Keywords for the Age of Austerity 11: Civility (at NYU and the University of Illinois)

Earlier this month, the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign recently took the unprecedented step of rescinding a job offer to the Palestinian-born scholar Steven Salaita, who was set to begin classes there this week. It was a unilateral move by the upper administration, apparently taken in response to a series of tweets in which Salaita condemned the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Others have already written on the case and its implications for academic freedom—see especially Corey Robin’s blog and this op-ed by many Illinois faculty, for example. (Also check out @FakeCaryNelson on Twitter, for all the latest from a fictional version of the former advocate of academic freedom.)

In the spirit of this blog, I want to focus on the 2 official statements on the case from Illinois’ Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, and its Board of Trustees. As efforts at damage control, they are on the one hand singular in their ineloquence and ineptitude. Yet on the other hand they are familiar in their abuse of notions like “civility,” “debate,” and “discourse”—especially when the latter are “robust,” a keyword forthcoming on this blog.

As others have already observed, the letters from the Chancellor and the Board make a mockery of important scholarly concepts like academic freedom, constitutionality, and English syntax. In a key section of her letter, published as a blog post on her office’s website, Chancellor Wise reaches a cannot-and-will-not crescendo that is meant to signal to you that this is a Robust Leader speaking. It ends with an illogical mess that signals to me that this is instead a rather desperate manager (without a copy editor) grasping at rhetorical straws:

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.

Viewpoints, of course, can’t be demeaned—nor is there any attempt to explain what constitutes “personal,” “disrespectful,” demeaning, or abusive words, much less the combination of all four, much less still the relationship between viewpoints and those that express them.

Among these other sins, though, Wise’s short letter is also rather redundant: it uses “diverse and diversity” 4 times, “discourse” three times, and “civil” or “civility” 3 times. To quote her again at length:

Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate.

Note the redundant use of “dialogue, discourse and debate” here, in which all 3 are treated as identical concepts, their differences elided in the banal, alliterative evocation of intellectual life as imagined by bureaucrats—a sing-songy pantomime of actual thinking.

The follow-up letter from the Board of Trustees doubles down on Wise’s careless invocation of “civility” as the highest virtue of intellectual life. They use it as part of a grander claim about the university’s social and political mission:

Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views…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.

Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend.

(Please note, just as an aside, the allusion to American military casualties, and the consequent suggestion that the war dead gave all for the Illinois Board of Trustees.)

The Board’s combination of scholarly “civility” and democratic citizenship brings together two threads in the use of this vague, popular term. Besides the above, think of the “Civility Caucus” in Congress, or the regular lamentations in the press at election time that inter-party squabbling is too “coarse” and hostile. In all these cases, the celebration of “civility” conflates the tone of disagreement with disagreement itself, and ultimately suppresses both. As I wrote in a longer essay on the subject in Guernica:

The desire for civil discourse in mainstream politics conceals a deeper desire for a politics of consensus, with no major points of either ideological or practical disagreement. In this view, politics becomes simply a process of managing government bureaucracy; fundamental social conflicts do not exist, only rhetorical ones do.

The other trouble with “civility” is that it is unclear what it means, or if it means anything. In the Salaita case, if his offense is anti-Semitism—a demonstrably untrue charge—than it should be enough for Wise to denounce him for that alone. Instead, as Brian Leiter writes in a piece on the Salaita affair, “incivility” seems here to simply mean bad manners—something nobody should want university administrators adjudicating, nor people losing their livelihoods over. 

Of course, these notions of civility (and again, Wise’s related four D’s—debate, discourse, diversity, and dialogue) as the glue holding campuses together are always summoned by administrators as rhetorical weapons against particularly troublesome campus dissenters. So on the simplest level, “civility” is merely an invention to discredit your opponent’s point of view as irrational. Given the word’s etymological links with “civilize” and “civilization,” this is a mode of attack with which Palestinians like Salaita are likely quite familiar.


A photo of Cary Nelson (at left), uncivilly blocking traffic at the NYU library in 2005, during the graduate assistant strike (via Mondoweiss)

As a graduate student at NYU during a 2005-06 strike by the graduate employee union, we heard a lot of civility talk from university administrators who were hostile to graduate assistant unionization but were unwilling to honestly say why. NYU loved to intimate that our parent union, the UAW, would try to rewrite syllabi, that unionization would forever sully ties between faculty and students, that it was hostile to undergraduates.

As with so many keywords beloved by university administrators— “innovation,” “entrepreneurship,” and so on—there is an opportunistic element of the sacred, or at least the sacrosanct, in these treatments of the university. Once administrators feel threatened, campuses become halls of peaceful contemplation, “safe harbors,” as the Illinois Board of Trustees puts it, from the tumult of the world outside.

For academic workers, via Corey Robin: If you want to join a specific pledge from a discipline or wish to sign the general statement, here are the critical links:

  1. General, non-discipline-specific, boycott statement: 1402 and counting!
  2. Philosophy: 340. Email John Protevi at or add your name in a comment at this link.
  3. Political Science: 174. Email Joe Lowndes at
  4. Sociology: 248.
  5. History: 66.
  6. Chicano/a and Latino/a Studies: 74
  7. Communications: 94
  8. Rhetoric/Composition: 32.
  9. English: 266. Email Elaine Freedgood at
  10. Contingent academic workers: 210.

11.Anthropology: 134

  1. Women’s/Gender/Feminist Studies: 54. Email Barbara Winslow

And if you’re not an academic but want to tell the UI to reinstate Salaita, you can sign this petition. More than 15,000 have.

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