Monday, September 15, 2014

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Has a Major Problem: Professor Steven G. Salaita Will Not Go Away

Professor Steven G. Salaita was a tenured professor of English at Virginia Tech. He taught American literature. He signed a contract in October 2013 to become a tenured professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). The contract's fine print provided the appointment was contingent upon approval by the Board of Trustees of The University of Illinois. Professor Salaita resigned his appointment at Virginia Tech, sold his home, moved his family to Urbana-Champaign, and prepared to teach his new classes beginning August 16 at a salary of $85,000. He was sufficiently agitated by the Israeli attack on Hamas and the Gaza population that he posted over 80 tweets in July and August. They were mostly anti-Israel, verging on anti-Semitic. Let’s start with his tweet on the three kidnapped, murdered Jewish teenagers: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not. … I wish all the fucking west bank settlers will go missing.” Here is a sample of the other tweets: “Israel justice: Kill Palestinians, become a hero. Investigate war crimes, get arrested. #Gaza#GazaUnderAttack.” “When will the attack on Gaza end? Who is left for Israelis to kill? This is the logic of genocide.” “Too much of the Israeli society is cheering the bloodletting in Gaza for me to make a firm distinction between the government and the people.” “Only Israel can murder around 300 children in the span of a few weeks and insist that it is the victim.” “Zionists take responsibility: If your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.” “Rednecks need a new slogan. Instead of ‘Kick their ass and take their gas,’ how about ‘#Gaza is a disaster, but Netanyahu is my master.”? “Zionist uplift in America; every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime. #Gaza” “Dear outraged Right Wingers You should know that in addition to opposing Zionism, I fully support the decolonization of North America.” “Let’s cut to the chase: if you’re defending #Israel right now, you’re an awful human being.” “Jeffrey Goldberg’s column should have ended at the point end of a shiv.” They continue ad naseum. UIUC Chancellor Phyliss Wise wrote Professor Salaita on August 1 informing him the contract had not been submitted to the Board of Regents. Therefore, he no longer had an appointment at UIUC. Professor Salaita thereby became a professor between two universities, with an appointment at neither. She wrote that she was concerned by the “abusive” nature of his tweets and the need for civility in the classroom. Professor Salaita committed a critical error in judgment. He resigned his existing professorship before getting a final contract on the new position. His second mistake was posting dozens of highly offensive tweets before securing his new appointment. Chancellor Wise made a critical error in judgment. She did not closely vet Professor Salaiti’s publications before tendering the contract letter. He published a commentary in Saloon Magazine in 2013, “No thanks: Stop Saying ‘”Support the Troops.’” Virginia Tech received great blowback from his article. The University defended his right to write those words, but disassociated the University from them. He has published six books, mostly dealing with Mideast problems. His 2011 book is entitled “Israel’s Dead Soul.” He publicly supports the boycott of Israel. He believes America is an imperial power. UIUC received dozens of letters and emails protesting his appointment. Some donors threatened to take their largesse elsewhere. The Chancellor has denied her decision was based on economic factors. Professor Salaita’s vitriolic words speak for themselves. He was spewing venom rather than engaged in a reasoned debate. Her fear is the effect he would have on students, especially Jewish students. Professor Salaita’s views are outside the mainstream of American public opinion. Americans support Israel. However, his views fall within today’s academic mainstream, especially in the humanities. Our professors are increasingly emulating the anti-Semitism of the European professors. Thus, he has received large support, both within UIUC and the greater Academy. Five UIUC academic departments have voted no confidence in the Chancellor. Thousands of professors have vowed to boycott UIUC. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has issued a statement in support of the Professor. Both Professor Salaita and Professor Ward Churchill stand condemned by their words. They probably would have been academically safe if they had kept their words within the academy, but they didn’t. Professor Salaita’s case is different from Ward Churchill, who was academically unqualified for his job and falsely passed himself off as Indian. Professor Salaita has a Ph.D. in Native American Studies from the University of Oklahoma. His published scholarship may be weak, but he has not engaged in academic misconduct. Both have the freedom to publish what they wish, but that does not guarantee a job. If I were to seek a position elsewhere, my blog would be fair game in the appointments process. Free speech does not guarantee a job you don’t have yet. Professor Salaita has apparently turned down a settlement offer from the University. He wants the professorship or a trial. Legal arguments can be made for the unemployed Professor Salaita. The first is one of estoppel. He relied to his detriment on the reasonable belief he had an appointment at UIUC because the practice of trustee approval after starting the position is normal in the profession. The second would be that Chancellor Wise had a good faith duty to forward the contract to the Board of Trustees for approval or denial, before deciding to cancel it without submission to the Board. She finally sent it forward to the Board, which then rejected his appointment on September 10. He might also claim academic freedom and First Amendment rights, but he hadn’t formally become an employee of the public university. He’s condemned by his words - not his thoughts.

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