Protests Demand Steven Salaita be Rehired
In the first week of August, Steven Salaita was fired from his position as an associate professor in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC, the flagship public university of the state) for tweets expressing outrage over Israel’s attack on Gaza and those supporting it.
While Phyllis Wise, president of UIUC, said that the university had merely revoked a job offer, Salaita’s appointment had been confirmed by UIUC just a few weeks earlier, his teaching schedule for the fall term had been announced, and he had resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech and relocated to Urbana-Champaign, casting great doubt on the university’s contention.
Also, due to the idiosyncratic UIUC administrative meeting schedule, it is standard for new faculty to begin teaching each fall before final board approval in September. There is no doubt, however, that the justification for this action are tweets that Salaita had sent criticizing the Israeli massacre in Gaza and supporting the boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) movement.
Salaita’s views could hardly have been a surprise to the university. He is the author of Israel’s Dead Soul and The Uncultured Wars, Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, as well as a contributor to several journals and an advocate for the American Studies Association’s December decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions. He was not scheduled to teach any courses on Israel/Palestine, however. The director of the American Indian Studies program wrote about his respect for Salaita’s work after the firing, stating “Steven is an innovative scholar who works from a rigorous training in Native American Studies in doing a broad range of critical work…”
To be clear, being fired from a tenure-track job puts in jeopardy an entire academic career, a career built on years of study, research, and writing, especially a firing on such blatantly political terms. Finding another university position is difficult enough when employed, and will be nearly impossible under the circumstances that Salaita finds himself in. And that is precisely the message that a firing like this sends throughout academia: keep your mouth shut on this issue (or anything controversial and meaningful), watch what you say and what you do, or you could be next. And that is the message that we — everyone who stands against Israel’s crimes, who is struggling for justice for Palestine, and certainly everyone dedicated to a better world — cannot let stand!
The Board of Trustees voted 8-1 against Salaita on September 11. The Board’s case was made in the public arena by Cary Nelson, an English professor at UIUC and former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a national association whose mission statement cites as its first goal “to advance academic freedom and shared governance.” The fact that he is the former president of the AAUP has given added weight and credibility to Nelson’s support of Salaita’s firing.
In an interview with Electronic Intifada, Nelson admitted that he had been following and saving Salaita’s tweets for months. He said that Salaita has “always tweeted in a very volatile and aggressive way” but “recently he’s begun to be much more aggressive.” One tweet Nelson cited as an example said, “If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.” Salaita tweeted this on July 8, just as Israel began its murderous invasion of Gaza. Nelson’s own support for Israel is a matter of public record; he describes himself as a Zionist and has vociferously opposed the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions against Israel) movement. So, Salaita should be fired because his tweets lack “civility and collegiality,” while Gaza is being pulverized, schools and mosques destroyed, almost 2,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands left with nothing! Apparently, genocide must be discussed in genteel terms, if it must be acknowledged at all.
Contributing to the chilling impact of these attacks is the fact that they were launched by institutions that have the protection of intellectual freedom, critical thinking and access to the expanse of human knowledge and opinion as a central part of their mission. However much current reality may diverge from that ideal, they are still spaces in this country that offer some room for contending ideas and intellectual ferment. So when they turn against intellectuals taking on ‘sacred cows,’ such as Zionism and the role of Israel as an outpost for US imperialism in the Middle East and beyond, it is a dangerous move that must be opposed by the movement for revolution and very broad forces, and not only those supporting Palestine.
An outcry opposing this firing has begun and must grow exponentially in order to actually defeat and turn around this attack. Twenty prominent academics have signed an open letter to President Wise of UIUC, and more than 275 academics have pledged not to engage with UIUC until Dr. Salaita is rehired, meaning at conferences, programs, or at the campus itself. The AAUP has issued a statement condemning Salaita’s firing: “[T]here is good reason to fear that Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and possibly that of the Illinois faculty members who recommended hiring him have been violated.” The statement soundly rejected the use of a professor’s ‘extramural’ (outside the academic context) expressions of opinion, such as on social media, as grounds for disciplinary action because they regard them as expressions covered by academic freedom of expression. The Center for Constitutional Rights has written to Pres. Wise informing her that “any attempt by university officials to repress or penalize speech on a matter of public concern such as Israel/Palestine because of disagreement with its message is impermissible ‘viewpoint discrimination,’ a serious First Amendment violation.” An online petition calling on UIUC to rescind the Salaita firing gained over 5,000 signatures in a few hours. Academics from around the country are watching this case and speaking out.
The same day that Dr. Salaita issued his first public statement on the situation, September 9, student protesters walked out of the university, rallied in the rain, and supported him at a press conference (watch video). Dr. Salaita is represented by The Center for Constitutional Rights as he plans to pursue legal action to re-obtain his job. At least 13 departments within the university have voted no confidence in the UIUC administration, and hundreds of students rallied in support of Salaita at the Board of Trustees meeting that confirmed their shameful decision on September 11. Much more protest is called for to defend Salaita and the right of professors, and everyone, to free speech. The ramifications of this struggle will impact not only the ability to speak out for those outraged by the plight of Palestinians and the US’s role in their genocide, but any of us debating “controversial” topics; from the watershed moment of the climate crisis to the slow genocide of mass incarceration in the US itself.
Professor Salaita is going on the offensive – against academic censorship, and against the continuing colonial domination of the Palestinian people that this censorship aims to cover for. Join us as Steven Salaita speaks at five Chicago area campuses: October 6 through October 10.
The attack on Dr. Salaita is an attack on the entire movement to expose and stop Israel’s crimes against the people of Palestine, which has been growing in recent years, especially on college campuses. Voices such as his, bringing to light critical truths about the history and genocidal reality of those crimes and their US backers and benefactors, are key elements in that struggle and must be defended. Lessons should be taken from a relatively small group of students at Rutgers University who last April stepped out in the midst of debate and held a sit-in to demand the revocation of an invitation to Condi Rice to speak at their commencement — which ultimately resulted in Rice canceling her appearance.
Not only students committed to justice for Palestine, but anyone who cares about an atmosphere on campus that truly welcomes critical inquiry needs to stand up to this blatant censorship and not stop until Dr. Salaita is rehired, with tenure.
The Chicago Chapter of World Can’t Wait can be reached at chicago (at) worldcantwait.net.