universities are often quite happy to have their faculty on the front page of the newspaper—when they’ve made a new scientific discovery or are serving on gubernatorial task forces or advising presidents—Professor Burbules recommends that the controversial cases be kicked upstairs. The higher-up’s will decide who is and is not safe to teach in the academy. Not on the basis of a candidate’s scholarship or talent, but on the basis of whether or not the higher-up’s are comfortable with the amount and type of controversy she might bring to the university.
But, as if aware of what a craven standard this in fact is, Burbules decides to look for “a more principled statement of what the U of I stands for.” Here we come to our second astonishing statement:
We welcome the widest possible range of viewpoints and positions, but not all positions. And that there are some things that are not consistent with our values.
Notice that Burbules doesn’t say that the university should exclude positions that have been proven to be fraudulent or false (e.g., the earth is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, etc.) No, what Burbules thinks is excludable are viewpoints and positions “that are not consistent with our values.” Now, you might instantly get suspicious here: one would have thought that if what marks a university is the freedom to pursue multiple and conflicting viewpoints and positions, it would be tough to get a more than thin consensus on what “our values” are. What are those values? Who gets to define them? Burbules doesn’t say. So we’re left with that “kick it upstairs” standard: the higher-ups get to define our values.
So let’s now go to the higher ups. And here we come to our third and final astonishing statement. From about as higher up as it gets: Chris Kennedy, chairman of the UIUC Board of Trustees.
The University, as the state’s public university, needs to, in many ways, reflect the values of the state.
So that’s it: at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, academic freedom is the freedom to pursue the widest possible range of viewpoints and positions, except for those that are not consistent with our values, which must reflect the values of the state.
This the marketplace of ideas from which Chancellor Wise was buying her wares.