Univ. of Illinois admits pre-emptive firing of Israel critic Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita

Finally breaking its silence, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign today claimed that the firing of Steven Salaita was “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.”

Rather, it was, in effect, a pre-empetive firing based on the assumption that his tweets would make him a bad teacher.

This transparent use of “civility” as a cover to fire a professor with outspoken views on Israel is almost identical to the pretext that was given by DePaul University in 2007 to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein.

In that case, DePaul denied Finkelstein tenure on the vague grounds that he lacked “collegiality.”

In a lengthy mass email to the university community today (full text below), UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise makes the following statements that amount to pre-emptive accusations against Salaita without providing any specifics about what he was accused of and no due process to defend himself:

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.

As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner.

A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.

When Finkelstein was denied tenure, the Illinois branch of the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) wrote that “collegiality” was a vague, baseless and impermissible criterion in making such decisions.

Already in Salaita’s case, the national AAUP stated that it “has long objected to using criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty evaluation because we view this as a threat to academic freedom. It stands to reason that this objection should extend as well to decisions about hiring, especially about hiring to a tenured position.”

At the blog Academe, a publication of AAUP, John K. Wilson points out the absurdity of Wise’s claim that not just people but “viewpoints” must not be “demeaned”:

Of course, this standard is ridiculous: individuals should be free to say personal and “disrespectful” things about others (for example, everyone should be free to say that Wise’s argument here is both stupid and evil, without facing punishment from the respect police). Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being “disrespectful” is not an academic crime. But it’s notable that Salaita really didn’t say anything personal about anyone. So here Wise greatly expands the concept, declaring that not only persons but “viewpoints themselves” must be protected from any disrespectful words. I am puzzled as to exactly how a free university could possibly operate when no one is allowed to be disrespectful toward any viewpoint. Presumably, Wise will quickly act to fire anyone who has ever disrespected or demeaned Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since all “viewpoints” are protected, then biology professors must be fired for disrespecting creationism as false, along with any other professor who is found to believe or know anything.

The decision to fire Salaita has prompted a growing boycott of UIUC, with more than 2,400 scholars from around the country pledging not to engage with the university.

In a concrete manifestion of this, the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has announced that it is canceling an upcoming conference.

Mass email from Phyllis Wise

[Note: a copy is also posted on Wise’s official blog]

22 August 2014

Dear Colleagues:

As you may be aware, Vice President Christophe Pierre and I wrote to Prof. Steven Salaita on Aug. 1, informing him of the university’s decision not to recommend further action by the Board of Trustees concerning his potential appointment to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.   Since this decision, many of you have expressed your concern about its potential impact on academic freedom. I want to assure you in the strongest possible terms that all of us – my administration, the university administration and I – absolutely are committed to this bedrock principle. I began my career as a scientist challenging accepted ideas and pre-conceived notions, and I have continued during my career to invite and encourage such debates in all aspects of university life.

A pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas. One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives. Robust – and even intense and provocative – debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university.

As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.

The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel. Our university is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy. Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate. 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.

As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner. A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.

As a member of the faculty, I firmly believe that a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois is a tremendous honor and a unique privilege. Tenure also brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.

I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.

Sincerely,

Phyllis M. Wise Chancellor

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Wise's position is that it's inappropriate for faculty to "demean or abuse" VIEWPOINTS, on pain of firing?!

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"A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner." The Chancellor doesn't believe that Salaita can debate philosophical disagreements in a "civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner," but his teaching record suggests otherwise. The most uncivil act in all of this is the Chancellor's rhetoric of civility, grinding the political ax of those who believe they are entitled to freedom of speech, academic freedom, academic jobs while others are less so.

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I fail to see how Prof. Salaita was disrespectful or threatning in his tweet, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, is that the university failed to show real cause for the firing of Salaita because they did not have grounds for the firing.Therefore as a well respected university I would ask you to reinstate Salaita to his post otherwise it is discrimination case. Many students and academics will boycott the school because it is the right thing to do. Prof. Salaita has a right to his views as any other academic or human being and should not be curtailed because of the University's fear of the Jewish lobby.

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I for one, am happy to learn from people who disagree with me and personally dislike me and groups I associate with. My principal concern is with logic and evidence.

But in the case of the Gaza conflict, am I required to 'respect' the ongoing slaughter of innocent civilians, rather than offend the 'humanity' of students who support Israel's open and continuing terrorism?.

Would I also have to respect students who support Hamas terrorism at the same time?

In such a condition, what could be said about the conflict at all?

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This process and the Chancellor of the University of Illinois contrived justification is extraordinarily sinister. The United States is the very engine of democracy and the fact that freedom of speech can be stifled in this way is contrary to the United States First Amendment and contrary to the trust we place in the USA as "Leader of the Free World". It must be said that in the most probable motivation is a caving in to lobbyists of a particular grouping. I pack that in my bag of most probable motives! Seen from the UK, the 350 million Americans are led by the nose by 7 million Israelis to the detriment of the democratic ideal.

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Agreed!
From Ireland...
How utterly shameful an act this is against Mr Salaita!

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Anti-Palestinian bigotry and anti-free speech bigotry draped in chancellerian language. The author either believes her own words, in which case, she's clueless, or doesn't, in which case she's simply a lying politician looking for votes.

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Chancellor Wise's statement is a classic piece of bureaucratic manipulation. First, she says what Salaita's firing was NOT about: it had nothing to do with Palestine and Israel. (This, of course, is a lie.)
Then she presents some generalized comments about civility, that classic bludgeon-in-velvet weapon of the academic administrator.
At NO point does she say anything at all about Professor Salaita's disqualifications. She provides NO explanation for breaking his contract.
This is contemptible and malodorous bureaucratese. The boycott should of UIUC must continue until it's Chancellor Wise, not Professor Salaita, who is looking for work.

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Prof. Salaita's civil lawsuit against the university and Wise will be revealing. Wise will have some explaining to do beyond platitudes. The university cannot come out of this in good shape and the taxpayers will be on the hook for considerable damages.

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What "personal and disrespectful words?" You're supposed to be an "academic". You're supposed to present facts. Where are your "facts"?
We've had nazi and fascist boots take over our universities (here in Europe). We know how it sounds, feels and smells. Read up on it. Don't let it happen to you in the US.

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Let us not conflate Judaism with Zionism. The apartheid, genocide and occupation happening in Gaza is political and has nothing to do with religion. People have a right, in fact, a duty to stand up against oppression. It is the hallmark of academic freedom to be able to question or disagree with common political views of the day. There are always at least two sides to any conflict, in spite of what the media spins. If the academy becomes yet another parrot of popular mainstream media without the ability to stand up against bullies, it can be certain that its demise and usefulness is not too far in coming.

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Temple University did not renew the contract of an awesome African American studies professor, with no complaints and a spotless record, due to his beliefs. He also supported S.J.P. I think academic freedom, and progressive thought on most U.S. campuses has come to an end.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.