Watch: Univ. of Illinois top officials challenged on pro-Israel donor’s role in Salaita firing

The board of trustees of the University of Illinois voted today to reject the appointment of Steven Salaita as dozens of student and faculty supporters of the professor packed the meeting room at the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Before and immediately after the vote, The Electronic Intifada questioned top university officials on video, including the president, chancellor, board chair and several trustees, about the apparent influence of pro-Israel donors on the decision to fire Salaita.

Salaita has expressed “disappointment” in the decision, stating, “I am speaking with my attorneys about my options.”

Lone dissenter

A lone trustee, James D. Montgomery, voted in favor of Salaita’s appointment.

Regarding Salaita’s tweets, Montgomery, the only university official who did not evade questions, told The Electronic Intifada that it was “pretty clear that some of those opinions were justified and probably most of the people in this room would agree with the opinions in terms of the tragedy that is going on between Israel and Gaza.”

It was Salaita’s supposedly “uncivil” tweets that had provided the pretext for Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s decision to recommend against Salaita’s appointment.

Before they cast their votes, Montgomery told fellow trustees that he had been wrong to sign a statement several weeks ago backing Wise’s decision.

He spoke movingly about his experience as an African American student at the University of Illinois in the 1950s, when protests against racial segregation in housing might have been viewed as “uncivil.”

Major pro-Israel donor

As the other videos in this post show, President Robert Easter, Chancellor Wise, Board Chair Christopher Kennedy and trustees Patrick Fitzgerald and Ricardo Estrada displayed a lack of knowledge or refused to answer questions regarding Salaita’s work and scholarship and the possible influence of major pro-Israel donors on Chancellor Wise’s decision.

Almost one hundred people packed the room as University of Illinois trustees voted on Steven Salaita’s appointment.

Ali Abunimah

When President Easter (see video at the top of this page) was asked if Salaita’s tweets were worse than Israel’s killing of more than five hundred children in Gaza, a university official ended the interview, stating that this writer was “not acting like a reporter” by “challenging” Easter.

Easter also claimed to be unaware of the widely and prominently reported fact that Wise had changed her schedule in late July to meet with a major donor in Chicago who opposed Salaita’s appointment.

As this video shows, Wise herself refused to confirm the name of the donor and refused to disclose what she discussed with him.

That donor is reported to be Steven N. Miller, a venture capitalist who is also on the board of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, almost certainly the most influential and active pro-Israel advocacy organization in Illinois.

Rallying support

Before the vote, the board heard statements during a public comment period from several speakers supporting Salaita’s appointment. These included Ahmad Hamdan, a UIUC senior and president of Students for Justice in Palestine, and Robert Warrior, chair of the American Indian Studies program, which hired Salaita. Their statements and reactions to today’s vote are included below.

Two speakers during the public comment period opposed Salaita’s appointment. They were former trustee David Downey and senior Josh Cooper. In the packed hall, The Electronic Intifada counted approximately five persons who applauded Cooper’s statement.

As this video shows, students overwhelmingly reacted with anger to the vote, walking out of the board room while chanting “shame on you” and “this is just the beginning!”

The rallies calling for Salaita’s reinstatement that preceded and followed the trustees’ meeting were attended by hundreds.

They included a large number of union organizers and supporters – particularly from AFSCME, the public employees union representing many of the university’s most essential and often lowest-paid service workers and the Graduate Employees Organization, the union for graduate student workers. The university currently refuses to bargain with the Campus Faculty Association, which represents full-time non-tenure-track faculty and there are ongoing efforts to form a union for tenure-track faculty.

Union members and Salaita supporters rally after the board of trustees’ vote.

Ali Abunimah

Among the rally speakers were graduate students Rico Kleinstein Chenyek and Eman Ghanayem, two of the seven core organizers of the UI Reinstate Salaita campaign. The two called on peers to “continue to organize responsibly as our efforts escalate to the occupation of buildings, teaching boycotts and other forms of defiance.”

Christopher Kennedy

Before the trustees’ meeting, I found Board Chair Christopher Kennedy in a hallway and asked him about the role of pro-Israel donors and what he knew of Salaita’s scholarship. Kennedy told me had had not watched Salaita’s press conference which was held on Tuesday.

Unfortunately my camera was not running, but in this video shot right after the encounter, I told Chenyek what happened:

A short time later, I again ran into Kennedy, a wealthy businessman and son of late Senator Robert F. Kennedy – this time with my video camera running. He was less than “civil” when I tried to continue our conversation and ask him what role Israel played in the Salaita affair:

Ricardo Estrada

After the board vote, I asked board member Ricardo Estrada why he voted against Salaita and to explain why Salaita’s views disqualified him from teaching at UIUC. I also asked whether he felt comfortable overruling the American Indian Studies program faculty who had hired Salaita:

Estrada, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago-area nonprofit Metropolitan Family Services, told me he would like to know why Chancellor Wise had met with a major donor about Salaita. But he could not explain why neither he nor the board had bothered to ask her.

Patrick Fitzgerald

As a feared and powerful federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald has put two Illinois governors in prison.

Yet he was unconvincing when he explained to the trustees why he would vote against Salaita. He said he would not vote to appoint anyone who indulged in “hate” speech, saying, for instance, that he would vote against someone who made “homophobic” comments. But Salaita has never been accused of homophobia.

So when I interviewed him after the meeting I asked him to explain the relevance of homophobia to this situation and to address Salaita’s views directly. He proved to be an uncooperative witness.

American Indian Studies Chair Robert Warrior

Robert Warrior gave a powerful, but unheeded appeal to the board to reinstate Salaita:

With the rally on the quad in the background, Warrior called the board’s action “unconscionable.”

Eman Ghanayem

Eman Ghanayem, a Palestinian PhD candidate in English and American Indian Studies at UIUC, reacted to the board’s vote against appointing Steven Salaita, calling it a “second occupation”:

SJP President Ahmad Hamdan

SJP President and UIUC fourth-year chemistry major Ahmad Hamdan also made a strong appeal on behalf of students:

Hamdan spoke to The Electronic Intifada after the trustees’ meeting expressing disappointment, but affirming that the struggle would go on:

Resources on Salaita case

Tags

Comments

picture

Ali -- thanks for being there today. A correction: Full-time non-tenure-track faculty have a union a UIUC (CFA local #6546). The Admin will not bargain with them.
Tenure-stream faculty are working towards a union!

picture

Ali, I admire your ability as an interviewer to stay on point and quickly respond to the evasive tactics of those you are questioning. I've been reading electronic intifada but had not until now heard or seen you in action. I am grateful for your work.

picture

Dear Prof. Salatia

I realize this is a difficult time for you and your family. I ask you NOT to forget what the board of trusties has caused your family when it comes to negotiating their way out of this mess. Be mindful that any agreement they offer you, will include an article to silence you. When that time comes, remember what your family has gone through because of their un-American behavior.

Therefore, I urge you NOT to negotiate a settlement that would allow them to weasel their way out. Insist on going to court and have each member of the board of trusties brought to the witness stand to be cross-examined. Under oath, they will expose the fact that they acted in a discriminatory fashion towards you if compared to other recent hires. Let the Court find the university guilty of discrimination in order to show that the board of trusties did not have the best interest of the university in mind; rather, that they were driven by discrimination and personal politics to deny you an equal and fair consideration like other recent hires.

Furthermore, in addition to suing the university and its board of trusties for discrimination, I urge you to sue Mr. Steve Miller for defamation. His intervention in the process of your hire caused you hardship. It seems that the faculty works for Mr. Steve Miller and not for UIUC. For that reason, there are about 5000 academics, foreign and domestic, that are boycotting this university for their board's disregard of the university's faculty decision to hire you. For myself, and colleagues of mine, we are also boycotting UIUC activities. What they did is anti-American to say the least. Since when are Americans persecuted for expressing their opinions about a 'foreign' country? I am speechless! We will continue to follow these developments thanks to the excellent reporting of the Electronic Intifada.

Kind Regards

picture

Ali, thank you for a thoroughly comprehensive coverage of UIUC's day of shame. and for bringing to the moral darkness, the light of James Montgomery's thoughtful and principled change of heart . Hope it is infectious and spreads among the board.

picture

UI IS LUCKY TO HAVE YOU ON ITS BOARD, MR. MONTGOMERY

Dear Mr. James D. Montgomery, Trustee (james@jdmlaw.com):
Cc: uibot <uibot-BOT@mx.uillinois.edu>

I am not sure if you read any of my many e-mails addressed to Chancellor Wise and then to the members of the Board in my capacity as the organizer of the petition in support of Professor Salaita, which has now garnered 18,502 signatories from all over the world. But if you have, you would know that I am a Palestinian-American citizen, like Professor Steven Salaita, currently teaching at Al-Quds University in the West Bank (the campus is just behind Israel's illegal apartheid/annexation wall, east of illegally annexed Jerusalem).

Last night, I sat eagerly by my laptop in anticipation of watching the live-stream of the events surrounding the Board meeting at UIUC. Unfortunately, I was unable to connect (perhaps because the online stream was confined to the United States). But I did watch the videos that Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada posted the following day - this morning, my time. When I listened to what you had to say, I was so moved by the unexpected forthrightness of your answers amidst the general fog of dissimulation and callous "realpolitik" blanketing that hall, I couldn't help crying.

At the end of the short interview, you were asked what you expected Salaita's next move might be. You seemed confident he would go on fighting - now through the legal system. What I’d like to tell you is that you can be sure his supporters will go on fighting as well, taking action that might hurt your beloved University by way of putting pressure on the administration. As you might know, our struggle for justice in Palestine (Salaita's fight in its most basic elements being but an extension) has run into adversity upon adversity throughout the decades, but we, like you and your people, Mr. Montgomery, are resilient and famous for our “#sumoud” - steadfastness - in the face of that adversity ..

Rima Najjar

picture

I am with you all the way Rima, thank God for courageous people like Mr Montgomery
who, unlike their weak and unprincipled colleagues, refuse to tremble in their shoes in the face of intimidation.

picture

Since I became aware of Dr. Salaita's firing, I have learned of many others who have been fired or not hired for "non-mainsteam views." I agree with those who say if academia is not the place to hash out difficult and controversial issues what place is appropriate? If a university does not think students are smart enough to hear various views and make up their own minds, then that university is accepting a very dull bunch of applicants.

picture

As Ali was following Christopher Kennedy to the room where he had breakfast, I noticed the room was called the "Colonial Room". These tired old elitists obviously don't know yet that colonialism is a filthy concept.

Also, in coverage of this university, I've noticed they call one of their courses, "American Indian Studies" instead of "Native American Studies". This is a little disturbing for a non-American like me viewing their quaint style.

Another interesting thing about Ali's camera interviews is that the board members who got way laid, looked startled, like creatures caught in a car's headlights. I think the international heat the controversy has generated has shaken them.

These trustees strike me as the epitome of United States establishment figures with few exceptions. It doesn't surprise me therefore that they feel the issue is an affront to them personally. I wonder if they feel the world as they know it is slipping away along with the taboo of criticizing Israel.

Lastly, I find it amazing that these very learned and highly educated people are unable to articulate their position for Ali or even try and convince us of their position through the interview with Ali. The exception being James D. Montgomery.

picture

Great comment, so well put.
These well-educated people cannot defend their position because they know it's indefensible.

picture

Litigate. It is time for Prof Salaita to sue the university and the trustees. He has majority support, he has righteousness, and he has the law on his side. I look forward to a court case. And I applaud the academic community for taking up his cause and boycotting the university. Students, too, need to boycott this university. This blatant bias cannot be allowed to exist in our academic communities.

picture

I agree with you and here in America lawsuits are the only way to correct things such as prejudice and make it law. This will be a reference to future cases for freedom of speech violations and racism..Thank you all

picture

Like most major university trustees these are drawn from the corporate world , or their servants in upper government echelons.

The take their cues from elite circles and have contempt for faculty and staff.

picture

I want to endorse the comments here commending Ali Abunimah for this excellent report. The material assembled in this post could well form the basis for an outstanding documentary film. I urge him to consider such a project. The Electronic Intifada has distinguished itself in coverage of this case, and a film for general release would reach many who as yet are unaware- thanks to mainstream news' ongoing silence- of the seriousness and implications of Wise and the board's actions. The fact that the board has now chosen to publicly support such a blatant process of discrimination means that the matter will surely be the subject of a high profile lawsuit. Be there with your camera, Ali, and thanks again for today's insightful and comprehensive report.

picture

You sure got it right when you responded to the U of I President's fart catcher who called you a 'bad reporter'. People in positions of authority and their flacks aren't used to being asked tough questions, and they go absolutely apoplectic when they fear their authority is being challenged. Keep up the good work!

picture

Christopher Kennedy certainly lacks any of the courage his martyred father came to display in his last months. The trustees' servility to money and the Zionist racism that determined over 120 years ago to forcibly remove the 90 plus per cent Palestinian Arab majority from Palestine to create the world's first and only colonial ethnocracy and has pursued that objective relentlessly for over a century, with increasing murderous brutality, even after the bloodiest display of that racism in Gaza this summer, illustrate how irresponsible and, in their own bigotry, unworthy those given responsibility to oversee supposed citadels of open pursuit of truth and justice can be. Although it may have no import in coming weeks of legal and public contention, they will be remembered, all of them, when they are gone, only for their role in this atrocity, a stain on their familys' escutcheona.

picture

Thank you SO much, Ali, for posting your wonderful interviews on what Mr. Easter referred to as the Electronic "Infatada."
I particularly enjoyed Mr. Kennedy's imitation of a petulant two-year-old throwing a tantrum.

picture

I was completely in the dark about this story, thanks for being there and reporting it. By challenging the status quo we change the world we live in and help spread peace. The struggle for peace is a long one and must go on.

picture

Thanks much Ali
You really made them look like buffoons!

Intelligent people don't create just civilizations, but those who seek the truth do.

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.