Monday, September 15, 2014

Administrative Lessons from the Salaita Disaster

I’ve been avoiding the Steven Salaita disaster as a topic for the same reason I avoid discussing Middle Eastern politics.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone’s mind changed, and so much depends on where you start.

That said, I’m thinking that my counterparts can take the Salaita experience as a teachable moment.

For those who haven’t been following the case: Steven Salaita held a tenured faculty position at Virginia Tech, which he gave up to accept a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois.  At the last minute, the Chancellor of UI contacted him to let him know that the offer was off the table, since she believed that the Board would never approve the hire.  It seems that several of his tweets offended some powerful people.  The last few weeks have been devoted to a back-and-forth around academic freedom, with most claiming that Salaita’s academic freedom has been violated, and a few claiming that his tweets were so extreme as to call his professionalism into question.  

For the record, I don’t see anything in Salaita’s tweets that I would consider disqualifying.  I’ve certainly heard and read worse.  And I think he had warrant to take the offer as an offer, based on longstanding practice; legally, I think he has a strong claim on “promissory estoppel.”  But those are contingencies of the particular case.  The lesson for those of us in administration elsewhere is that divided and ambiguous authority is an accident waiting to happen.

The ambiguities are several, starting with the timeline of the UI hiring process.  If the Board wants to have substantive input, instead of essentially delegating hiring to the administration, then it needs to have that input with some lead time.  Reports have indicated that people have started teaching at UI weeks before they were ever formally “approved” by the Board.  If the Board is willing to delegate that function, then timing doesn’t matter.  If it isn’t willing to delegate, then it needs to be timely.  Refusing either to delegate or to get around to it promptly can only lead to disaster.

Issues like that are surprisingly common in higher ed.  We have multiple traditions in which it’s generally understood that x makes the decision, even if x is officially only advisory to y, who has the actual, legal authority to make the decision.  It works until x and y disagree strongly enough that y is unwilling to defer to x.  At that point, typically, x becomes indignant and starts claiming that y is overstepping; y responds by saying that it was y’s right all along.  Depending on where you start, they’re both right.  Generally, neither side really wants to push too hard; x knows that, when push comes to shove, its power depends on y’s allowing it.  And y knows that the cost of alienating x is often much higher than the cost of abiding a distasteful choice.  Both know, too, that the public would find the whole thing bizarre, and neither wants to involve legislators in what had been internal processes.  

In the Salaita case, read “x” as the administration and ‘y” as the Board (or, more accurately, the Chancellor’s perception of the Board).  If you believe that the Board’s authority was effectively delegated, then the offer was inappropriately rescinded.  If you believe that the Board retained the right to make the final call, then there was no offer to rescind.  

The argument that Salaita’s academic freedom was violated rests on the assumption that an offer was rescinded.  But that presumes that the offer existed, which is to say, that the Board had no authority to do what it did.  If it had the authority, then no offer existed in the first place.  In the absence of an offer, it was within its rights to change direction for any reason at all.

That may sound persnickety, but it matters.  I’m guessing it’s why many of my administrative colleagues have maintained a careful silence in this case.  Deciding not to offer someone a job is meaningfully different than rescinding an offer previously made.  We do the former all the time, because we have to.  For any given faculty position, we typically get anywhere from ten to a couple hundred applications.  Assume that half meet the qualifications for the position.  In the case of a popular discipline, that means saying “yes” to one person out of a hundred or more qualified applicants.  Did turning down the others violate their academic freedom?

Of course not.  The alternative would make the doctrine so expansive as to be meaningless.

From the perspective of the applicant, that distinction may seem trivial.  But it isn’t.  Otherwise, anyone who didn’t get an offer after applying for a job would have grounds to sue.  Legislators would let that happen for about ten minutes before imposing a blunt and unhelpful solution.

I suspect that much of the anxiety around the case isn’t as much about academic freedom per se as it is about the academic job market.  That’s understandable -- the academic job market has been terrible for a long time -- but it’s really a separate issue.  The University of Illinois is not single-handedly responsible for the job market.  But it is responsible for untenably ambiguous lines of internal authority.  And to the extent that someone used that ambiguity as a loophole to squash someone strictly for his politics, then yes, it’s guilty of violating academic freedom.