Nearly 40 of Virginia Tech’s faculty members have signed a letter protesting how the university has distanced itself from an associate professor of English whose public critique of patriotic slogans angered some political conservatives.
The associate professor, Steven G. Salaita, became the target of threats, racist emails, and demands for his firing after the website Salon last summer published his op-ed arguing that public appeals to “support our troops” serve to discourage legitimate criticism of the nation’s military actions while actually doing little to help military personnel or veterans.
Within days of the op-ed’s publication, in August, Lawrence G. Hincker, Virginia Tech’s associate vice president for university relations, began sending people who complained about Mr. Salaita a statement that defended the faculty member’s right to express his views but said those views “in no way represent an official university opinion.”
It is common for college officials to emphasize that faculty members speak for themselves, and not their institutions, in commenting on controversial subjects, but Mr. Hincker’s statement went a step further. It concluded, “While our assistant professor may have a megaphone on salon.com, his opinions not only do not reflect institutional position, we are confident they do not remotely reflect the collective opinion of the greater university community.”
In a letter published last week in the Collegiate Times, an independent student-run newspaper, the faculty members criticized the university’s statement as “wholly unsatisfactory” and “placing in doubt its commitment to academic freedom.”
The letter called on Mr. Hincker and Charles W. Steger, the university’s president, “to reaffirm Virginia Tech’s principles of free inquiry” and for Mr. Hincker “to clarify that his words and actions did not represent the psyches or opinions of the diverse population at Virginia Tech, but his opinion alone.”
Academic Freedom in Action
Mr. Hincker could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Mark Owczarski, the university’s assistant vice president for news and information, said its administration had no response to the faculty members’ letter, which he called “a wonderful illustration” of academic freedom in action.
Benjamin E. Sax, an assistant professor of Judaic studies at Virginia Tech, said on Tuesday that he had helped enlist faculty members in signing the statement because “the university did not do a very good job of protecting Steve Salaita” and that he personally had found the university’s response to Mr. Salaita’s critics to be “unsettling.” He characterized Virginia Tech as “not a hospitable climate for difference.”
For his part, Mr. Salaita said he was disappointed with the university’s response. “I felt that they were at least inadvertently fanning the flames of anger,” he said.
Also stirring up outrage against his op-ed were denunciations of it in an editorial at examiner.com and on blogs such as Atlas Shrugs, which had previously promoted the theory that Seung-Hui Cho, the student responsible for the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, was an Islamic terrorist.
Mr. Salaita said he decided last month to take a new position next academic year, as an associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He said his discussions with Illinois over the job began before the controversy over his Salon editorial, and he decided to take the new job simply because “it was just a better professional opportunity.”