The Salaita case and Cary Nelson’s use of “academic freedom” to silence dissent

Books and papers lie amid rubble at the Islamic University of Gaza on 2 August, after it was hit by an overnight Israeli air raid.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Cary Nelson, retired University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) English professor and past president of the American Association of University Professors, has been busy.

From the moment that the story broke of Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s underhanded nixing of Steven Salaita’s de facto hiring in my department, Nelson has rushed forward as the administration’s biggest cheerleader and defender against condemnations, protests and what amounts to a growing boycott of UIUC from scholars and academic associations.

In the interest of disclosure, I co-chaired the search committee that recommended Salaita’s hiring.

In live media and in an 8 August essay for Inside Higher Ed, Nelson has argued that Salaita’s case is not about academic freedom after all, but about bad scholarship and poor qualifications. This, I should stress, by an individual who is not himself credentialed in comparative indigenous studies, the area in which Salaita was hired.

But the unqualified Nelson is not merely overreaching, as we might say of certain external letter writers on a candidate’s dossier, but is stretching to the point of perverting and undermining the very meaning of academic freedom. Sloppy and contorted to the point of nonsense, Nelson’s thinking would also be comical were it not predicated on racist, calloused and morally reprehensible views toward Palestinians and toward other indigenous peoples and the political and analytic claims on which they stake their existence and survival.

Certainly when it comes to the issue of criticism of Israel, Nelson cannot be trusted to furnish neutral, dispassionate analyses. If anything, his pretense to objectivity, especially through a forced argument about the “exceptionality” of Salaita’s case, to which I will return shortly, barely conceals his political motives or his zeal to take center stage in this huge story.

A weapon to silence dissent

Ultimately, Nelson’s involvement in this case shows more than an assault on Salaita; when it comes to Palestine and Israel, he is selective and hypocritical in his views about academic freedom, transforming it instead into a weapon to silence dissent.

While Nelson may have refined it, this is a tactic that has been widely deployed before. We have seen it, for instance, from university presidents who rushed to issue condemnations of calls to boycott Israeli academic institutions while remaining silent about the systematic violations by the Israeli occupation of the academic and other freedoms of Palestinians.

Hence, I say, let’s do what we academics are supposed to do with letter writers who either have an axe to grind, or who lack standing on the subject matter, or who are less than forthright and honest in their evaluations; in short, I say we disqualify — set aside, to be more civil — Cary Nelson’s assessments of this case.

I did not know Steven Salaita personally (nor do I know Cary Nelson beyond familiarity with his scholarship of the late 1980s and his more recent record of activism against the call to boycott Israeli universities). I had heard Salaita present at academic conferences, and had read a handful of his academic articles prior to the search process. I also followed him on social media. Like many scholars inside and outside our respective areas of expertise — his in comparative American Indian and Palestinian indigeneity, mine in the Pacific Islands — Salaita and I share a somewhat unpopular analysis of Israel as a modern occupying settler and military state, seeing it in large part as an expression of Zionist ideology that does not represent all Jewish people outside or inside Israel.

I should stress that such a view is also widespread in critical studies outside Native Studies proper. In our case, this shared critical analytic owes to our overlapping research interests in topics like linkages between colonial and religious discourses, and US colonial discourse on indigeneity in particular.

Hiring process duly followed

Upon reading Salaita’s dossier, we (the search committee, and the American Indian Studies Program) were convinced that his research interests not only complemented but also strengthened our unit’s profile in the area of comparative global indigenous studies and in a growing movement that treats indigeneity as an analytic category itself. Indeed, we were convinced and excited that his hiring would strengthen any claim we might have to program leadership in these two areas.

On Salaita’s “extramural utterances” — those tweets, blogs and other public opinion statements that are explicitly protected by specific conventions of academic freedom — the committee was fully aware of their controversial nature and regarded them appropriately: not as part of his record of academic productivity but in relation to questions of collegiality and teaching.

On this point I should add that we sought guidance and approval from our college. But my principal purpose here is not to defend Salaita’s scholarship and academic credentials, or his fitness as a colleague, or the excellence of his teaching record, or to justify our decision. That process was duly followed and completed. It was approved and “confirmed,” meaning all it lacked was the “technicality” of the UIUC Board of Trustees rubber-stamping that the chancellor preempted with her decision.

Sloppy and self-serving

Instead, my aim is on the tenuousness, suspiciousness and tellingness of Nelson’s argument and assertions. Here’s how I see them:

Axes to Grind. Nelson had a history and reputation for defending the rights of faculty that have been violated, but it is not consistent. This sketchy record is especially evident when the issue at hand concerns Israel, particularly in the context of the global call to divest, boycott and sanction Israeli universities and other institutions.

Where he once defended the underdog, Nelson now defends the corporate entity. Even if one doesn’t endorse academic boycotts, one can readily see how Nelson’s vociferous opposition in the name of academic freedom cannot so easily be detached from his apparent defense of Israel.

Of course, Nelson is entitled to his own political views; the trouble is that his argument is both predicated on and motivated by protecting them in a thinly veiled attempt to objectively evaluate the case before us. In fact, his is a twisting and contorting logic of invoking academic freedom and academic excellence to exercise censorship and legitimize punishment of dissent and difference.

Sloppy, Self-Serving and Disingenuous Thinking. In summary, Nelson’s argument goes like this: the University of Illinois is correct in its actions because at the end of the day, Salaita’s case is about scholarship and qualifications, not about academic freedom. More specifically, Nelson asserts that Salaita’s tweets and blogs — the “extramural utterances” — are not only repulsive and hateful in tone, but cross over to incite violence, thereby justifying the university’s action.

Moreover, Nelson argues that Salaita’s is an “exceptional” case in this regard: when read alongside his academic record, the tweets help demonstrate that Salaita’s scholarship doesn’t rise and actually casts doubt on his qualification for the job. This is why he is calling to include the tweets as part of the academic record.

But really, just what is it that impels Nelson to declare that this case is exceptional, an anomaly? What is it, other than a rhetorical move to posture total command over the topic, or underscore the exclusivity of his interpretation over and against those of his opponents or detractors? The force, clearly, is criticism of Israel. To put it another way, the threshold of his logic on academic freedom is Palestinian and Palestinian-supported criticism of Israel, which for him, as for Zionism, equates to anti-Semitism.

This faux neutrality betrays itself in some sloppy and nonsensical thinking that is no less insidious. For example, and again, as if to be faithful to the principle of academic freedom, Nelson insists that, while this is not a case of academic freedom, he would without reservation defend Salaita’s academic freedom had he in fact been hired.

For Nelson, Salaita is not deserving of such protection because he was not yet hired, technically speaking. Technically speaking? We know how lawyers and politicians spin technicalities to their favor. We know that it is “technicality” that permits the chancellor to operate so secretively and why she did not furnish specific reasons for her action. We know that the case will turn on technicality — Cornell University law professor Michael Dorf has argued that the university’s termination of Salaita is in all likelihood illegal under state and federal law.

Nelson himself may end up a paid consultant, if he hasn’t already been advising the university on how to build an academic case against Salaita. We need to stay tuned on this count, because in fact Nelson is on record as saying he has not been in conversation with the administration.

At the level of process, then, Nelson hides disingenuously behind hiring technicalities to skirt the real spirit and intent of measures to safeguard academic freedom. The upshot of this logic is the nonsensical idea that academic freedom can only obtain through its violation, in this case, after Salaita is rubber-stamped.

Only then would Nelson defend Salaita, but defend him from what? From Chancellor Wise’s refusal to send Salaita’s case up for board approval? But academics aren’t supposed to spin technicalities; we are supposed to be precise and honest, not willfully circular in our thinking, or do logical acrobatics with technicalities when it suits us.

We are in fact held to higher, more rigorous standards. Salaita’s case was duly vetted; for all intents and purposes, meaning, with regard to the scholarship on hand, it was done. Period. In clear disregard for the process, Nelson seizes on the university’s gross violations to insert himself into the fray, call attention to his own idiosyncratic viewpoints for his own purposes and politics, to legitimize taking pot-shots at Salaita and at our vetting process.

For instance, Nelson opines that American Indian Studies was not sufficiently “equipped” to assess the lines around scholarship and politics, and has since gone on to question the process itself.

In fact, the evidence of Nelson’s disingenuous, self-serving antics are present from the get go, when the story first broke, that concerns timing and deception rather than truth. In a remarkable instance of sloppy and careless thinking that also raises the question of academic fit and scholarly sensibility (if judging scholarly fitness is the game he wants to play), Nelson rushed to the defense, the “correctness,” of the administration’s actions when the administration had not even, and still has not, furnished its reasons for why it did what it did.

How can someone defend another’s actions as correct in the absence of the reasons for that action? Ulterior motives pop up again. An opportunity presented itself for Nelson to take center stage and to legitimize his own agenda. Salaita clearly has his politics, but he’s not mobilizing it to police academia. Nelson has his politics, and uses academia to lock out the likes of Salaita.

Let’s play ball

If in fact Nelson is serious about protecting academic excellence and the processes and conventions that safeguard them, then let’s play ball: Nelson has no qualifications in this case; he has no research or teaching or published record in comparative native studies, of indigenous cultural and historical studies. I know of no colleague or scholar in my field who cites his work for how it helps us better understand the complex and fraught histories, struggles, perspectives, expressions of indigenousness as a category of existence and category for analyses, or as a category for analyzing the fraught line between power, politics and academic inquiry.

Nelson is not credentialed to be evaluating Salaita’s qualifications. Ultimately, Nelson’s zeal to delegitimize Salaita, and in the process salvage his own radical reputation or one-up his contenders or detractors, ends up itself doing the work of disqualifying Cary Nelson altogether.

Besides not being trained in American Indian Studies or comparative Native studies, and therefore not qualified to evaluate Salaita’s scholarship, Nelson’s own insistence that the case is not about academic freedom but about Salaita’s scholarly credentials unwittingly removes him from commenting on matters he would typically be qualified to discuss and evaluate, and plops him squarely into a domain over which he has no proven standing.

At the end of the day, it is not surprising that Nelson chooses to aid and abet the administration, joining it in a very dangerous disregard for academic freedom and integrity and continued erosion of academic governance. In fact, academia guards against such gross and brazen violations and there’s nothing exceptional or special about the Salaita case, at least not in the sense that Nelson argues.

What we have in Nelson’s sloppy, contorted, disingenuous and self-serving argument are plenty of red flags, too many, in fact, for us to not do the appropriate thing, which would be to set aside, once and for all, anything Cary Nelson has to say on this, or any other case involving academic freedom and faculty governance.

Vicente M. Diaz is Associate Professor of American Indian Studies and Anthropology, Affiliate Faculty, History and Asian American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.




The Third Reich shut down dissent quite effectively. Silencing dissent is a marker of fascism. The world saw the nazis do it quite well when they began firing jewish professors - and all jews in any jobs in Germany. We cannot allow America to see dissent punished in our country. Free speech and the freedom of dissent are inherent in our Bill of Rights. There is nothing more precious to American life than the right to dissent and the freedom of speech.