USACBI Condemns UIUC Firing of Arab-American Scholar Steven Salaita

salaitaThe Organizing Collective of the  US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel protests in the strongest possible terms the termination of the appointment of Professor Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).  According to the report inInside Higher Education, UIUC  has rescinded its employment contract with Salaita based on his public stance on Israel-Palestine.  Having publicly announced the appointment of Salaita as Associate Professor (with tenure) of American Indian Studies after the customary full review, the university has withdrawn his appointment. In other words, Salaita has been fired. This negative action constitutes a blatant violation of Salaita”s academic freedom and an insidious assault upon him and on those who uphold the right to honest and ethical critique in the academy.  We are gravely concerned about this attack on a  leading scholar in Arab American studies and ethnic, indigenous, and American studies, whose brilliantly pathbreaking and highly prolific scholarship has put him at the forefront of these fields.

USACBI strenuously protests the targeting of Professor Salaita for his political viewpoints which should be protected under the First Amendment, , and demands that he be reinstated and allowed to continue with his academic pursuits and his teaching duties and that the university protect his rights to engage in political discourse on and off campus.

The university”s politically-motivated firing of Salaita, who is an Arab American of Palestinian background, over his expression of his political opinions in social media, is apparently an act of submission to  pressure from those who object to the language with which he chooses to express those opinions. In responding to the massacre of children, Salaita chooses precise descriptions and righteous outrage rather than dispassion or euphemism.  The extra burden placed on those voicing opposition to forms of violence or oppression for which there is popular as well state support–that is, one must be “civil” in one”s tone, especially if one is a scholar of color (or, for that matter, a woman)–is completely alien to any idea of academic freedom. In fact, if subject to such political adjudication, academic freedom becomes an arbitrary, racially motivated invention that can serve to build a case against a scholar who happens to be critical of Israel. In this case, Salaita is also a well-known proponent of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, who was actively involved with the American Studies Association boycott resolution about which he has written extensively, a point that is very likely not irrelevant to this case.

There is strong evidence that UIUC is responding to public pressure from pro-Israel groups.  The decision to fire Salaita came after publication of attacks on him equating his support for Palestinians with antisemitism, a long-time strategy of silencing and one currently being used to discredit those marching to protest the more than 1,800 Palestinians killed so far by the Israeli military in Gaza. For example:

The Daily Caller on July 21 published this attack on Professor Salaita accusing him of anti-semitism:

The Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote to University of Illinois administrators calling Professor Salaita”s support for Palestinian civil right “anti-semitic”

Cary Nelson of UIUC, who is deemed an authority on “academic freedom,” made clear in his comments to Ali Abunimah that in his months-long monitoring of Salaita”s social media use, that his concept of academic freedom does not extend to criticism of Israel.

UIUC has shown itself hostile to pro-Palestinian faculty by violating a faculty member”s protected rights. The University”s actions in this case are racist, violating  faculty members” protected rights to freedom of expression and throwing their legally protected personal and academic freedoms under the bus when confronted with public pressure.  For  daring to vocally supporting Palestinian rights to freedom, Salaita currently has no job, no home of his own, and no health insurance.

Salaita”s expulsion from UIUC is part of a larger pattern of systematic squelching of free speech that, in effect, supports human rights violations against Palestinians. By labeling any and all critique of the Israeli state as “uncivil,” and miscasting and discrediting any such criticism as a form of impermissible or hate speech, any individual with the temerity to issue a position that challenges the status quo is subject to silencing or, in the case of Salaita, dismissal. That dissent from the status quo (even when in the realm of protected speech) can become grounds for job loss should trouble every one of us in academe or social justice movements. At stake is the preservation of the university”s integrity in which critical thought should flourish, not be  monitored and punished, especially when expressed in spaces (such as social media) that are and must remain outside the university”s purview when they are venues for faculty to express their political views.

Indeed, Salaita”s online speech and political activism are protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. His statements were political views, worthy of the highest constitutional protection.  They were not uttered in an academic context, nor made in the name of the university, and therefore they are not subject to professional censure such as may be invoked in tenure and appointment cases.  UIUC”s use of such criteria, based on the administration”s approval or disapproval of faculty”s statements on social media, would be an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment rights in any case, as it is in this case, which is why all of us should be outraged by UIUC’s actions.

Nonetheless, any claim that students, or colleagues, have the right to be free from what they consider uncomfortable criticism or from being subjected to views contrary to those they hold, is profoundly threatening to the fundamental tenets of university life and intellectual community, and the concept of free speech itself. Indeed, mental and moral discomfort are often essential conditions for serious learning and thoughtful consideration of views that challenge our preconceptions. While both federal and state law as well as university policy protect students from discrimination or antagonism based on their religious, ethnic, gender and other identities, no law could possibly protect students or faculty from hearing challenges to their political, religious or cultural beliefs simply on the grounds of their identification with them, so long as such discourse is conducted in a non-coercive and non-violent manner.

It seems that “academic freedom” has become a privilege, rather than a right, extended only to those who would preserve the status quo, and an alibi behind those who hold power protect their positions while dispensing with the rights and views of oppressed peoples and movements, and the colleagues who align with and support those struggles. This action by UIUC is a profound infringement of the freedom of intellectual inquiry on which the university is ostensibly based. Any organization, internal or external, that seeks to limit the free and full deliberation of any viewpoint, or the representation of perspectives inimical to it, trespasses on a principle of academic life so fundamental that the university would be unimaginable without it.

Professor Salaita has clearly been fired because his views and their public expression have caused discomfort to some in positions of power and influence.  His dismissal is an egregious infringement of faculty”s First Amendment rights, and institutional norms of academic freedom and offensive to those who support justice, freedom, and dignity for Palestinians. We demand that the University of Illinois honor its commitment to Salaita and to academic freedom and that his appointment to UIUC and free speech rights be restored.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed

Comments are closed.