Steven Salaita and the Quagmire of Academic Freedom (NYT, 10.2.14)

Steven Salaita and the Quagmire of Academic Freedom

Steven G. Salaita says the University of Illinois destroyed his career. The Palestinian-American professor was invited to teach in the university’s American Indian studies program earlier this year, but the board of trustees voted to block his appointment to the tenure-track position following “a campaign by pro-Israel students, faculty members and donors who contended that his Twitter comments on the bombardment of Gaza this summer were anti-Semitic,” according to The New York Times’s Robert Mackey. (You can read a selection of the offending tweets in Mr. Mackey’s story.)

“Being recruited for a tenured faculty position at a major university is no small feat,” Mr. Salaita writes in an op-ed for The Chicago Tribune (paywall), published Sept. 29. “Nor should it be; tenure represents the pinnacle of an academic career. In my case, it involved numerous interviews with faculty in the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an intensive review of my scholarship, pedagogy and professional service.”

After passing what he describes as a “rigorous review,” resigning from his tenured position at Virginia Tech and preparing his family to relocate to central Illinois, he received letter from Chancellor Phyllis Wise officially rescinding the offer.

The real reason? In his words:

“In the weeks before my move, I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel’s actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza’s children.

“A partisan political blog cherry-picked a few of those tweets from hundreds to create the false impression that I am anti-Semitic. Publicly disclosed documents reveal that, within days, University of Illinois donors who disagreed with my criticism of Israeli policy threatened to withhold money if I wasn’t fired. My academic career was destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a few 140-character posts.”

Despite the 1,300-signature petition that reportedly swayed the board’s vote, not all University of Illinois alumni support Mr. Salaita’s termination. “If, as reported in the media, the decision to terminate Professor Salaita’s appointment was based on his Tweeted statements about the Israeli genocide in Gaza, that would constitute a violation of his first amendment rights,” writes Pauline Park, of the doctoral class of 1994, in a letter to the editor of The Daily Illini, the University of Illinois’s student newspaper, “as well as the American Association of University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which declares of faculty members that, ‘When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.’”

It’s a sentiment shared by a faction of the student body. “Despite the fact that the University administration claims to uphold the principles of academic freedom, the actions that the administrators have taken against Salaita endorse censorship,” writes Stephanie Youssef in a column for The Daily Illini. “The road to a censored community is a slippery one because defining what a student or faculty member might find inflammatory or offensive is a matter of opinion.”

Similarly, a group of Jewish University of Illinois students and faculty members gathered on Rosh Hashana to perform a special version of the ritual of tashlich to protest Mr. Salaita’s termination. “The group of roughly 30 participants gathered on a bridge over Boneyard Creek on UIUC’s campus at sundown,” reports Samantha Brotman for Mondoweiss. “Most wore stickers of the sideways letter ‘I’ over their mouths, as in previous protests of the Salaita firing, to symbolize censorship at the university. The stickers used at the tashlich service, however, contained an image of the Israeli flag inside the sideways ‘I’, symbolizing the particularly harsh censorship of dissenting views on Israel in particular.”

Still other members of the university community maintain that the board’s decision was a just one. “I support the decision not to hire Mr. Salaita,” writes Christopher Goodsnyder, class of 1990, in another letter to the editor of The Daily Illini. “The University prohibits the hateful rhetoric that Steven Salaita put forth. He should be held responsible. Mr. Salaita’s words show he’s not capable of fostering a meaningful dialogue with those whom he disagreed with, which clearly implicates his ability to teach.”

Outside of Illinois, the debate roils on.

Writing for Tablet, Liel Leibovitz supports Mr. Salaita’s dismissal — but more so on grounds of insufficient credentials than any inflammatory, anti-Zionist remarks. “The first thing one learns about Salaita is that very little of what he has written seems to have anything to do with the field of study in which he claims expertise and in which he was offered a job,” he writes.

“Look at the shelf of works authored by Salaita,” he insists, “And you’ll see ‘Arab American Literary Fictions,’ ‘Cultures and Politics; Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today’; ‘Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide’; a review of a book about Hamas, in which Salaita refers to the terrorist group as ‘an often contradictory and always compelling social movement’; and other titles that have absolutely nothing to do with the Sioux or the Seminoles.”

“Salaita’s most notable work about Native Americans,” Mr. Leibovitz writes, “‘The Holy Land in Transit,’ compares them to the Palestinians,” and adds, “One could argue that such a dearth of publications in a scholar’s stated area of scholarship is telling.”

For Nathan Guttman of The Jewish Daily Forward, the debate has wider implications than the rhetorical back-and-forth characteristic of the greater Arab-Israeli conflict. The dismissal of Mr. Salaita is “a university’s nightmare scenario,” he writes. It involves “almost every possible mess an academic institution could encounter: choosing between free speech and the need to maintain civil discourse; balancing academic faculty hiring prerogatives with donor pressure; defining the role of social media in academic settings; distinguishing between what’s personal and what’s fair game for professional review and treading the fine line of tenure and the protection it provides.”

“For Jewish students seeking to defend Israel and other pro-Israel activists,” he explains, “the Salaita debate also means finding the right balance between fighting anti-Israel sentiments on campus and framing the case as one that affects all students, not just supporters of the Jewish state.”

Indeed, the fallout from Mr. Salaita’s termination may reverberate far and wide. The involvement of donors in pushing for dismissal is especially worrisome to Michael Hiltzik of The Los Angeles Times. He invokes the words of Robert Maynard Hutchins, founder of the University of Chicago, who famously said: “The present primacy of public relations in the management of universities, the view that they must ingratiate themselves with the public, and in particular with the most wealthy and influential portions of it, the doctrine that a university may properly frame its policies in order to get money and that it may properly teach or study whatever it can get financed — these notions are ruinous to a university in any rational conception of it.”

“Salaita’s dehiring might boost investment in the campus by conservative pro-Israel donors, leading to UIUC’s brand recognition among certain consumers and high-level donors,” admits Mark LeVine, writing for Al Jazeera America — though he echoes Mr. Hutchins: “The fact that the trustees, who have even less accountability to the system they govern than the chancellor, retain the ability to intervene in academic appointments points to the ongoing threat to academic freedom posed by Salaita’s dehiring. Wise has now wisely passed the decision up the food chain, but should the trustees refuse to confirm Salaita’s appointment, it will have a chilling effect on the future of American higher education.


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