Pressure builds on UIUC to reinstate Salaita

September 8, 2014

This week will be a critical one for the struggle against the unjust firing of Steven Salaita for defending Palestinian rights, 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.

ADMINISTRATORS AND trustees of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are scrambling to justify their decision to fire Steven Salaita as widening expressions of solidarity with the Arab American scholar ratchet up pressure on the university.

Late last week, one member of the UIUC Board of Trustees broke ranks, criticizing the university's handling of the Salaita firing ahead of this week's critical board meeting on September 11 which will reportedly take up the controversy.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Phyllis Wise--who abruptly informed Salaita in early August that UIUC was withdrawing its offer of an associate professorship in the American Indian Studies Department--essentially admitted that she was doing the bidding of trustees worried that pro-Israel donors would stop giving the university money.

The support campaign for Salaita expanded last week, with more scholars canceling engagements at UIUC. To date, 11 UIUC departments have voted "no confidence" in Wise and the Board of Trustees, and support for the boycott spread to other campuses in the University of Illinois system. The University of Illinois Campus Faculty Association accused Wise of breaking official university protocols in firing Salaita on the basis of his comments criticizing Israel via Twitter.

Rallying for fired professor Steven Salaita on the second day of classes at UIUC
Rallying for fired professor Steven Salaita on the second day of classes at UIUC (Eric Ruder | SW)

This battle over academic freedom and the right to show solidarity with the struggle for Palestine will heat up during the week, ahead of the Thursday board meeting, which will be confronted by a large demonstration by campus unions and pro-Salaita forces.

MORE THAN 17,600 people have now signed a petition demanding that the university rehire Salaita, whose job offer was revoked after pro-Israel groups and lobbyists pressured the university to fire him for his criticisms of Israel's war on Gaza.

E-mails released under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that major UIUC donors, like venture capitalist Steve Miller, threatened to pull support from the university if Salaita was not fired.

Last week, the UIUC Departments of Religious Studies and East Asian Languages and Cultures became the 10th and 11th UIUC departments to vote "no confidence" in Wise and the trustees, following the lead of the American Indian Studies program. Salaita, an expert on indigenous studies and Arab-American culture, was to become a tenured associate professor before Wise and her cronies lowered the boom.

What you can do

Anyone who can should come to the "Defend the University" rally on Thursday, September 11, at Noon on the Quad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Sign the petition demanding that Steven Salaita be given his job back. You can also write a letter of support for Salaita to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees at

You can also send e-mails to the members of the Board of Trustees, expressing your solidarity with Steven Salaita and support for the board to reinstate his job offer:

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees: [email protected]

Robert A. Easter, President: [email protected]

Hannah Cave, Trustee: [email protected]

Ricardo Estrada, Trustee: [email protected]

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee: [email protected]

Lucas N. Frye, Trustee: [email protected]

Karen Hasara, Trustee: [email protected]

Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee: [email protected]

Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee: [email protected]

Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee: [email protected]

Edward L. McMillan, Trustee: [email protected] or [email protected]

James D. Montgomery, Trustee: [email protected]

Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee: [email protected]

Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel: [email protected]

Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University: [email protected]

Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees: [email protected]

More individual scholars have joined a growing boycott of UIUC--more than 10 conferences and lectures have been cancelled since Wise's firing was announced and the solidarity campaign got underway. A cancellation by Alice Pawley, a Purdue University professor of engineering education and women and gender studies, shows how wide the boycott movement has spread, across both disciplines and campuses.

Meanwhile, the Department of Asian American Studies, Art History, and Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) released statements condemning the firing of Salaita. This shows the system-wide spread of the revolt against the chancellor and the board.

Faced with this growing pressure, Wise began a damage control campaign that only exposed more weaknesses in the university's handling of the Salaita case. Last week, Wise told both students and faculty that she wished more people had been consulted before Salaita was fired by e-mail on August 1.

The University of Illinois Campus Faculty Association, a minority non-collective bargaining union on campus, immediately pointed out that Wise had violated university statutes for hiring by making a unilateral decision not to forward Salaita's appointment for approval to the Board of Trustees.

The CFA criticism followed a strong letter of support for Salaita by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) two weeks ago. The AAUP is one of the largest collective-bargaining entities for university professors in the U.S. Its letter demanded that Salaita receive pay from the university for the job he was offered until his case is resolved:

Perhaps the most telling sign that the mass outcry has rattled the UIUC leadership was Board of Trustee James Montgomery's remarks in an interview with Ali Abunimah, editor of Electronic Intifada.

Montgomery told Abunimah, "I think it would have been far better had it been dealt with differently and had it been done with more consultation with faculty." Montgomery also said the boycott of scholars against UIUC was having an "adverse" effect on the campus.

THIS PUBLIC split of top university officials over the Salaita firing is nearly unprecedented in American universities, which tend to close ranks in the face of such questions.

But this fracturing, while a positive development, is not a victory by itself. Salaita's appointment has not been approved by the Board of Trustees, so he remains unemployed, with no health insurance for his family. Salaita has not spoken publically about his case as yet.

On campus at UIUC, though, Salaita's firing and the university's ongoing hostility to workers and unions have now coalesced into a movement. On Tuesday, September 9 at 11:30 a.m., there will be a "Student Walk Out and National Day of Silence."

Then, on Thursday, September 11, members of the Campus Faculty Association at UIUC; a newly certified non-tenure-track faculty local; members of a campus AFSCME chapter; and students and faculty supporting Salaita will come together to demonstrate against university officials at noon at the Alma Mater statue on the Quad on the UIUC campus.

The "Defend the University" rally will demand Salaita's reinstatement and protest the administration's breach of faculty governance, attack on academic freedom, lack of transparency and abuse of power. Members of the University of Illinois Graduate Employment Organization, who have released a statement of support for Salaita, are also involved in planning the demonstration.

In an important show of solidarity, UIC United Faculty Local 6456 is sponsoring buses that will leave from the UIC campus to take people to the rally on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

The timing of the demonstration is critical in several ways. AFSCME is currently in negotiations for a new contract with the university. The administration is also threatening to withhold pay increases for the non-tenure-track faculty and refuses to bargain with their newly certified union. The Campus Faculty Association has filed an unfair labor practice in response.

The Salaita campaign, meanwhile, has brought unprecedented national and international heat on the UIUC leadership to reverse Salaita's firing and account for its discriminatory treatment against a leading Arab-American scholar. Salaita's case has become a symbol in the struggles for academic freedom, Palestinian human rights and academic activism.

The September 11 rally thus represents one of the most important campus demonstrations in recent years, linking workers' rights to the struggle against U.S. government support for Israel and repression of academic activism.

Anyone who can--students, teachers, activists and workers--should turn out at Noon on Thursday to join the fight for justice for Steven Salaita and people everywhere seeking to turn the tables against racism, attacks on workers, and bosses who try to keep us silent.

Further Reading

From the archives