UIUC should right its wrong

September 10, 2014

Eric Ruder reports from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Steven Salaita spoke publicly for the first time since he was fired from his new job.

A CROWD of more than 100 undergraduates, grad students and faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) packed a hall at the University YMCA on September 9 to hear Steven Salaita speak publicly for the first time since he was fired by the UIUC administration for his criticism of Israel's war on Gaza.

A downpour drenched students who had walked out of class to participate in a rally and march to the press conference, but the rain didn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm. The audience crackled with energy, chanting, "What do we want? Reinstatement! When do we want it? Now!" and "Hey hey, ho ho, censorship has got to go!"

Earlier this week, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise reiterated her position that there was "no possibility" Salaita would teach at UIUC. But the press conference took place two days before a Board of Trustees meeting on September 11 that will take up the question of whether to reinstate Salaita to his teaching position. Students, faculty and other supporters of Salaita are mobilizing to the UIUC campus during the board meeting as an act of solidarity.

Students demand the reinstatement of Steven Salaita and an end to UIUC's violations of free speech
Students demand the reinstatement of Steven Salaita and an end to UIUC's violations of free speech (Eric Ruder)

So far, more than 5,000 scholars have pledged to boycott UIUC until Salaita is reinstated, and more than 18,100 people have signed a change.org petition calling for his rehiring and denouncing UIUC's violations of free speech and academic freedom.

To date, 11 academic departments at UIUC have cast no-confidence votes in the UIUC administration, and several respected academic associations, including the Modern Language Association and the American Association of University Professors, have condemned UIUC officials. Several scholars have canceled lectures planned for UIUC, and a national conference at the university has been called off.


WHEN SALAITA entered the hall, the crowd erupted in applause for nearly a minute, and a fresh round of chanting broke out. Addressing the audience from prepared remarks, Salaita said:

I am here today at the University of Illinois to speak against my termination by the administration from a tenured faculty position because of the university administration's objections to my speech that was critical of recent Israeli human rights violations.
The administration's actions have caused me and my family great hardship...

In recent statements, Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees said that the University Administration found the tone of my tweets "uncivil" and raised questions about my ability to inhabit the University environment. This is a perilous standard that risks eviscerating the principle of academic freedom. My comments were not made in a classroom or on campus; they were made through my personal Twitter account.

The university's policing and judgment of those messages places any faculty member at risk of termination if university administrators deem the tone or content of his or her speech "uncivil" without regard to the forum or medium in which the speech is made. This is a highly subjective and sprawling standard that can be used to attack faculty who espouse unpopular or unconventional ideas.

Even more troubling are the documented revelations that the decision to terminate me is a result of pressure from wealthy donors--individuals who expressly dislike my political views. As the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups have been tracking, this is part of a nationwide, concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech. This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom. The ability of wealthy donors and the politically powerful to create exceptions to bedrock principles should be worrying to all scholars and teachers.

Other speakers included Maria LaHood, an attorney with Center for Constitutional Rights; Robert Warrior, the director of the American Indian Studies program, which Salaita had been hired to join as an associate professor; and graduate students Eman Ghanayem and Rico Kleinstein. (Click here for full video of press conference.)

Asked by a reporter after his remarks whether he supports the campaign among academics to boycott UIUC until he is reinstated, Salaita paused for a moment and drew a breath.

"I do," he said to cheers from the audience. "I see the boycott as a form of speech and political expression, and I support the right of anybody to organize around issues that they consider to be injustice. That is our right as American citizens, that is our right as students and faculty."


LAHOOD INTRODUCED Salaita and went on to note that his firing is reflective of a generalized assault on freedom of speech when it comes to criticizing Israeli government policies:

We must recognize that Professor Salaita's termination has occurred in a broader national context, in which powerful interests seek to silence and punish students and faculty who express criticism of Israeli human rights violations. The most common tactic, which has also been deployed here, is to falsely equate legitimate challenges to Israeli government action with anti-Semitism or to label passionate rhetoric "uncivil."

On campuses across the country over the last year and a half alone, there have been approximately 200 documented incidents in which students, faculty and activists have been intimidated, maligned, investigated and even prosecuted for speaking out in support of Palestinian human rights, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. And now Professor Salaita has been terminated from his tenured position at U of I for tweets about recent events in Gaza.

Professor Salaita's great crime is that he experienced horror and dismay at the loss of so many innocent lives in Palestine, and he reacted viscerally--not in a classroom or on campus--but through his personal Twitter account. But condemning atrocities committed by Israel is not uncivil even if the speech is offensive to some...

What is actually uncivil is the killing of more than 500 children, and that is precisely what Professor Salaita was reacting to. What is actually uncivil and indeed unlawful is terminating a tenured professor because he dared to speak out publicly and passionately about Israel's actions. What is uncivil is yielding to donor pressure in making faculty decisions. Indeed, the most uncivil action in this whole episode has been the university's resistance and refusal to right the wrong that has been done and to reinstate Professor Salaita.

As the closing speakers of the press conference, graduate students Eman Ghanayem and Rico Kleinstein issued a joint statement that decried the attempt to cleanse the university of certain viewpoints:

The unhiring of Professor Steven Salaita endangers the university's diverse community because it is producing an environment that is now avoided and boycotted by scholars, artists, and our fellow students worldwide, but also an environment where speech is only permissible when empty of indigenous, ethnic, and racially specific narratives and controversial politics.

We are supporting Professor Salaita not because we want to destroy the university and its administration, but because we want to save it from destroying itself. We encourage our peers, colleagues, and community members to join us in persuading our Chancellor and the Board of Trustees to reinstate Professor Salaita and to defend our university.

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