Last week, Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita reached an $875,000 settlement with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after being fired in 2014 for tweets criticizing Israel’s assault on Gaza. Though his incendiary tweets were biased, the university was entirely unjustified in firing him — not as a matter of Israeli-Palestinian relations, but as a matter of free speech and academic integrity.
Salaita was offered a tenured position in the UIUC American Indian Studies Program in 2013, and had quit his job, moved his family and was ready to begin work in two weeks. On Aug. 2, 2014, however, the university notified him that he was being terminated. In addition, former UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise pointed out that, because she had not yet referred his hiring to the board of trustees and he had not begun the job, he was in fact simply not being hired.
In response, there were student walkouts and around 5,000 academics from various institutions pledged to boycott UIUC, according to USA Today. Many students and staff described the situation as one limiting academic freedom and free speech, and shortly afterwards Wise resigned from her position, citing “external issues.”
In a blog post explaining Salaita’s firing, Wise stated that he was not being fired for his criticism of Israel, but for his “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” University officials believed, given the tone of these tweets, that Salaita would not be able to create a positive academic environment.
Salaita, however, is a respected and distinguished professor, with a reputation among his students of being fair and open-minded. His Twitter feed also included tweets expressing solidarity with both Jews and Arabs, clarifying that he would not “conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony.” To claim that a few select posts from his personal Twitter account indicated an inability to teach effectively is insulting to academic professionalism.
Salaita was not inciting students to violence, nor was he singling out individual students and staff based on their individual beliefs, both of which would have been cause for concern for the university. He was stating his personal opinions regarding a controversial topic — vitriolic opinions, but not “hate speech,” as Josh Cooper, a then-senior at UIUC who petitioned against Salaita’s hiring, claimed.
Even more disconcerting is evidence that the influence of wealthy UIUC donors may have contributed to his firing. Several emails that have been released following his hiring indicate that several members of the university’s “President’s Council” — alumni who have donated more than $25,000 — emailed the administration saying they would rescind their support of the university if Salaita was hired. One graduate of the business school, for example, said, “Having been a multiple six-figure donor to Illinois over the years, I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses.”
While dealing with donors is a necessary element of the economics of academia, allowing donors to decide which opinions are allowed on campuses create an artificial and incomplete educational environment. It is the responsibility of academic institutions to cultivate a safe and productive dialogue on difficult issues, not to placate anybody with financial pull and a dissenting opinion.
Bigoted speech surely does not have a place on college campuses. To fire a professor over taking a strong, potentially controversial position on a contentious issue is questionable at best. But to fire a professor after singling out particularly fiery tweets to craft an anti-Semitic narrative, giving in to pressure from wealthy donors and justifying the decision over a hiring technicality, is a clear violation of free speech, and calls into question the integrity of the academic institution. Had this professor created a hostile classroom environment, it would have been an entirely different matter. Prematurely firing him assuming he would do so goes against everything that a university should stand for, and he deserves everything he received from the settlement.