Firing of professor violates freedom of academic speech

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.

2 replies
  1. Arafat
    Arafat says:

    Steven Salaita, whose anti-Zionist/Semitic tweets and uncivil rants cost him a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), used a recent appearance in Philadelphia to portray himself as a victim of the Zionist lobby. The lecture was co-sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace, which the Anti-Defamation League calls “the largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group” in the U.S.

    An audience of about forty attended the rambling lecture at the Wooden Shoe, a dingy, dirty anarchist bookstore that sported pro-Boycott/Divestment/Sanction (BDS) and other far left propaganda, including a poster of the brutal Marxist killer Che Guevara. Salaita’s claim to fame rests on UIUC’s 2014 decision not to install him as a professor of Native American studies. He and UIUC announced a settlement on November 12 that awards him $600,000 and legal costs; he will not seek or accept employment at the university.

    Despite his ostensible field of specialty, the bulk of Salaita’s work consists of attacks on Israel, often under the guise of comparative history. It will surprise no one familiar with Salaita’s ideas that his most cited work, The Holy Land in Transit, which offers a “comparative analysis” of Native Americans and Palestinians, portrays American colonists, ancient Hebrews, and modern Israelis as brutal colonial settlers who engaged in genocide.

    Now ensconced as the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB) for the 2015/16 academic year, Salaita told his Philadelphia fans that he is someone “who just got fired” because academe is not really about “true” academic freedom. Were this not the case, he could not have fallen prey to the “Zionist lobby.” He proceeded to mock and mispronounce the names of pro-Israel philanthropists Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson. To great applause, he described as “kickassery” the efforts of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Faculty for Palestine, and other pro-BDS groups who publicly defended him and lauded Jewish Voice for Peace for their PR work on his behalf.

    Settling into what is clearly a well-worn routine, Salaita claimed that while he won’t be the last victim of the lobby, because “the Zionists have lost the argument in the public sphere – it’s done,” he and his groupies can win the hearts and minds of the American public. He said that his case represented the point at which all oppressed groups could unite and proclaim, “F— this! We have been put down long enough and we are not going to be afraid to utter the words Palestine.”

    Moreover, he asserted that “academic Freedom never fulfilled its inherit promise” because it doesn’t allow for individuals like himself to express their views. Institutions pressured by Zionists are criminalizing his views, which he claims—against all evidence—are “scholarly” and “objective.”

    The enthusiastic audience hung on every hackneyed cliché Salaita fed them, especially his repeated attacks against Zionists, whose actions he deemed so indefensible that they must resort to the purely defensive tactic of deflection. He added, mendaciously and mockingly, “you will never find a group of people who love China and Tibet more than the Zionists.” He is obsessed with Jews, and his phraseology revolves around “Zionists” as connoting an anti-Semitic trope and not merely Israel, whose legality as a nation state he persistently downplays and questions.

    Salaita’s alleged martyrdom is the subject of his newest book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom. Yet his repeated insistence that academic freedom does not apply to “pro-Palestinian” voices is simply absurd. Both overt hostility to Israel and anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism have for years dominated the field of Middle East studies, a fact illustrated by the standing ovation Salaita received at the 2014 annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which also voted toaffirm the right of individuals and organizations—including MESA—to support BDS resolutions.

    Salaita’s meteoric rise as a leftwing cause célèbre rests precisely on his vitriolic views, grounded as they are in anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering rather than rigorous, objective scholarship. No one has a “right” to tenure, nor to freedom from the consequences of his behavior. When professors who substitute agitprop and rank propaganda for scholarship are seen for the charlatans they are rather than the principled victims they pretend to be, academe can start down the long road to reclaiming its

  2. Arafat
    Arafat says:

    Other than the fact that he is an anti-semite, in fact proud of being so, your article is still filled with half-truths and unfair insinuations.

    You should probably be fired as a journalist.

Comments are closed.