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University administrators are successfully rallying around the value of “civility” in discourse as a means of silencing and getting rid of professors deemed politically troublesome.

Writing in The Nation, Joan W. Scott, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Social Science in Princeton, N.J., and adjunct professor of history at the Graduate Center at City University of New York, reports that administrators at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign denied formerly tenured professor Steven Salaita a promised position at their institution because of critical comments he made about Israel’s 2014 military assault on Gaza.

“Well-organized supporters of Israel alerted the university to his tweets, accused him of anti-Semitism, and questioned his scholarship as well as his political judgment,” Scott writes.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise reasoned that the impassioned nature of his tweets indicated that students would perceive him as intolerant of contrary views and threatening in the classroom. But, Scott writes, “[t]here was no evidence for this inference from tweets to classroom: Salaita’s record at Virginia Tech indicated he was a respected teacher, tolerant of a wide range of ideas. But for Wise, that evidence was beside the point.”

In a letter, Scott continues, “the chancellor drew attention to civility, emphasizing it as a requirement for the exercise of academic freedom: ‘What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.’”

Viewpoints are then to be understood as enjoying special protection from “uncivil” criticism. Presumably for Wise, Scott notes, this would hold for the viewpoints of “Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, homophobia, or creationism,” and anyone critical of them on campus could be subject to punishment.

But perhaps, Scott writes, “certain selective instances of ‘disrespect’—in this case, for the current Israeli government,” are “the real issue here”:

Since Wise’s letter, a number of university leaders have echoed her invocation of civility. In September, Nicholas Dirks—once a post-colonial historian and anthropologist who wrote critically of British rule in India, and now chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley—released a statement to his campus community. Reminding his constituents that 2014 was the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, he called for civility in terms that should surprise anyone who has studied the First Amendment or the long history of academic freedom: “We can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin—the coin of open, democratic society.” Dirks seems to have forgotten that the Free Speech Movement was not an event characterized by civility either in its expression or in its suppression.

Within days of Dirks’s statement, Eric Barron, president of Penn State, released a video message to his own community deploring the erosion of civility in university discourse. The video was provoked by the controversy over a child-sexual-abuse scandal involving coaches of the school’s fabled football team. “Respect is a core value at Penn State,” Barron said in a statement. And so “we ask you to consciously choose civility and to support those whose words and actions serve to promote respectful disagreement and thereby strengthen our community.”

“Civility” has become a watchword for academic administrators. Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed released a survey of college and university chief academic officers that found that “a majority of provosts are concerned about declining faculty civility in American higher education.” Most of these provosts also “believe that civility is a legitimate criterion in hiring and evaluating faculty members,” and most think that faculty incivility is directed primarily at administrators. The survey brought into the open what has perhaps long been an unarticulated requirement for promotion and tenure: a certain kind of deference to those in power.

Continue reading here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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