CommunityThe Dissenter

The Uncivil Termination of Professor Steven Salaita

Professor Steven Salaita, delivering his statement at UIUC

Professor Steven Salaita was terminated from a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) because he sent out tweets through his personal Twitter account that were critical of Israel’s assault on Gaza. Yesterday, he delivered his first statement on what happened to a room full of supporters on the UIUC campus—a number of which had walked out of their classes.

He announced that he was focused on communicating with the university so he could be reinstated and, if he was not reinstated, the university would likely face a lawsuit for violating his constitutional rights by terminating him based on the content of his speech.

As of 6 pm EST, fourteen departments at the university had entered no-confidence votes in Chancellor Wise. Lectures and a national conference scheduled at the university have been canceled, and academics from various discipline have signed on to letters opposing the university’s termination.

Salaita had been a faculty member at the English Department of Virginia Tech since 2006. There he had lifetime tenure. In 2013, he was vetted and recruited to become a part of the faculty at the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. According to Salaita, he “accepted an offer from the interim Dean of the College of Liberal Artas and Sciences to join the university as a professor with lifetime tenure.”

“In preparation for my new position, I resigned my tenured position at Virginia Tech; my wife resigned her professional position at the University as well,” Salaita shared. “We got rid of our Virginia home and took on considerable expense in preparation for our move here. Two weeks before my start date, and without any warning, I received a summary letter from University Chancellor Phyllis Wise informing me that my position was terminated, but with no explanation or opportunity to challenge her unilateral decision.”

“As a result, my family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own. Our young son has been left without a preschool. I have lost the great achievement of a scholarly career – lifetime tenure, with its promised protections of academic freedom,” he added.

Wealthy donors, according to documents released under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, pressured Chancellor Wise by threatening to stop giving money to the university if he remained a part of the faculty.

“Having been a multiple six figure donor to Illinois over the years, I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses,” wrote one UI business school graduate in an email to Chancellor Wise.

The chancellor also received emails from donors who identified themselves as “members of the UI’s $25,000-plus ‘presidents council.'”

Chancellor Wise wrote an open letter on August 22, where she stated, “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.” And she later added that tenure “brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.”

The Board of Trustees backed the chancellor’s statement on the firing of Salaita, saying in another open letter, “Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education.”

“If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university,” the Board of Trustees further declared.

Salaita reacted, “My Twitter messages are no doubt passionate and unfiltered; they reflect my deep dismay at the deaths of more than 2,000 innocent Palestinians, over 500 of them children.”

“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.”

Maria Lahood, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights and one of the attorneys representing Salaita, eloquently argued, “What is actually uncivil is the killing of more than 500 children that Professor Salaita reacted to. What is actually uncivil 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 reinstate Professor Salaita,” Lahood proclaimed.

Salaita addressed the pressure from wealthy donors, stating that this is “part of a 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,” Salaita asserted.

Placing Salaita’s termination into a broader national context, Lahood suggested that Salaita had been the victim of individuals who had falsely equated “legitimate challenges to Israeli government action with anti-Semitism” or had labeled “passionate rhetoric uncivil.” This tactic is one of the most common tactics used against critics of the Israeli government.

“On campuses across the country, over the last year and a half alone, there have been approximately 200 incidents of which students and faculty and activists have been intimidated, maligned, investigated and even prosecuted for speaking out in support of Palestinian human rights,” LaHood said.

For example, as highlighted previously on a weekly podcast hosted by this author, Northeastern University banned the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter and targeted Arab or Muslim students, who they believed were associated with the group. University of Michigan students, who fought to convince the student government to vote on a divestments resolution against Israel, experienced a barrage of vitriol alleging those involved were anti-Semitic. Iymen Chehade, a professor at Columbia College Chicago who teaches a course on “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” had a section of his class canceled after one student complained about his screening of the documentary, “5 Broken Cameras.”

Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center who has been diligently writing about each development related to Salaita’s termination, has highlighted other examples in academia: Kristofer Petersen-Overton an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College hired then fired before his course began over a paper he wrote trying to understand what motivates Palestinian suicide bombers; playwright Tony Kushner, who was denied an honorary degree from CUNY because of his criticism of Israel; CUNY’s funding threatened by the New York City Council because Brooklyn College’s political science department was co-sponsoring a panel on the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement; colleges in New York threatened by the New York state legislature if they support faculty membership of the American Studies Association, which is part of the BDS movement.

But, as Robin points out, in the cases of Petersen-Overton, Kushner, BDS panel at Brooklyn College and the New York state assembly, those fighting efforts against academic freedom and free speech eventually won.

*

There’s a moment when Salaita is answering questions from the media where he is asked if he supports BDS. He pauses and his head is hanging near a lectern. He then brings his head up and says, with found confidence, “I do,” and adds that he sees BDS as part of a form of speech and political expression, which any person on campus should be able to engage in on any issue involving injustice.

The hesitation represents a profound recognition that saying yes would possibly jeopardize his reinstatement even more. However, not to answer the question honestly would be an act of submission to those who seek to make outcasts or pariahs out of individuals like Salaita.

Salaita was asked if he would “plan on tweeting differently going forward.” He went on to fully answer the question and explain his thought process when he is on Twitter responding to current events. Yet, truly, he should not have to rationalize the “civility” or appropriateness of his tweeting any more than a pro-Israel professor should have to explain their tweeting about why Palestinian children might deserve to die if the people of Gaza support Hamas. (Of course, rarely do pro-Israel academics have to justify why they sent reactionary tweets about Palestinians or Arabs in general.)

And, finally, one of Salaita’s attorneys provided an explanation of what might happen if Salaita has to file a lawsuit. They would use the discovery process to uncover documents and take depositions from members of the university to find out about their role in the termination as well as more details on the motivation behind the university’s decision.

The threat of litigation could have the potential effect of convincing the university to correct its decision. Tomorrow, the Board of Trustees will be meeting to determine what to do about Salaita.

Video of the press conference at UIUC yesterday

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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