It seems that the current state of Salaita’s academic freedom is freedom from academia:
Even as I complicate honest work, I’m aware of how indebted I am to the notion. It guided my exit from academe and my rejection of the pundit economy. I’ve always overvalued recalcitrance, a compulsion, as I understand it, to vigorously avoid situations that require ass-kissing, usually resulting in significant reputational harm. Since elementary school, I’ve searched for a space where I could conform to my surroundings without feeling unmoored from an inner sense of decency. That space, it turns out, is equivalent to the volume of a school bus.
I pitched honest living to my parents when I told them about the new job. Despite being aware of academe’s ruthless memory, they hoped that I’d one day be a professor again. They probably still do. In a better world, my redemption would happen in the United States. I wanted to quell that expectation. “Even if Harvard offered me a job I’d say no,” I proclaimed with earnest hyperbole.
They feigned support but didn’t believe me. I understand why. It’s hard to imagine coming of age in reverse. Hollywood doesn’t make inspirational movies about struggling to overcome material comfort. We don’t aspire to the working class. Personal fulfillment occurs through economic uplift. We go from the outdoors to the office, from the ghetto to the high-rise, from the bar rail to the capital. That’s the dream, to become a celebrity or a tycoon or, in humbler fantasies, a bureaucrat. But forward progress as material comfort is cultivated through the ubiquitous lie that upward mobility equals righteousness. Honest living is a nice story we tell ourselves to rationalize privation, but in the real world money procures all the honesty we need.
For immigrants, these myths can be acute. I could see my parents struggling between a filial instinct to nurture and an abrupt recognition of their failure. My mom, a retired high school teacher, seemed interested in the logistics of transporting students, but my dad, the original professor, clenched his hands and stared across the table. It’s the only time I’ve seen him avoid eye contact.
I’ve encounter, recently, students who are are studying computer science not because they like it, or chose it, but because their parents picked it for them. These students, even the good ones, are very unhappy.
I’ve been trying to communicate to PhD students that a PhD program is just one form of life and not one that everyone (or most people!) find worth while. It’s hard to accept that a PhD doesn’t make you better and that failing to get one doesn’t make you worse. It’s not clear that the best way to become a good researcher is to “finish your PhD”. For many fields, PhD projects are not very much like how you go on to do research.
Salaita remains an interesting case. His academic career was definitely and perniciously destroyed on false and illegitimate grounds. He was not a marginal figure but a minor “star” professor. His case was an egregious violation of both the spirit and letter of academic freedom. I should think that the standard advice is to make sure any new contract was fully enacted before resigning one’s old position, just in case.
So he was wronged but seems content with where he ended up. This demands respect. But it’s also a bit tricky to get right.
Of course, less dramatic versions of his story are playing out all the time. The adjunct crises is ongoing. Unemployable people with huge student debt are all over. We have to think hard about how higher education is going to work in the coming decade and to make sure we aren’t causing unnecessary harm.