Academic Freedom versus Corporate Branding: The Salaita Case

Academic Freedom versus Corporate Branding: The Salaita Case


You all know that the University of Illinois revoked a job offer to Prof. Steven Salaita, because he criticised Israel in its recent attacks in Gaza. The criticism came in the form of 140 character short tweets and ware angry in nature. By the time the professor learned the news, he already quit his job, sold his house and moved to Illinois with his family.

Academics started supporting Salaita as soon as they found out about the case. Among the notable academics, you can probably recognise Peter Levine, Michael C. Dorf, Giorgio Mariani. Other academics preferred to boycott the university, until its decision was reversed. The majority are signing petitions for the reinstatement of Prof. Salaitta. They all focus on the symbolism of this act: the loss of academic freedom.

The opponents of the current movement claim that Salaita would not have gained such support, if his tweets were vilifying the Palestinians. His anti-Israeli stance won the hearts and the minds of leftist academics (mostly historians). Such a claim could not be far from the truth. His cause seems to have attracted vocal supporters from all sides, for an obvious reason: academic freedom is intimately connected with tenure. They think that the very core of the academy will be in danger, if its ‘servants’ lose their job security. 

I actually disagree with this statement. I believe that academic freedom has been lost a long time ago. Tenured faculty are already following unwritten guidelines and they self-censor their work and their online presence. Heads of Departments, university managers and administrators are routinely checking the published words of their colleagues, whether these are blog posts, or tweets or facebook comments. 

Any transgression is considered valid reason for dragging the professor into disciplinary processes and submitting him/ her to performance management. Even if central administration do not fire him/ her, they may still reduce the salary, increase the teaching load, cut down the sabbatical leave or humiliate him. her. The poor ‘subject’ eventually will either retract the comments or face the full blast of university regulations. In most cases, tenured faculty prefer not to face the uneven battle and apologise profusely. The transgression is not to be repeated.

I do not want to excuse the behaviour of university non-academic professionals, which I personally believe to be criminal, since it attacks one of the most basic freedoms of the professoriate. Instead, I would like to explain why it happens.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who tried to explain the firing of Salaita, stated that 

“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.”

It is obvious that the Chancellor respects all viewpoints, apart from the ones that do not agree with the University of Illinois policy. Further below she also claims that 

“We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.”

Once more the duty of the University to the students cannot be extended to the Faculty. It is correct that scholarship’s role is to challenge assumptions, beliefs etc. This role is obviously reserved for the students but not for the hired scholars, who need to comply to the views of the central administration.

Immediately after Wise’s letter was published, the Board of Trustees showed their unending support with the following statement.

“…Chancellor Wise reaffirmed her commitment to academic freedom and to fostering an environment that encourages diverging opinions, robust debate and challenging conventional norms. Those principles have been at the heart of the university’s mission for nearly 150 years, and have fueled its rise as a world leader in education and innovation.”

I would like to bring to your attention the focus of the university mission for nearly 150 years. The emphasis on the mission continues in another paragraph, where the Trustees claim that

“The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multi­cultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.”

The language that describes the core values of the University of Illinois and reaffirms the purpose of the central administration to uphold them reminds us of the rhetoric of large corporations in the US and in Europe. This rhetoric is not just a way to keep the workforce in check (as creativity and innovation is almost by definition not allowed). It is one of the main instruments that keeps the Brand alive in the minds of the people.

The Brand is not just the logo. Visual symbols such as imagery, logo, typology etc. are only part of a larger concept that defines modern corporations. The Brand is the Identity of the organisation. In some cases, these organisations go as far as to perceive themselves as human. They have a distinct personality and clear characteristics, which distinguish them from the competition. They use a specific language, specific words, tone of voice, images. They use specific channels, marketing ploys, advertisements. And all of them have the same characteristics.

Imagine the dread of the marketing department, when they realise that Another Loose Canon of an Academic is altering the image they so carefully constructed! I feel sorry for them as I mention the distant possibility!

So, how can we align the mission of the Brand with Academic Freedom in order to help these poor souls? Well, we cannot! The Freedom of Speech in its very essence is part of the nature of academia. I repeat. Without it, academia can not exist. Plurality of voices, even if these become sometimes uncivil or downright rude, is essential for the survival of a democratic society and the promotion of scientific discovery. And academics are morally bound to uphold this freedom.

So, dear colleagues, keep up the boycotting, the petitions, the blogging and everything else that is necessary! You have my full support! My pen is at your disposal!


Economic historian and numismatic consultant

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