One Speaker's Thoughts on Campus Litigation, Free Speech and Hostile Environments

03/15/2015 09:37 am ET | Updated May 15, 2015
Dan Whobrey via Getty Images

Nearly a year ago, I agreed to give two talks this spring at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign -- a Chancellor's Lecture and a keynote address to the Women Faculty of Color in the Academy Conference. At the time I agreed to speak, Dr. Steven Salaita was in a dispute with the university over his tweets which Chancellor Phyllis Wise said "demonstrate that Dr. Salaita lacks the judgment, temperament and thoughtfulness to serve as a member of the [UIUC] faculty."

Recently, Salaita filed a lawsuit alleging that the university breached a contract to employ him and violated his rights to freedom of speech. This legal action has dramatically reshaped the conversational space on campus and erodes the possibility of the open conversation I had hoped to have during my talks there. In light of the changed environment, I will not speak at UIUC this spring.

I am disappointed because I planned to share what I had learned from time spent engaging in robust discussions on college campuses across the country on Title IX and the protection of all students' rights to educational equality, specifically, protection against verbal sexual harassment and physical sexual assault. In my lectures, I argued that development of effective Title IX policies and procedures demands full consideration of the college-community context and deep understanding of perspectives from the most vulnerable individuals on campus, even before they become victims of harassment or assault. In settings, ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large research universities, I touted comprehensive conversations with inquiry, as Michelle Fine has ably summarized, "shaped by those who have paid the greatest price for injustice" (Fine 2011) as best academy practices, as well as models for greater public understanding. University administrators (including presidents, chancellors, and provosts), faculty and students have attended these sessions in the spirit of candid discussion aimed at problem solving.

During the fall, as negotiations between UIUC and Professor Salaita broke down and a boycott of the university grew, I began crafting my University of Illinois lectures to address the tensions between the protections of civil rights laws aimed at providing equal educational opportunity, on the one hand, and freedom of speech, on the other. My position is that the clash between the university and Dr. Salaita reflects a tension between two values: The prohibition against language that furthers a hostile environment and freedom of expression. Both of these values can seek to promote inclusivity. I naively thought that a fruitful conversation on the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign could lead to reconciliation based on the shared interest behind both, even with the Salaita affair as a backdrop. I have concluded that the productive discussion I envisioned cannot occur in the shadow of active litigation and the resulting present intense polarity. For these reasons, I will not lecture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the spring of 2015.

Court cases are the ultimate "winner-take-all" affairs with the primary objective of resolving the dispute between the two parties, not attending to the needs of all members in the community. By necessity, both sides in litigation harden their positions, lest they give away something that might be used against them in legal proceedings. The lawsuit shrinks and infects the conversational environment available to those on campus, especially university administrators, seeking the production and dissemination of knowledge that extends to issues that go beyond the immediate dispute.

While a court of law may be exactly the correct and only place to resolve the conflict between Dr. Salaita and UIUC, the litigation completely alters the context for any talk I can give.

I deeply regret the missed opportunities to address the entire campus and the women faculty of color and, especially, to hear from those voices in the words of Toni Morrison, "routinely ignored or played down or unknown." Whether I am present or not, there will come a time for the UIUC community to wrestle with the ongoing question writ large of how to protect both basic civil rights and freedom of expression.

The most recent example of this clash is University of Oklahoma President David Boren quick reaction to the video of a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity's racist, celebratory chant that included references to African Americans being lynched. Citing freedom of speech, Boren's critics were equally swift to condemn his decision to close the chapter and expel two of its members. Nevertheless, with the campus reeling from this episode, President Boren's rapid response is no substitute for deep inquiry into and community reckoning with the racial climate on the Norman, Oklahoma campus that students have complained about for some time.

The myriad expression versus hostile environment conflicts that have surfaced in colleges and universities across the country should remind us that these issues are not going away. But they also suggest to me that the academy has an obligation and an opportunity to model the work that is to be done as the public at large grapples with these questions.