Hallene Gateway at the University of Champaign-Urbana bearing the University's motto, "Learning & Labor" © Dori | Wikimedia Commons
Hallene Gateway at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign bearing the University’s motto, “Learning & Labor” © Dori | Wikimedia Commons

We have learned with apprehension that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has apparently revoked a job offer as a professor of American Indian Studies to Professor Steven Salaita due to his tweets and public anti-Israel comments on the current conflict in Gaza. Salaita had already resigned from his position at Virginia Tech, and his appointment at UIUC had already been announced, requiring only the final approval of the University’s Board of Trustees.

At Public Seminar, we strongly support not only the right, but also the importance of scholars expressing political views to the general public, engaging in extra-academic debates concerning relevant and even controversial social and political matters. Salaita’s tweets may strike some people as using an inappropriate and obnoxious tone and vocabulary. They may appear to some as adopting an ineffective and counterproductive language, while they may be justified by others as legitimately expressing outrage and indignation in front of the killing of children and civilian population in Gaza. But, whereas this is a legitimate, and perhaps even necessary debate to have, what is not acceptable is that a scholar who had secured an academic position based on his academic accomplishments and promise is now denied that very position because of his political views or the way he has expressed them outside the university.

If the reports about the revocation of Salaita’s job offer are correct, this would be a blatant violation both of academic freedom and of freedom of speech. As the Illinois AAUP Committee A wrote:

Speech that is deemed controversial should be challenged with further speech that may abhor and challenge a statement. Yet the University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America.

These are the reasons why we support the Illinois AAUP Committee A and other colleagues’ effort in demanding Prof. Salaita’s reinstatement.

What follows is a template letter for those who want to write to UIUC chancellor, Phyllis Wise:

Please reinstate Associate Professor of American Indian Studies, Steven Salaita. As you know, Dr. Salaita is a world-renowned scholar who was hired on his academic merit. His firing “over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza,” as reported in Inside Higher Ed, violates the academic freedom and free speech necessary for a healthy democracy both inside and outside the academy. I urge you to reconsider this action and reinstate Professor Salaita as Associate Professor of American Indian Studies.

Emails can be sent to this address: pmwise@illinois.edu.

3 thoughts on “Steven Salaita and Academic Freedom: A Call for Solidarity

  1. The decision to publish this piece followed an interesting discussion among the editors. I myself was hesitant to organize the post. At issue is the quality of the speech of Salaita and my judgment that it may stifle the free exchange of political ideas rather than enact the exchange.

    Take for example:”At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” This is free expression, but it is written for the already convinced and suggests that any right minded person should view Netanyahu as a sadistic genocidal killer. I am profoundly opposed to Netanyahu and his political project, but find this demonization very hard to take, indeed, silencing.

    This is a kind of political rhetoric that stifles rather than opens up public debate, academic and political. It is the language of war, not politics. It does not encourage free political exchange. I don’t think it should be grounds for dismissal from a university, nor should it be grounds for refusal to appoint someone to a university once an offer on sound academic grounds has been made. For this reason I endorsed our publishing this post. But I do find that such speech about many issues on the left and the right is deeply problematic, undermining democratic capacity, and have dedicated myself to analyzing its limits, specifically in
    my book Civility and Subversion.

    It is my basic thesis that if intellectuals are to contribute to a free public life, they need to facilitate a robust and open discussion, by civilizing differences among enemies, so that they can become opponents and perhaps even in the long run colleagues, and by subverting common sense, so that fundamental problems in the order of things are recognized and addressed. When intellectuals declare easy solutions to complex problems, moving to close discussion, they are dangerous, as the horrors of the twentieth century revealed, and as horrors of the present moment continue to demonstrate.

    Yet, the answer to problematic intellectual work is not censorship and not the closing of the academic community, but open discussion in the community. I believe Salaita’s tweets should be criticized, but not repressed, and that repressing them in fact is most dangerous for the academic integrity of the University of Illinois and the broader public.

    1. Jeff: I appreciate your posting this account of some of the conversation that went on behind the scenes among the editors prior to publishing this piece. Strong feelings were expressed about many aspects of this issue and a considerable amount of effort went into coming up with a statement that captured some of the important nuances.

  2. Well, replace the words “Jew” or “Israeli” in the professores speeches by some other minority or ethnic category, and ask if those presently defending him would be so concerned with his rights of free speech.

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