Univ. of Illinois trustee criticizes decision to fire Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita

A trustee of the University of Illinois has added to public criticism over the decision to fire Palestinian American professor and Israel critic Steven Salaita.

“I think it would have been far better had it been dealt with differently and had it been done with more consultation with faculty,” James D. Montgomery told The Electronic Intifada today.

He also acknowledged the “adverse” impact that a growing boycott was having on the university’s ability to function.

Montgomery, a prominent Chicago attorney, echoed the regrets expressed by Chancellor Phyllis Wise over her own role in the affair.

Montgomery was careful, however, to say that he was undecided about the merits of the case, but he sounded far less certain and more circumspect than a public statement he signed last month along with other trustees forcefully backing Wise’s decision.

Chancellor’s regrets

Earlier this week, Wise, who heads the Univerity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where Salaita was due to start teaching last month, told students “I, in hindsight, wish I had been a little bit more deliberate and had consulted with more people before I made that decision.”

Wise also backed away from the decision, stating she was simply doing the bidding of the board.

“The judgment I made in writing him was to convey the sentiment of the Board of Trustees, it was not mine,” Wise was quoted as saying by Illinois Public Media. “And I did it because I thought I was doing something humane for him.”

In early August, Wise abruptly terminated Salaita weeks before he was due to start teaching in a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program, setting off a national and international firestorm and condemnations from individual academics and academic associations around the world.

The faculty in six of UIUC’s departments have cast votes of no confidence in the chancellor, the university president and the board of trustees.

Wise’s decision followed a massive letter-writing campaign by pro-Israel students, alumni and donors claiming that Salaita’s tweets criticizing Zionism and Israel’s massacre in Gaza constituted “anti-Semitism.”

Wise herself reorganized her schedule to meet with one particularly generous pro-Israel donor who objected to Salaita’s hiring, just days before Wise took her decision.

“Adverse impact”

Montgomery laid out some of the issues that the board would be faced with at its upcoming 11 September meeting.

“Obviously there’s a lot of uproar on both sides of the issue from the perspective of students and alums who are offended by the manner in which Salaita spoke,” Montgomery said.

“And there are folks who are claiming that is a violation of the right to academic freedom. It’s a difficult decision in terms of what is right and what is wrong,” he continued.

“I know we’re going into executive session and obviously there are people who are seeking to pressure the university to reverse its decision. It’s coming from very significant places. It’s had an adverse impact because people are declining to participate in university activities and there have been a number of events canceled.”

Montgomery was apparently referring to the growing boycott which more than three thousand scholars have endorsed.

Several conferences have been canceled and some two dozen academics have canceled planned appearances at the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Anybody’s guess

Asked how he thought the issue of Palestine and Israel played into the controversy, Montgomery stated: “Well I think that it’s a highly controversial situation going on between Israel and Gaza and clearly there are strong opinions against the actions that are being taken by Israel and certainly in my opinion some of them are justified.”

“On the other hand this situation has created issues that go beyond the merits of the controversy between Gaza and Israel and the issue has become very esoteric about academic freedom and freedom of speech and whether as a public institution one can act based on not what someone said but how it is said.”

In a 22 August statement justifying Salaita’s removal, Wise had claimed that her decision “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.”

Rather she claimed it was because he’d expressed them in an manner that lacked “civility.” Civil and academic rights organizations have long rejected the use of vague “civility” standards as cover for what amounts to censorship.

Wise’s controversial position was endorsed at the time by the trustees’ statement that Montgomery signed and by board of trustees chair Christopher Kennedy in a Chicago Tribune interview.

“How it will turn out is anybody’s guess and I would not hazard one at this point,” Montgomery now says, adding he personally has not made up his mind about the issues the board would have to decide.

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The University through greed and or fear has knuckled under to the pro-Israeli lobby and allowed politics to be injected into the hiring and firing of Professors. The decision to reject Professor Salaita after he was hired is contemptable. It is Chancellor Wise who should be fired for her extreme poor judgement. Then Professor Salaita's job offer should be reinstated with a full apology.

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If this professor has through social networking/in public shown racism acts/used words indicating racism towards others and which as a result has impacted on the universities reputation then I believe that this institution is in the right to fire/dismiss him.

If not then an investigation needs to take place and the decsion reviewed and overturned.

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but it can be readily cut down to size. Steven Salaita has not shown racism- neither in his tweets, nor through any other medium. Observing that people who support the mass slaughter of Palestinians exhibit low character is not a racist statement. It's doubly absurd that Professor Salaita is excoriated by some as a racist, when those very opponents lend their moral, political and financial support to a regime acknowledged throughout the world as the epitome of a brutal racist state, one with racial favouritism written into the very legal code.

The university's reputation has not been sullied by Steven Salaita, but by the Chancellor and the board of trustees, who ought to consider their position.

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I agree entirely Tom. When we see the amount of harrassment, threats, bad feeling and downright slander by the pro Israel groups and individuals aimed at anyone who expresses any criticism of Israel and its policies it's obvious that what is driving these hysterical actions is that we are telling the truth and they can't cope with it.

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Although there was much less publicity, in 2007, in the aftermath of Israel's 2006 slaughter of over 1000 Lebanese civilians and bombardment that left an estimated 3 million cluster bomblets in Lebanon's countryside, Israel supporters in Ann Arbor went after me in much the same way as they have after Professor Salaita. I had participated in numerous protests of those Israeli (US backed) war crimes and then in November 2006 protested a University of Michigan event sponsored by the American Movement for Israel, where Raymond Tanter called for regime change in Iran. The University arrested 3 protesters that night, with one being nearly asphyxiated by their officers before my intervention as a doctor. Several weeks later, the University brought charges against me and a UM Professor who spoke out against the police brutality and suppression of free speech that night. Local zionists lobbied Washtenaw County prosecutor Bryan Mackie in support of the prosecution, and also my workplace to get rid of me. The directors of Packard Community Clinic, where I worked as a physician taking care of mostly disadvantaged people in the county, called me in and told me that some of their donors threatened to withhold donations because of my "political activities". The directors told me they wanted to "transition [me] to other employment", then went on to draw up a new contract requiring me to refrain from activities, including away from work, that my boss, Dr. Ray Rion, might consider to reflect poorly on the clinic or on me. I demanded more specific guidelines and they terminated me, despite the ACLU intervening on my behalf. Like Salaita, I lost my job, but also I went through a criminal prosecution. Even though the jury acquitted me, these acts propelled by defenders of Israel, caused lasting harm on me in many ways. They have not stopped me, however, from taking a stand against both Israeli and US war crimes. Solidarity, Steven!

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Dr Wilkes your experiences are far to common. What was done to you was outrageous. Your courage is admirable. We must all stand up to the intimidation.

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Agreed. The very least we can do to honor Dr. Wilkes and Dr. Salaita is to not be silenced and to call on those with decision-making power to realize that with social media we can expose those bullying, threatening to withdraw donations, etc. and then stand up for what is just in the face of that intimidation.

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For those who wish to explore and pass along her experience, Catherine's correct name is DR. CATHERINE WILKERSON.

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I'm sure it was not lost on you that your experience unfortunately and ironically reflects the Third Reich's treatment of Jews in the '30s, a set of policies that apparently have been adapted to the zionists' playbook of attempting to marginalize and punish anyone who objects to their destructive practices. I applaud you for your courageous stand though I know that is faint in light of what you have endured. It is important for the long term best interests of the United States that we defeat this barbarism of religious and political apartheid. Thank you for your efforts. The rest of us need now to do our parts to put an end to this persecution.

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Catherine, I'd like to express my admiration for your courage and integrity and all your unselfish actions. It certainly takes a great deal of courage to stand up to the powerful forces pushing the Israeli agenda, defending the indefensible.
Long live the day when the world's bullies are held to account by the ICC for their war crimes and I believe that day is coming.

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Dr. Wise, the chancellor at UIUC, had the signed contract on her desk in October of last year and could have finalized it by January of this year. But, instead, sat on it until after Dr. Salaita resigned his position at Virginia Tech this summer and committed his life to the U of Illinois. It's as if she had desired to deliver a double whammy to him personally and professionally. Her current claims are disingenuous at the very least! Can one believe anything that woman says?!

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It should come as no surprise that Phyllis Wise continues to prevaricate in an effort to dodge responsibility for firing Professor Salaita. But that she now maintains that her disgraceful misconduct amounted to "humane" treatment of Salaita, and that she was in fact doing him a favor in dumping him before he could bring his family to UIUC, takes these disavowals into the realm of the preposterous. What chutzpah. She and the board of trustees have shown their unfitness for the positions they hold, and should resign or be turfed out. That she still doesn't understand that the only path left is to admit guilt demonstrates a Nixonian level of obtuseness and arrogance.

And let's not forget the multiple corporate board posts she holds, bringing her annual salary to at least a million dollars. Taking $300,000 from Nike, a company that just happens to have a contract with the university's sports department, constitutes a flagrant conflict of interest. So does her board position with a large holding company whose financial activities intersect with those of the university.

She chides Salaita for an uncollegial attitude, when she herself engages in behavior altogether too collegial, too civil, and too chummy when it comes to the wealthy conservatives propelling her career. Of course, her value to these private sector patrons is contingent on hanging on to her administrative job at the university. She'll be of no use to Nike, or Busey, once she's out of office. Somehow, I don't think this chancellor relishes the idea of retiring on her UIUC pension. She'll hang on until the end of this shabby affair.

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"Adverse impact" is good. It is very good, indeed, for the university to feel the consequences of their rash action in firing Salaita for political reasons not reflective of his academic performance. This is America. We cannot tolerate politically based religious interference in our institutions of higher learning. I am glad to see the "adverse impact" that is happening there. We should cause and support many incidents of "adverse impact" whenever we see this kind of intolerance and interference.

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Dr. Wilkerson,

What happened to you was horrendous, and shines a light on the tactics and lengths the Israel Lobby will go to shut down dissent.

Your determination and resilience are an inspiration. Thank you for being a courageous defender of our rights and the soul of our nation!

Best wishes

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I attended several Conventions (in the 1970's and 1980's) every four years at Urbana-Champlain for persons interested in Missionary work. These conventions were hosted by the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, Jews for Jesus, Billy Graham Ministries, Oral Roberts University and other various Evangelical and/or Conservative Christian Groups. They were supporting a Christian missionary program called the "10/40 Window" which represented the Middle East and especially Palestine. There were usually over 1,000 college and grad school students attending each of these events.+
It is no surprise to me that the Islamaphobia created in the context of these conventions still has repercussions today. Fortunately I was able to meet some wonderful Muslims and realized how I was being brainwashed by the misinformation I received through inaccurate translation of the Bible and anthropology. Unfortunately many of the colleges, seminaries and other Conservative and/or Evangelical groups have a lot more processing to do before realizing the errors and damage of their ways.

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Interesting that she says he was fired because a few jewish students said is comments were ant-semetic. The label gets tossed around like a football at a homecoming game. Hateful speech is one thing but disagreeing with someones politics isnt hate speech...its freedom of speech. Sad to see a kneejerk response to a few peoples paranoid kneejerk responses especially in academia.
Highly recommend Israeli director Yoav Shamir's documentary, Defamation, on yyoutube...piece about anti-semetism

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.