Univ. of Illinois faces growing boycott over firing of Palestinian American professor

Steven Salaita

Update, 14 August

The number of scholars who have signed pledges not to visit the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or engage with it in other ways, until Steven Salaita is reinstated, has reached 1,500 and is still fast. There are statements from professors in disciplines including English, political science, sociology, women’s studies, history and philosophy. Corey Robin has the latest numbers.

Original Post

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is facing a growing boycott by educators outraged at its abrupt firing of Steven Salaita, apparently because of his criticisms of Israel.

While none of the educators are themselves using the word “boycott,” it can be said that this is what their action amounts to.

Some say they will not visit the campus for lectures and conferences while others go as far as saying that they will not take part in the university’s tenure review process or accept positions as visiting faculty.

Last week it was revealed that UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise had abruptly terminated Salaita weeks before he was due to start teaching in a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program.

Neither the university nor Salaita has commented publicly.

Salaita has been a target for anti-Palestinian organizers and websites because of his high-profile advocacy for boycott of Israeli academic institutions complicit in crimes against Palestinians.

Wise’s move has drawn broad and forceful condemnation from major academics, from the American Association of University Professors and from Salaita’s own UIUC colleagues.

They have all called on the university to reverse a decision seen as violating basic and long-established principles of academic freedom and free speech.

Going further

But now dozens of academics are going further, saying they will refrain from visiting UIUC or participating in other activities with it until Salaita is reinstated.

Elaine Freedgood, a professor of English at New York University, initiated a letter to Wise, published on the blog of Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin. The letter begins:

We are members of English Departments from around the world who write, regretfully, to inform you that we will not engage with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign as speakers, as participants in conferences or other events, or as reviewers for the tenure and promotion of your faculty until you rescind the decision to block Professor Steven Salaita’s appointment to the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

So far, according to Robin, about fifty educators have signed on.

A second statement takes a more limited stance, committing signatories only to refrain from visiting the UIUC campus:

We the undersigned will not visit the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus until Professor Salaita is reinstated to the position offered him by the faculty and which he had accepted in good faith.

This statement is being circulated among political science professors by the University of Oregon’s Joseph Lowndes and among philosophy faculty by John Protevi, Chair of the Department of French Studies at Louisiana State University.

Thirty philosophy professors from major institutions in North America and Europe have already signed on to the statement that is posted on Protevi’s blog.

A third letter, signed by more than two dozen “American academics who have traveled to Palestine,” warns that Salaita’s firing “due to his speech acts, in particular for those uttered outside his professional capacity, portends a very bleak future for academic freedom.” The letter adds:

We are alarmed by this turning back of the clock and now must, each and every one of us, reevaluate any commitments we have to participate in any scholarly endeavors associated with the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. Many of us have longstanding relationships with UIUC, its research centers, academic programs, faculty and students, but we will not accept invitations to lecture, accept visiting positions, or engage in other such activities that contribute to the institution’s business-as-usual until Dr. Salaita’s position is reinstated. We will encourage others to do the same.

“Egregiously bad decision”

Protevi, who noted that he is acting in his individual capacity, told The Electronic Intifada that “there has been no public utterance from UIUC despite thousands of emails, so this step is necessary to increase the pressure in order to reverse the egregiously bad decision” to fire Salaita.

“Our actions are motivated by a defense of academic freedom,” Protevi added. “The petty legalisms used to distinguish ‘firing’ Salaita versus ‘not hiring’ him ring false.”

(In this legal analysis, Michael C. Dorf, Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School, explains why the University of Illinois’ decision to revoke Salaita’s position is almost certainly illegal under Illinoi and federal law).

While Salaita was hired to a tenured position, Protevi said that tenured faculty make up only about a quarter of the professors in US universities.

But, he argued, the protections from politically motivated firing which tenured faculty are supposed to enjoy should be available to all.

“Academic freedom should be extended to all members of the academy regardless of contractual status,” he said. “I don’t think anyone should be fired just for speaking on political issues.”

Systemic effects

Protevi noted that the firing of Salaita was likely to have broad systemic effects: tenured faculty could become more reluctant to change jobs. For those who do, the process could take much longer as faculty would be unwilling to resign their previous posts until their new appointments had gone through all final approvals.

“If Salaita’s firing stands, there would be a precedent that would make it genuinely risky to accept a job on a basis that would require one to resign one’s current position before the trustees of the hiring institution had approved one’s new appointment,” one academic blog has noted.

Gathering pace

Brooklyn College’s Corey Robin had proposed in an 8 August post that statements by educators saying they would refrain from visiting UIUC would be “a powerful next step in the campaign to reinstate Steven Salaita.”

His suggestion appears to be catching on quickly.

Several individuals had already publicly committed themselves to such action just as the broader campaign began to gather pace.

In a 7 August posting on his Facebook page, 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.

University of California at Los Angeles Distinguished Professor of History Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, wrote to Wise lamenting a decision to fire Salaita that he believes was the result of pressure from pro-Israel organizations.

“If we are unable to persuade you of the moral, ethical, intellectual and legal reasons why you should reverse course,” Kelley tells Wise, “I cannot in good conscience step foot on your campus so long as you hold the position as Chancellor. And I will encourage my colleagues to do the same.”

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Comments

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This shows even American Universities are not independent and are biased. Universities suppose to be a place for everyone equally and must be a place to spread justice, equality and human rights not vise versa.

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I may be wrong but it would be worth checking. I think there was professor in one of the "hard" sciences who made many statements denying the holocaust ever happened. In the spirit of "Freedom of Speech" he was NOT fired.

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The decision by Chancellor Wise reminds me of totalitarian states where appointments have to be approved politically at the highest level. I am concerned that the US is descending into that direction. With NSA surveillance, McCarthyism pales in comparison!!
Chancellor's wise decision is anything but academic! a sad commentary on the state of our academic institutions indeed.

Omar Ramahi

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"To learn who rules over you simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize" Voltaire.

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.