By Matthew Rothschild on August 20, 2014

The University of Illinois finds itself at the center of a controversy over academic freedom since it rescinded the offer of a faculty position to Steven Salaita apparently because of his criticism of Israel’s assault on Gaza.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But then on August 1, the chancellor of the university, Phyllis Wise, and the vice president for academic affairs, rescinded the offer.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.”

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Comments

Tough call. Those twitter comments are a bit beyond the pale. Very unprofessional and juvenile.
How can Illinois possibly hire someone who writes that Zionism has made "antisemitism honorable." It is simply impossible for Illinois to hire him despite his contributions to American Indian Studies.
Does anyone really think or care that maybe Professor Salaita's offer letter was rejected because of foul language and not his stance? Most workplaces fire employees for the use of bad language. Tidbits for consideration below. I work for an "at will" state and paid by a state university. Anyone losing a job is unfortunate, but it is somewhat gratifying to see a bit of equality in this process. The administration employees, service workers, etc. working at higher education institutions often chafe at how academia is treated. Rightly or wrongly, Professor Salaita got a glimpse of real world employment. Watch Your Mouth: Cursing in the Workplace Could Get You Fired by Kathryn Tuggle Published August 02, 2012 FOXBusiness http://www.foxbusiness.com/per... “A new study by CareerBuilder.com shows that 81% of employers believe cursing brings an employee's professionalism into question. The study showed that 64% of employers think less of an employee who swears repeatedly, and 57% said they are less likely to promote someone who using curse words. A further 71% of employers said that swearing shows a "lack of control," while 68% says swearing demonstrates a "lack of maturity." Perhaps most interestingly, says CareerBuilder.com spokesperson Jennifer Grasz, is that 54% of employers said that swearing made their employees appear "less intelligent." "It's all about perception, and cursing does influence how managers view people," says Grasz. "If it's a one-time thing, it's not going to be a big deal, but if cursing becomes a pattern, then it starts to show a lack of intelligence and can show that you're someone who doesn't have the ability to handle a tough situation."” Say THIS at Work. Get Fired? The f-word means you're fired! http://webcenters.netscape.com... “The survey also found that 81.2 percent of senior executives find a foul-mouthed colleague unacceptable to work alongside in the office. “ “Of managers who have terminated employees for office etiquette offenses, the top five most common causes were: Bad language (38.4 percent)”
He did not say that Zionism makes "antisemitism honorable." He tweeted 'Zionists: transforming "antisemitism" from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.' I know that people make a big joke about academics and their "scare quotes" but they do in fact alter the meaning of that sentiment in an important way. Salaita had several other tweets that put what he means by "antisemitism" (in quotation marks) into context, i.e. not deplorable acts of hatred against Jews (which he has denounced), but political speech that is labeled 'anti-Semetic' when it is it in fact anti-Israeli policy. It is true, some people believe that Jews=Israel, and rhetorically attacking the latter (be it the state, the IDF, government institutions or decisions) automatically implies attacking the former (a race or ethnicity or religious group of people who have faced and do face oppression). But just because some people believe this, or that some people identify the two (Jews/Israel) to be indistinguishable, does not make it true, and certainly it is not true for all Jews (see any number of Jewish activist campaigns that speak out against the Israeli government). But it is actually quite problematic, and in my opinion, detrimental for any number of groups but including Jews as individuals in their respective countries, to have no option for voicing dissent or condemnation of the State of Israel without being labeled as "anti-Semetic" or "self-hating." Salatia is denouncing the rhetorical move of Zionists to equate anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Jewish hatred. Now, one can certainly argue that this is an unfair categorization of Zionism, since there are in fact Jews who identify as Zionists who do NOT participate in those kind of discursive smear-campaigns, and one could criticize Salaita for reducing Zionists to one hostile body. This is however a far cry for being anti-Semetic, or saying anti-Semetic things, and you certainly cannot make a case to violate someone's academic freedom because of an "unfair characterization" of anything. All of us make 'unfair characterizations' all the time, and the correct response to such statements is to argue why they are unfair. In order to argue against them (thereby actually elevating everyone) such utterances cannot simply be punished and made "unspeakable." There is a really thorough article about the content of Salaita's tweets, here: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/08/reading-salaita-illinois-1.html.
Salaita's tweets and cursing were made outside of the workplace, so Kathryn Tuggle's article does not apply. Also, Salaita appears to have had a contract, which he accepted, taking him out of the "employment at will" status that, unfortunately, most American workers are in. So it doesn't apply in this respect either. Further, the free speech of an academic or teacher should be given far greater leeway than someone who, for example, says "fuck you" to an order from his or her boss. Finally, Salaita's would be employer is the University of Illinois, a public institution where free speech has constitutional protection, unlike if he were a private sector employee. While I do not condone some of his statements, Salaita has also spoken up against anti-Semitism, and certainly strong criticism of Israeli and Israeli policy does not make him, or anyone else, in and of itself an anti-Semite.
I can't imagine such an angry, foul-mouthed and bombastic anti-Semite teaching impressionable young men and women in a college setting. The university did its professional duty in letting him go. Maybe he will grow up and learn to express himself in a more professional manner in the future.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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