North Carolina college bows to donor pressure over Steven Salaita talk

Steven Salaita

Jeffrey Putney

Note: This post has been updated since publication with a statement from the Guilford College President.

Guilford College in North Carolina has bowed to pressure from donors to move a speech by Steven Salaita out of a campus building they funded.

This donor interference comes days after Salaita filed a lawsuit against donors and officials at the University of Illinois over his firing last summer for criticizing Israel.

Guilford College moved Salaita’s speech, scheduled for Tuesday, from the Frank Family Science Center to another campus venue after members of the Frank family, whose foundation financed the building, spoke to the Quaker college’s president.

This followed a reprise of smears in local media that Salaita’s criticisms of Israel’s massacre in Gaza last summer that left 2,200 people dead amounted to “anti-Semitism.”

“As far as I know, the college has not acceded to any demands to cancel Salaita’s speech or received any indications that donations would be affected, but this family that donated funds for the building asked that the talk be moved out of respect for their parents, Stanley and Dorothy,” Max Carter, director of the campus Friends Center and adjunct professor of religious studies, told The Electronic Intifada.

“The president did let me know that she’d received numerous calls from the family that the venue be changed,” Carter, whose unit is co-hosting Salaita, added.

President’s statement

“I was contacted by a member of the Frank family, who asked whether there was an alternative site on campus for a speech by Steven Salaita, which was originally scheduled for the science center that bears the Frank family’s name,” Guilford College president Jane K. Fernandes told The Electronic Intifada in an emailed statement.

“I asked the event’s organizers to move Steven’s speech to a different venue, and it will be held in the Carnegie Room of Hege Library,” Fernandes added. “The donor did not decide to move the event. I made that decision in cooperation with its faculty organizers. If another suitable location had not been available, the lecture would have been held in Frank Family Science Center.”

Fernandes did not explain why she acceded to the request, a decision that appears to lend credence to the attacks on Salaita.

The Frank Family Science Center was built in 2000 with a donation from the Stanley and Dorothy Frank Family Foundation, which is funded with money given by the late Greensboro, North Carolina, businessman Stanley Frank.

“I know that enormous pressure is brought to bear on colleges and institutions,” Carter observed, adding that the matter is “clearly very sensitive.”

The revelation that Guilford College acted under donor pressure recalls the claims Salaita has made in his lawsuit against University of Illinois donors for “tortious interference” in his contractual relationship with his employer, leading to his firing for views the donors did not like.

Salaita is scheduled to speak on the topic of “Palestine and Academic Freedom in the American Imagination.”

His lecture is sponsored by the departments of English, Peace & Conflict Studies, the Friends Center, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Students for Justice in Palestine.

Smear campaign

“The buzz in the local Jewish community is quite negative about Steven Salaita and as I understand it the Frank Family wanted the talk moved because of that,” Carter said.

Indeed by all appearances, the college caved in to a smear campaign.

“Members of the Greensboro Jewish community are pushing back against an appearance at Guilford College this week by a Palestinian-American professor who recently lost a tenured position at the University of Illinois because of social media comments critical of Israel,” Yes! Weekly reported on Saturday.

According to Yes! Weekly, Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emmanuel Greensboro posted a message on Facebook comparing Salaita to a neo-Nazi or a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“Should college campuses really provide a forum for people who advocate racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism? This is a very real issue for us this weekend in Greensboro,” Guttman wrote.

Salaita’s lawsuit against the University of Illinois rebuts claims disseminated by anti-Palestinian websites, Illinois university officials and media that he has expressed anti-Jewish or bigoted views.

Guttman’s post appears to have been deleted from Facebook but Yes! Weekly says that “Word began to spread Saturday afternoon that the Frank family of Greensboro … had asked that he be forced to speak elsewhere on campus.”

Rabbi Guttman also uses his Facebook page to promote anti-Palestinian conspiracy theories. In a 29 January post, for instance, Guttman claims that the group Islamic State has “managed to set up bases of power in the West Bank and Gaza” and that the group “has long been operating in Gaza.”

Were it not for the Israeli army, Guttman claimed, “Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Islamic State would have toppled the PA and beheaded [Mahmoud] Abbas and his officials long ago.”

It appears the pressure from Guttman and other anti-Palestinian campaigners worked. Even if Salaita’s speech has not been canceled, merely moving it gives credence to the smear campaign against him.

It also sets another worrying precedent where donors can now dictate who can and cannot speak in buildings they fund.

Rabbi Fred Guttman did not return a call requesting comment.

Attack on Angela Davis

This latest attack on Salaita comes amid an upsurge of efforts by anti-Palestinian groups to silence and smear critics of Israel on campus.

On Saturday, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) published a statement in solidarity with the scholar and activist Angela Davis.

Davis is facing opposition from the anti-Palestinian group AMCHA over her selection as the speaker at the University of California at Santa Cruz’s 31st Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Convocation, on account of her chosen topic: “Racism, Militarism, Poverty: From Ferguson to Palestine.”

“AMCHA’s attack on Professor Angela Davis is not only an attempt to suppress speech criticizing Israel for its ongoing occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people,” the USACBI statement says, adding, “it is also an attack on all those who, since this summer’s police killings of Black men and Israel’s 2014 murderous assault on Gaza, have begun to understand these connections and to make a common cause in their resistance against racism and state-sponsored violence, in this country as in Palestine.”

“Nothing is more threatening to those in power than the emergence of solidarity among those most targeted by this global network of state and military violence,” USACBI adds.

Tags

Comments

picture

While the axiom "all publicity is good publicity" may be true, it doesn't mean it's comfortable! While I've gotten used to seeing Guilford College criticized for our programming on Palestine and Israel, that criticism is typically not from Palestinian sources - which have been historically grateful for Quakers' and the College's historical ties to Palestine and advocacy for justice and equity. The flap over the location of Steven Salaita's talk at Guilford should be understood in the context of the College's principled stands for our students who have been active and outspoken in the cause of a just peace in the Middle East. The College did receive a request from the Frank family to move Salaita's talk, and that request was insistent and sustained. The College was committed to holding the talk in the advertised venue should a suitable alternative location not be found on campus. When such a location (probably even better!) was available, the College felt free to announce the change. Had it not been suitable, there was a commitment to telling the family Salaita's talk would stay in the Frank Center.

Ali Abunimah's picture

Max, I appreciate your speaking to me for my article and for your comment here. However, I think your comment misses the point. If Guilford takes a “principled stance” on Palestine then it should take the principled stance of not acceding to a request whose basis is false and defamatory allegations of “anti-Semitism” against Steven Salaita that are part of a smear campaign that has caused him immense damage. By bowing to this pressure, Guilford has in effect endorsed and given credence to the smear campaign. Moreover, what kind of college allows donors to dictate what kind of events can and can’t be held in which buildings? This sets a really bad precedent — assuming Guilford doesn’t habitually cave in to these kinds of requests. Steve Salaita is your guest, but he will arrive on campus under the taint of a decision that falsely paints him as a bigot.

What any self-respecting college administration should have told the Frank family is this: “you gave us a building, but that doesn’t give you the right to tell us what to do in that building. We invite you to attend Mr. Salaita’s talk and if you hear anything objectionable, you’re free to ask him a question like any other member of the public.”

If Salaita still agrees to appear even after this slap by the college administration, you will learn just how unjust the smears against him are. I hope that the administration will do the decent thing and apologize to him for, in effect, lending its support to the campaign against him.

picture

Ali, thanks for your further comment. I won't speak for the President on this issue, but I know she has been very supportive of our programming on Palestine and Israel. I don't know what she might say or do in regard to the growing interest around why the College moved the talk. I trust that she will be at the lecture. As several who have watched in on this unfolding drama have said, Guilford was probably "damned if we did, and damned if we didn't." Looking forward to Salaita's talk and good discussion about all of this on campus.

picture

what would the Frank family do if the Salaita talk were held in "their" building? How is the school "damned if they do"?
Why does the Frank family hate Steven Salaita?

picture

CHEERS to a small, lesser-known college like Guilford College for hosting Salaita in the first place. Your sensationalist headline makes it sound as if the talk is cancelled or banished off-campus, not just being moved to another building. Big deal. Let petty, whiny people like the Franks whine and be petty and come across as such--while others of us, and presumably you, Ali and EI--focus on larger, more significant issues. The event is likely to be packed now, given the publicity, so more people will hear Salaita than would have had the event not been moved. And when people hear him (at least those who haven't already made up their minds) they will realize he is NOT an anti-Semite and his ideas are not hate speech. The Frank family et al are the ones who come out looking bad.

picture

Respectfully, Max, I think your comment that this may be a "damned if we do, damned if we don't" situation is an example of a distinctly weak form of Witness which steps back from an important opportunity to take a moral stand.

As for what moral stand the college ought to be taking here: the first ought to be--as Ali suggests above--protecting the integrity of educational programming from the political influence of donors. Second, the attacks on professor Salaita, not least the smears from Rabbi Gutman, represent the ongoing, unjust marginalization of a relatively powerless community and its ability to speak. Guilford is rightly proud of its institutional history of standing by powerless communities and marginalized perspectives, but I am afraid that it is not doing that history proud today.

Jonathan Lawson
Guilford College '91

picture

Telling the truth about someone is a "smear campaign."

picture

When I was in shared living situation, one member said she didn't want the Russians living with us to use her table. We had a group meeting and the outcome was, "then take away your table. Either we all get to use it or we don't want it."
When a family gives a "gift", it abruptly looses that sense when "after the fact" the giver makes conditions. Right now, it sounds like the Frank family sees it as their personal memorial on campus. A true gift has no strings attached. If the Frank family has problems with what transpires on campus, rather than trying to control who can and cannot use it, they should respectfully ask that their name be removed from that building and own up to the fact that it really has not been a gift.

picture

Thanks all for the insightful comments. They have given us all at Guilford much to think about. Indeed, at least all the publicity will assure a good crowd tonight to hear Steven Salaita and give them the opportunity to make up their own minds.

picture

It's worth pointing out that on the surface of it, this story sounds like a nice wealthy family that kindly donated a lot of money to a nice school just had a little tiny issue and wanted to make sure they felt nice and happy by asking that a talk be moved, no big deal. Just a sensitivity to an issue.
But that is NOT what is going on. What happened is that there is a concerted campaign against Salaita and the BDS movement and any criticism of Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestine, so zionists conspired to figure out HOW to mess up an event like this, and they thought about it and came up with the excuse that a family had donated money that was used to build a building...
That is pathetic, and it does make the school look dumb for being so easy to control over donations that it would admit to pandering to people who managed to come up with this stupid idea to cause trouble.

picture

p.s.
I wish the Kraft family were that sensitive about where their tax dollars go...

picture

p.p.s.
I mean "Frank" family!
or all of the above will do.

picture

Concerning the Frank family and their financial contribution to Guilford College

If the contribution was one given free and clear (without any terms or conditions), once given it is up to the recipient [Guilford] to decide how it is to be used.

One of the missions of a university or college is the dissemination and free exchange of ideas and information. If the Frank's have a problem with having their family name associated with that, perhaps they may request the college rename the building to something else-- perhaps to the Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Malcolm X or Mumia Abu Jamal Building.

Even though the controversy has probably boosted attendance it does show that the Frank family gifts and intentions are less than honorable. The College should consider long and hard before it accepts another round of Frank family "largesse."

picture

Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emmanuel Greensboro posted a message on Facebook comparing Salaita to a neo-Nazi or a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“Should college campuses really provide a forum for people who advocate racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism? This is a very real issue for us this weekend in Greensboro,” Guttman wrote.

++++++

So "Rabbi" should I as a righteous, honorable and proud non zionist Jew permit you, a racist ethnic cleansing apologist for a viscous, murderous criminal regime, any forum to defile Judaism? To desecrate the Torah by using it as a Klansman uses a white sheet. To violate the spirit and teachings of this venerable religion.

You are a fake and a fraud "Rabbi". A contemptible hypocrite. A low life poseur. A individual at the same ethical and moral level as a Theodore Bilbo.

"Rabbi" it is time to take stock of your lies and prevarications. I am waiting. We are waiting.