De-hired Professor Steven Salaita Is a University's Worst Nightmare

Did Wealthy Donors Impact School's Decision?

Steven Salaita
Steven Salaita

By Nathan Guttman

Published September 14, 2014, issue of September 19, 2014.

As both sides dig in their heels, an end to the crisis that has been rattling the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign over the hiring and subsequent de-hiring of a Palestinian American professor seems further away than ever.

Steven G. Salaita, whose job offer was rescinded after he posted vitriolic anti-Israel tweets during the recent Gaza war, made clear not long ago that he wants his position reinstated. At a September 9 press conference he dismissed reported efforts the university has made to reach a financial settlement instead. Meanwhile, at a meeting on September 10, the UIUC trustees soundly defeated a proposal to reconsider their withdrawal of the tenured position Salaita had been due to take up this semester

With the debate over the controversy brewing in university corridors, academic publications and in online discussions, pressure on the UIUC administration to reinstate Salaita has been growing. Five departments have voted no confidence in Chancellor Phyllis Wise, a handful of scholars have canceled planned lectures and events at UIUC, and several large academic organizations have issued statements condemning the decision not to hire Salaita.

It is a university’s nightmare scenario, involving almost every possible mess an academic institution could encounter: choosing between free speech and the need to maintain civil discourse; balancing academic faculty hiring prerogatives with donor pressure; defining the role of social media in academic settings; distinguishing between what’s personal and what’s fair game for professional review and treading the fine line of tenure and the protection it provides.

For Jewish students seeking to defend Israel and other pro-Israel activists, the Salaita debate also means finding the right balance between fighting anti-Israel sentiments on campus and framing the case as one that affects all students, not just supporters of the Jewish state.

“This is, as we say in my profession, a ‘teaching moment.’ We must all strive together to make the most of it,” Salaita said in a September 9 press conference.

But the teaching moment has yet to arrive. Meanwhile, it is a moment of mud slinging and of mounting pressure on both sides of the divide. Initially, Salaita’s critics led the discussion, weighing in heavily against his hiring. Now it is the university that is on the defensive, facing increasing criticism from faculty and from academics outside the university protesting Salaita’s “unhiring.”

Salaita’s relations with UIUC began in October 2013, when the popular scholar of Native American history was first offered a tenured position in the school’s American Indian studies program. Viewing the opportunity as a promotion from his current position at Virginia Tech, Salaita accepted, resigned his tenured post and negotiated the terms with the program’s administrators. The dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, of which the program is a part, also approved the hire. Salaita was scheduled to start work on August 16.

But then a series of tweets he published during the Gaza war surfaced. The tweets were not just critical of Israel, but also harsh and at times vulgar. Some critics denounced them as anti-Semitic — a charge Salaita vigorously denied.

“Zionists, take responsibility: If your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just f–cking own it already,” he tweeted. And, “If you’re defending #Israel right now, you’re an awful human being.”

Some others were: “If [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” And “Zionist uplift in America: Every little Jewish boy and girl in America can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime.”

In a September 9 interview with the Forward, Salaita expressed regret that his tweets had been “misunderstood and kind of been pulled out of a much larger history of tweeting and general political commentary.” But he did not offer an apology. His longer record of expression, he said, “indicates quite strongly and clearly that I’m deeply opposed to all forms of bigotry and racism. including anti-Semitism.

“I was tweeting from moments of dismay from what is happening in Gaza, and in that sense the tweets serve as a useful record of a particular moment in time,” Salaita explained.

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