UIUC’s bankrupt case against Steven Salaita

August 26, 2014

University of Illinois officials don't have much respect for free speech, says Eric Ruder.

OFFICIALS AT the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have finally broken their silence about their decision to fire Professor Steven Salaita, but their justifications are even more disturbing than the original decision.

In a letter posted to her blog, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise expressed her commitment to the "bedrock principle" of academic freedom--while in the next moment revealing just how limited that principle is, in her view.

Wise tries to inoculate her decision against charges that she violated Salaita's academic freedom by asserting that she "was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel."

But the only reason for Salaita's termination from his new position as associate professor is a series of outraged tweets condemning Israel's war crimes during its assault on Gaza this summer. Two of the most often cited: "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?" And: "Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already."

UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise
UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise (Tom Witham)

Wise's statement instead condemns "personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them." That doesn't sound like she "was not influenced" by Salaita's criticisms of Israel--or that she cares much at all about basic notions of freedom of speech.

After all, if "viewpoints themselves" must not be treated with "disrespect," then any professor or student who denounces white supremacy or anti-Semitism would also be in violation of Wise's diktat.

But then comes the thrust of her defense: "A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner."

Yet Salaita's firing is based not on a report by a student who experienced any mistreatment, but speculation that this might occur some time in the future. Wise based this speculation not on an evaluation of Salaita's academic record or his history of sterling classroom evaluations from former students--but because of a series of 140-character statements on Twitter.

The search committee that offered Salaita the position he accepted in UIUC's American Indian Studies program did carry out a full review of his academic and teaching record. As Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Mullen document in an article for Mondoweiss, his credentials and classroom evaluations after teaching for eight years at Virginia Tech are impeccable.

"Salaita never received, in any of the six courses evaluated, a single rating of 'poor' for any of 10 categories of teaching reviewed," they write. "In his lone graduate seminar, he scored a perfect 100 percent rating of 'excellence' in the category of 'overall rating.'" And in the area of "concern and respect" for students, 96 percent rated him "excellent," while five rated him "good" and one didn't respond.

SINCE THE decision to fire Salaita does not hinge on his classroom credentials, then what remains of Wise's justification is the implication that Salaita cannot be counted on to treat all students equally--allegedly because his tweets express anti-Semitism. This smear campaign must be firmly rejected.

Reports now show that an orchestrated campaign against Salaita had been ongoing for several weeks before he was informed he had been fired. This included a number of e-mails to the chancellor's office, including one from the university's fundraising arm and a letter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemning Salaita's "aberrational views" and he "cannot be trusted to confine his discussions to his area of study."

Salaita should never have been fired for exercising his right to free speech on his Twitter feed. But in any case, a full reading of his tweets reveals that he condemned anti-Semitism; called for unity between Arabs, Jews, Christians and Muslims; and carefully confined his criticisms to Israel's Zionist politics and policies (as opposed to Jews and Judaism).

In fact, it is Salaita himself who is a victim of racial discrimination--and it's the university's conduct that has created an atmosphere in which students of Palestinian or Arab descent or of Muslim faith will be made to feel unsafe. After all, if a professor can be fired for daring to criticize Israel's war crimes, what might happen to a student who did the same?

So far, more than 16,000 people have signed a change.org petition calling on Wise to reinstate Salaita, and more than 3,000 scholars from a range of academic disciplines have pledged not to engage with UIUC until it reverses its decision. Students are holding a public protest in support of Salaita and denouncing the university's violations of due process and basic democratic governance.

Salaita's firing should also be seen as a form of retaliation for his high-profile and active role in the American Studies Association's (ASA) resolution to honor the Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Wise was an outspoken critic of the ASA boycott--ironically, her justification was that the boycott would violate "the critical importance of the ability of faculty to pursue learning, discovery and engagement without regard to political considerations."

Lastly, the circumstances of Salaita's firing--at the 11th hour after an extraordinary intervention by the Board of Trustees--requires additional scrutiny of the individual and institutional associations between members of the board and Israel. To name one: Christopher Kennedy, a member of the powerful Kennedy family, is chairman of the UIUC board and also director of Ariel Mutual Funds, which has extensive investment and business ties with Israel.

In a letter to the university criticizing UIUC's treatment of Salaita, Brown University Prof. Bonnie Honig explained that she doesn't know Salaita, but found the university's treatment of him appalling:

Here is a man of Palestinian descent watching people he may know, perhaps friends, colleagues, or relatives, bombed to bits while a seemingly uncaring or powerless world watched. He was touched by violence and responded in a way that showed it.

In one of the tweets that was most objected to (Netanyahu, necklace, children's teeth), Salaita commented on a public figure who is fair game and who was promoting acts of terrible violence against a mostly civilian population. I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel.

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