The UIUC campus speaks up for Salaita

September 2, 2014

The outrage against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's decision to fire pro-Palestinian professor Steven Salaita is starting to hit home--on the UIUC campus itself, reports Bill Mullen, a professor of English and American Studies at Purdue University and one of the organizers of the effort to get the American Studies Association to vote to honor the academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions.

A GROWING international movement to defend Steven Salaita, the Arab-American professor fired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for criticizing the Israeli war on Palestine, was bolstered last week by the eruption of a strong support campaign at the UIUC campus, where classes have now begun.

More than 17,000 people have already signed a petition asking for Salaita's reinstatement. More than 3,800 faculty from around the world have said they will boycott UIUC until Salaita is given the job offered to him last October, but pulled on August 1, weeks before classes were to begin.

Six people have now cancelled lectures at UIUC, and one at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in solidarity with the Salaita boycott movement.

On Friday, the American Association of University Professors released a powerful public letter condemning UIUC's firing of Salaita and demanding that he receive pay from the university until his claim is resolved:

Aborting an appointment in this manner without having demonstrated cause has consistently been seen by the AAUP as tantamount to summary dismissal, an action categorically inimical to academic freedom and due process and one aggravated in his case by the apparent failure to provide him with any written or even oral explanation.

Supporters of Steven Salaita demand his reinstatement at a UIUC rally organized by students
Supporters of Steven Salaita demand his reinstatement at a UIUC rally organized by students (Eric Ruder | SW)

The Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, which last year voted to boycott Israeli universities, also released a statement calling for Salaita's reinstatement.

But the most important new front in the campaign is on the UIUC campus.

Since classes resumed on August 25, the Departments of Asian-American Studies and Philosophy have joined the Department of American Indian Studies in voting "no confidence" in UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees, which fired Salaita.

The Asian American Studies department made clear that it considered the firing of Salaita, who was to have worked as a Professor of American Indian Studies, to be an act of institutional racism:

The administration's claims to honor diversity are at odds with the marginalization of academic units that represent the teaching and research of topics related to racialized populations. These units serve as the face of diversity on this campus, yet their autonomy is willfully disregarded. Thus, the University continues a superficial endorsement of diversity through its contradictory actions regarding issues of racial injustice and violence.

In solidarity with the American Indian Studies program and thousands of scholars and organizations around the world, we see the Chancellor's decision and the approval by the Board of Trustees as a violation of academic freedom and the First Amendment right of freedom of speech.

On August 26, the second day of classes, a group of more than 80 UIUC faculty signed a public letter demanding Salaita's reinstatement. The letter included faculty from a wide range of departments and programs, indicating that the campaign for Salaita was moving quickly across campus.

Last week, a group of UIUC graduate students also published a public letter slamming the university administration and calling for Salaita's reinstatement. More than 130 students from a wide range of programs signed the letter.

SALAITA'S FIRING for his criticisms of Israel's occupation and recent war on Gaza is part of a longer history of repression of pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist voices on U.S. campuses.

In 2009, Joel Kovel was fired from his job at Bard College after publishing his book Overcoming Zionism. In 2007, DePaul University Professor and well-known critic of Israel Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure after a lengthy national campaign against him led by Zionists like Alan Dershowitz.

But the Salaita case is unique in two important ways. His firing took place after he accepted a formal offer from the university, quit his old job and prepared to move to his new one. No academic can ever feel safe about resigning an old post to take a new job if Salaita's case for reinstatement is denied.

Second, the firing represents the largest national campaign organized around the firing of a pro-Palestinian professor. The public response indicates both the growth of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the advances for the Palestinian liberation struggle worldwide since 2009.

The Salaita campaign also signals increased recognition among faculty and students of the growing unilateral executive style of administrations at U.S. universities, whose leaderships are often trained in corporate boardrooms.

UIUC Chancellor Wise, for example, in addition to drawing more than $500,000 a year in salary to serve as chief executive officer on campus, earns nearly $300,000 in annual compensation for serving on the board of directors of Nike. UIUC Board of Trustees President Christopher Kennedy is the scion of the uber-aristocratic Kennedy family, and president of Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises, a financial leviathan.

The growing gap in wealth between university leaders and their students and faculty is marked by a parallel development in American universities of new "CEO"-style administrations.

As a result, the Salaita campaign has also seen an unprecedented conjoining of pro-union and pro-Palestinian forces. Both the AAUP and the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), for example, have organized on Salaita's behalf.

This alliance represents an important next step in campus politics, linking the need for faculty governance and workplace rights to the BDS campaign against Israel. U.S. faculty unions and national unions like the AAUP should follow the lead of teachers unions like the National Union of Teachers in England, and vote for divestment and boycott of Israel.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers combined represent nearly 5 million teachers. Their voice united against Israeli apartheid could be a turning point in the BDS struggle.

As the Salaita case shows to teachers everywhere, now--more than ever--is the time to start a BDS campaign or a union at your school.

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