It may not be what you think.
The University of Illinois finds itself at the center of a controversy over academic freedom since it rescinded the offer of a faculty position to Steven Salaita apparently because of his criticism of Israel’s assault on Gaza.
More than 15,000 people have signed a MoveOn petition demanding his reinstatement.
And more than 1,500 professors have pledged to boycott the university until it makes good on its offer to Salaita.
Here’s the background.
Last October 3, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offered Salaita an $85,000-a-year job in the department of American Indian Studies. “This appointment will carry indefinite tenure,” the letter from the interim dean said. It then added the pro forma statement: “This recommendation for appointment is subject to approval by the Board of Trustees.”
But then on August 1, the chancellor of the university, Phyllis Wise, and the vice president for academic affairs, rescinded the offer. “We write to inform you that your appointment will not be recommended for submission to the Board of Trustees in September, and we believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely,” the letter said. “We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty.”
What happened in the ten months between the offer and the rescinding of the offer?
Israel attacked Gaza. And Salaita was outspoken on Twitter about his revulsion over this assault, and the suffering that it caused.
“The sources familiar with the university's decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel's policies in Gaza,” reported Inside Higher Ed, which broke the story. That article cited several of his tweets:
“At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza."
"By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say anti-Semitic shit in response to Israeli terror."
"Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already."
Other tweets, such as “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” were seized upon by defenders of the chancellor. For a thorough analysis of his tweets, see Phan Nguyen’s detailed article, in which he quotes several tweets from Salaita denouncing anti-Semitism.
The Center for Constitutional Rights wrote to Chancellor Wise on August 7 to express its “considerable alarm” about the university’s action, saying it “violates Professor Salaita’s clearly established constitutional rights as well as elementary principles of academic freedom.”
That same day, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement in Salaita’s defense. “There is good reason to fear that Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and possibly that of the Illinois faculty members who recommended hiring him have been violated.”
As to his tweets, the AAUP said: “His posts were arguably not intended as scholarly statements but as expressions of personal viewpoint. Whether one finds these views attractive or repulsive is irrelevant to the right of a faculty member to express them.”
The AAUP statement was signed by its president, Rudy Fichtenbaum, and its first vice president and chair of its academic freedom and tenure committee, Hank Reichman. It was motivated, in part, as a response to Cary Nelson, a former president of the association, who backs the chancellor.
On August 19, the chair of the AAUP’s Illinois committee on academic freedom, Peter Kirstein, wrote in the News-Gazette: “Academic freedom requires that both substance and from are protected speech when engaging in extramural utterances.” Kirstein was especially distressed by the way in which the chancellor rescinded Salaita’s job offer.
“In their egregious dismissal letter of Aug. 1, no reason is given why a contract offered nine months ago is voided,” he wrote. “It is unconscionable that an academician would be fired in this manner. . . . The absence of an explanation is one of the worst cases of administration abuse of a faculty member I have ever witnessed.”
On August 18, the executive committee of the board of trustees of the University of Illinois met. “In closed session, the Executive Committee will consider University employment or appointment-related matters, and pending, probable, or imminent litigation against, affecting, or on behalf of the University,” said the notice that was sent out to the members.
The University of Illinois refused to discuss what happened at that executive committee meeting, just as it has refused to issue any substantive statement on the Salaita affair.
“As a matter of University policy and practice, we do not comment publicly upon nor discuss generally any personnel matters, including matters involving employment or tenure,” responded Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs, when contacted by The Progressive.
For his part, Salaita’s not talking, either: “I'd love to say something, but unfortunately my lawyer has me gagged.”