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.
“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.
“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.