I have been following the situation surrounding the contentious decision by the Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to rescind a job offer to a tenure-track scholar. Dr. Steven Salaita had resigned his job at a university in Virginia and was waiting his final approval by the Board of Trustees at U of I. Chancellor Phyllis Wise pulled the job offer after learning of Mr. Salaita vitriolic tweets about Israel. For many, this is a free speech issue and apparently a lawsuit is pending.
It is unfortunate that Salaita had already quit his job and had begun to move his family from Virginia. However, his appointment was not yet confirmed by the Trustees, and therefore, he had not yet been officially hired. Thus the issue was a hire not a fire. I also question whether the issue was one of free speech. Salaita had the freedom to say (tweet) whatever he wanted without prosecution. However, our culture needs to learn that free speech is never speech without consequences.
Could Salaita’s comments be considered hate speech as some have indicated? Hate speech is that which incites violence against a protected racial, ethnic, religious, gender minority. I don’t believe that was his intent even though it was passionate speech filled with animus.
I have been reading through the biblical book of Proverbs, which has a lot to say about speech. This morning I read: “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools feed on folly”; “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked points out evil things” (15:14, 28). The Bible points out the direct relationship between the mouth and the heart. Jesus said that “a good man brings good things of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). Also James indicates in his chapter 3 that the use of the tongue reflects our very nature.
I am not sitting in judgment of Mr. Salaita and will defend his right to free speech. But my take-away from this situation is to ask why would an institution want to hire a person whose vitriolic mouth may just be manifesting something deeper? We do not often know ahead of time the nature of an employee’s character, which is usually revealed on the job. However, when you get a sneak preview like this, why would you take a risk and offer them a job? You will not be doing the rest of your staff or your students any favors.