There has been a strong and unified response from prominent academics, as well as academic and civil rights organizations, condemning the decision by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Chancellor Phyllis Wise to summarily terminate the appointment of Professor Steven Salaita.
One professor has publicly announced his refusal to visit UIUC over the affair.
Wise terminated Salaita after off-campus anti-Palestinian websites and organizations began to agitate against him over his Twitter postings condemning Israel’s massacre in Gaza.
Salaita, who was hired as associate professor in the American Indian Studies Program, a tenured position, was due to begin teaching this month.
The campaign against Salaita is almost certainly motivated not just by his tweets but by the fact that he has been an outspoken and effective campaigner for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions complicit in Israel’s crimes against Palestinians.
Twenty prominent professors wrote to Wise urging “UIUC in the strongest terms to reverse its decision immediately and reinstate Professor Salaita.”
The scholars include As’ad Abukhail, California State University-Stanislaus; Judith Butler, University of California, Berkeley; Natalie Zemon Davis, Princeton University; Joseph Massad, Columbia University; Joan Scott, Institute for Advanced Study; and Antoinette Burton and Zohreh T. Sullivan, both of the University of Illinois. The letter (full text and signatures below) notes that:
The content of Salaita’s tweets were in fact consistent with the sentiments of leading experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict, including Jewish-Israeli scholars, to the degree that they expressed outrage and dismay at Israeli actions. It seems that popular knowledge about the Israel-Palestine conflict in the US public space has overwhelmed what is well known by academic experts. This cannot be allowed to happen in a serious university.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a strong statement condemning the University of Illinois’ move, noting “there 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.”
We feel it necessary to comment on this case not only because it involves principles that AAUP has long defended, but also because Cary Nelson, a former president of the Association and a current member of our Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, is quoted as approving the Illinois Chancellor’s action. Professor Nelson is entitled to his opinions. Indeed, one of AAUP’s great strengths is our ability to bring together many differing viewpoints and ideas, including about the meaning of academic freedom. However, we wish to make clear that Professor Nelson’s comments do not reflect an official position of AAUP or of its Committee A.
The Center for Constitutional Rights wrote Chancellor Wise advising 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.”
The letter “strongly urges Chancellor Wise to retract her decision and reaffirm the right of members of the University of Illinois community to engage vocally and vociferously on matters of great public concern.”
Michael Bérubé, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in a letter to Chancellor Wise: “I am sure you are aware that in 2013, in response to a similar controversy involving Twitter, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted new regulations under which faculty members or other employees can be dismissed or suspended for ‘improper use of social media.’” Bérubé recalled that the AAUP had strongly condemned this decision, and added:
Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence. The University of Illinois is therefore clearly in violation of a fundamental principle of academic freedom with regard to extramural speech; moreover, your decision effectively overrides legitimate faculty decision-making and peer review in a way that is inconsistent with AAUP guidelines regarding governance. Those faculty members who engaged in the process of peer review for Professor Salaita cannot be said to have been unaware that he has strong opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict as do many millions of people. To overturn faculty peer review on the basis of a Twitter feed, therefore, is to take a page straight from the Kansas playbook.
David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, wrote to Chancellor Wise specifically to emphasize “the irreparable damage your action has done to the trust we place in our academic institutions.” Palumbo-Liu explains:
Among the many truly awful things this action has produced is that it has made everyone, everyone, deeply suspicious that our normal institutional practices are now held hostage to outside forces, forces that operate in the shadows, override due process, trump faculty input. Furthermore, and most destructively, they create a deadening, chilling effect on the very things we are supposed to be engaged in as educators – the free and open exchange of even unpopular ideas. They muzzle us at a time of urgent historical crisis.
Palumbo-Liu expands on this point in a must-read article in Salon: “Return of the blacklist? Cowardice and censorship at the University of Illinois.”
The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) took aim at use of the concept of “civility” to silence dissent and criticism:
The university’s politically-motivated firing of Salaita, who is an Arab American of Palestinian background, over his expression of his political opinions in social media, is apparently an act of submission to pressure from those who object to the language with which he chooses to express those opinions. In responding to the massacre of children, Salaita chooses precise descriptions and righteous outrage rather than dispassion or euphemism. The extra burden placed on those voicing opposition to forms of violence or oppression for which there is popular as well state support – that is, one must be “civil” in one’s tone, especially if one is a scholar of color (or, for that matter, a woman) – is completely alien to any idea of academic freedom.
The Committee for the Open Discussion of Zionism (CODZ) said in a letter to Wise that her decision recalled an earlier era of censorship in the United States:
Your action in Professor Salaita’s case smacks of the McCarthyism that nearly destroyed political freedom in this country in the second half of the last century, when we nearly lost such beloved artists as Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, and did lose, in many, many cases forever, rich contributions to our cultural life and political discourse in the blacklisting scourge of American artists, writers, actors, scholars, and college faculty who advocated communism as an expression of their social and egalitarian ideals.
In a posting on his Facebook page titled “Why This Jewish-American Can’t Visit Urbana-Champaign,” Columbia University humanities professor Bruce Robbins said he was refusing an invitation to UIUC for the screening of his film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists due to the firing of Salaita.
Robbins writes that in “punishing” Salaita for “speaking up by taking away his job, Chancellor Wise has inscribed her name in a shameful list that includes Joseph McCarthy, among others. I’m confident that history will deal with Chancellor Wise much as it has dealt with McCarthy. But she will not have to wait to be judged by history. Thanks to her, the Urbana-Champaign campus is going to become a no-man’s-land, famous for embarrassing itself in public.”
An online petition calling on UIUC to reinstate Salaita has already gathered eleven thousands signatures just two days after it was launched.
Letter from scholars to Chancellor Wise
Chancellor Phyllis Wise Office of the Chancellor Swanlund Administration Building 601 E. John Street Champaign, IL 61820
August 7th, 2014
Dear Chancellor Wise:
We, the undersigned, write to express deep concern and bewilderment about the University of Illinois’ decision to revoke its offer of a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program to Professor Steven Salaita. UIUC’s decision to withdraw an employment contract to Professor Salaita, after clearly extending a good-faith offer to him to join the faculty, is highly unusual and cause for great worry among those who value academic freedom, free speech, and fundamental due process. We are following up on Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenures expression of concern about this case. As the Illinois Committee A noted, “In the absence of due process, particularly if a contract was signed, any institutional action to reverse an offer of appointment would be a grave violation of academic due process.”
As scholars committed to advancing critical and open perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict, we are alarmed that parties external to the university have forced UIUC to take the drastic and unfortunate step of withdrawing Salaita’s appointment. It is a matter of public record that the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for example, had direct communication with President Easter about Salaita’s appointment. As reported in Inside Higher Education, UIUC’s administration withdrew Salaita’s job offer out of concern for the “incivility” and aggressive tone of several of Salaita’s Twitter messages about the Israeli military’s recent actions in Gaza. Drawing upon its formal report, Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications, the National AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure declared today, “While Professor Salaita’s scholarship does appear to deal with the topic of Palestine, his posts were arguably not intended as scholarly statements but as expressions of personal viewpoint. Whether one finds these views attractive or repulsive is irrelevant to the right of a faculty member to express them.”
The Israeli military’s targeting of Palestinian civilians in Gaza has been condemned by major human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, as well as leading international law experts including John Dugard and Richard Falk. The content of Salaita’s tweets were in fact consistent with the sentiments of leading experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict, including Jewish-Israeli scholars, to the degree that they expressed outrage and dismay at Israeli actions. It seems that popular knowledge about the Israel-Palestine conflict in the US public space has overwhelmed what is well known by academic experts. This cannot be allowed to happen in a serious university.
UIUC’s re-evaluation of Professor Salaita’s suitability for a position at UIUC, after a faculty committee found him to be acceptable, is very arbitrary and highlights that political pressure tainted the appointment process. The AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure makes clear that a faculty member possesses a fundamental right to extramural utterance: “When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”
We should not forget why John Dewey, Arthur Lovejoy, and Edwin Seligman, the founders of the AAUP, sought to protect academic freedom – to ensure that academics could act as a check on the tyranny of public opinion. Furthermore, academics are free to address issues of public concern, as are all American citizens. Indeed, Dewey, Lovejoy, and Seligman recognized that university boards had become the major threats to academic freedom. The 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states:
Lay governing boards are competent to judge concerning charges of habitual neglect of assigned duties, on the part of individual teachers, and concerning charges of grave moral delinquency. But in matters of opinion, and of the utterance of opinion, such boards cannot intervene without destroying, to the extent of their intervention, the essential nature of a university – without converting it from a place dedicated to openness of mind, in which the conclusions expressed are the tested conclusions of trained scholars, into a place barred against the access of new light, and precommitted to the opinions or prejudices of men who have not been set apart or expressly trained for the scholars duties.
UIUC’s decision to revoke Professor Salaita’s tenured appointment is part of a series of outside interventions that have affected appointments and tenure decisions across the country after 9/11 and which have increased in intensity since. Furthermore, Illinois decision is taking us back to the post-9/11 hysteria, which victimized so many people, and sacrificed academic freedom. UIUC’s administration must resist this latest infringement of academic freedom, as well as the obstruction of its own academic appointment process. If it does not do so, it is undermining its academic mission and destroying the conditions of possibility for unfettered expression and critical thought.
We call upon UIUC in the strongest terms to reverse its decision immediately and reinstate Professor Salaita, a decision which will reclaim UIUC’s place among the nations pre-eminent public universities.
- Matthew Abraham, Associate Professor of English, Univ. of Arizona
- As’ad Abukhail, Professor of Political Science, California State Univ.Stanislaus
- Sanjam Aluwalia, Associate Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies, Northern Arizona University
- Talal Asad, Professor of Anthropology, City Univ. of New York
- Timothy Brennan, Samuel Russell Chair in the Humanities, Professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature and English, Univ. of MinnesotaTwin Cities
- Antoinette Burton, University of Illinois
- Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, Univ. of CaliforniaBerkeley
- Brian Connolly, Associate Professor of History, Univ. of South Florida
- Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kervorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
- Natalie Zemon Davis, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History emeritus, Princeton University
- Samera Esmeir, Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Univ. of CaliforniaBerkeley
- Keya Ganguly, Professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature, University of MinnesotaTwin Cities
- Neville Hoad, Associate Professor of English, University of TexasAustin
- Bruce Levine, James G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History, University of IllinoisUrbana Champaign
- Joseph Massad, Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, Columbia University
- Aamir Mufti, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of CaliforniaLos Angeles
- Jose Quiroga, Professor of Spanish, Emory University
- Dana Sajdi, Associate Professor of History, Boston College
- Joan Scott, Fellow, Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study
- Zohreh T. Sullivan, Professor Emerita of English and African Studies, Univ. of IllinoisUrbana-Champaign
Cc: President Robert Easter
Professor Robert Warrior
- Steven Salaita
- academic freedom
- academic boycott
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Phyllis Wise
- David Palumbo-Liu
- Michael Bérubé
- As'ad AbuKhalil
- Judith Butler
- Joseph Massad
- Joan Scott
- Antoinette Burton
- Zohreh T. Sullivan
- Natalie Zemon Davis
- American Association of University Professors
- Center for Constitutional Rights
- Cary Nelson
- Committee for the Open Discussion of Zionism