Salaita speaks publicly for the first time since firing: ‘I am here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies program at UIUC’

US Politics
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Editor’s Note: Today Steven Salaita spoke publicly for the first time since he was fired from the University of Illinois. Below is the prepared statement he read to a packed audience at a press conference on the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign campus along with some some tweets and photos from the day’s events.  

Statement of Steven Salaita September 9, 2014
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

My name is Steven Salaita. I am a professor with an accomplished scholarly record; I have been a fair and devoted teacher to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students; I have been a valued and open-minded colleague to numerous faculty across disciplines and universities. My ideas and my identity are far more substantive and complex than the recent characterizations based on a selected handful of my Twitter posts.

I am here today at the University of Illinois to speak against my termination by the Administration from a tenured faculty position because of the University Administration’s objections to my speech that was critical of recent Israeli human rights violations. The Administration’s actions have caused me and my family great hardship. Even worse, the Administration’s actions threaten principles of free speech, academic freedom, and critical thought that should be the foundation of any university.

Since 2006, I have been a faculty member of the English Department at Virginia Tech, where I earned lifetime tenure. On the basis of my scholarship and teaching record, and after substantial vetting, in 2013 I was enthusiastically recruited to join the faculty in the American Indian Studies program of UIUC. In October 2013, I accepted an offer from the interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to join the University as a professor with lifetime tenure, which I accepted. The offer letter specifically referenced the University’s adherence to the 1940 Principles of Academic Freedom codified by the AAUP.

In preparation for my new position, I resigned my tenured position at Virginia Tech; my wife resigned her professional position at the University as well. We got rid of our Virginia home and took on considerable expense in preparation for our move here. Two weeks before my start date, and without any warning, I received a summary letter from University Chancellor Phyllis Wise informing me that my position was terminated, but with no explanation or opportunity to challenge her unilateral decision. As a result, my family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own. Our young son has been left without a preschool. I have lost the great achievement of a scholarly career – lifetime tenure, with its promised protections of academic freedom.

As hard as this situation is on me personally, the danger of the University’s decision has farther reaching implications. Universities are meant to be cauldrons of critical thinking; they are meant to foster creative inquiry and, when at their best, challenge political, economic, or social orthodoxy. “Tenure – a concept that is well over a hundred years old – is supposed to be an ironclad guarantee that University officials respect these ideals and do not succumb to financial pressure or political expediency by silencing controversial or unpopular views. I have devoted my entire life to challenging prevailing orthodoxies, critiquing architectures of power and violence in the US and abroad and surfacing narratives of people – including Palestinians and Native Americans – who are subject to occupation, marginalization, and violence.

The Chancellor and Board of Trustees are apparently displeased by messages I posted on my personal Twitter account that were critical of recent atrocities committed by the Israeli government, which the United Nations referred to as “criminal.” My Twitter messages are no doubt passionate and unfiltered; they reflect my deep dismay at the deaths of more than 2,000 innocent Palestinians, over 500 of them children.

In recent statements, Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees said that the University Administration found the tone of my tweets “uncivil” and raised questions about my ability to inhabit the University environment. This is a perilous standard that risks eviscerating the principle of academic freedom. My comments were not made in a classroom or on campus; they were made through my personal Twitter account. The University’s policing and judgment of those messages places any faculty member at risk of termination if University administrators deem the tone or content of his or her speech “uncivil” without regard to the forum or medium in which the speech is made. This is a highly subjective and sprawling standard that can be used to attack faculty who espouse unpopular or unconventional ideas.

Even more troubling are the documented revelations that the decision to terminate me is a result of pressure from wealthy donors – individuals who expressly dislike my political views. As the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups have been tracking, this is part of a nationwide, concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech. This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom. The ability of wealthy donors and the politically powerful to create exceptions to bedrock principles should be worrying to all scholars and teachers.

Finally, my scholarship and strong student evaluations over the course of many years, along with the University’s enthusiastic recruitment of me as a faculty member, thoroughly belie Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s only recently-stated concern about my civility and respectfulness. As my colleagues and students will attest, I am a passionate advocate for equality, a fair and open- minded instructor, and highly collegial. No legitimate evidence exists for any claims or insinuations to the contrary, which have severely damaged my reputation and my prospects for future employment.

During this challenging time, I am deeply grateful to the many hundreds of people and prominent organizations who have raised their voices in defense of the principles of academic freedom, including the nearly 18,000 individuals who have signed a petition demanding corrective action and the numerous faculty around the world who are boycotting the University until I am reinstated. The students and instructors gathered here have shown themselves to be exemplars of everything to which a university should aspire.

I am here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. I reiterate the demand that the University recognize the importance of respecting the faculty’s hiring decision and reinstate me. It is my sincere hope that I can – as a member of this academic institution – engage with the entire University community in a constructive conversation about the substance of my viewpoints on Palestinian human rights and about the values of academic freedom. This is, as we say in my profession, a “teaching moment.” We must all strive together to make the most of it.

About Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita's most recent book is Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.

Other posts by .


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17 Responses

  1. Giles
    September 9, 2014, 3:42 pm

    Very well said.

  2. lysias
    September 9, 2014, 4:45 pm

    To get the job back, the court would have to grant specific performance by UIUC for breach of contract, when monetary damages are the normal remedy for breach of contract. I wonder if his argument about damage to his reputation would be enough to persuade a court to order specific performance.

    • W.Jones
      September 9, 2014, 6:35 pm

      Lysias,

      In 2007, New York City fired the principal of the city’s first Arabic-language school because she wore a T shirt saying Intifada, which she explained just means “shaking off” and doesn’t refer to violence. She sought reinstatement, but the Education Department denied it:

      Arabic School Ex-Principal Fights to Get Job Back

      The founding principal of the city’s first Arabic-language school said yesterday that the Bloomberg administration forced her to resign in August by threatening to shut the school. She said she was applying to get the job back. Establishing the Khalil Gibran school, Ms. Almontaser said, “was my American dream.” She added, “It turned into an American nightmare.”

      Ms. Almontaser said that her critics — particularly those involved with a group that calls itself the “Stop the Madrassa Coalition” — had gone after her by “fostering hatred of Arabs and Muslims.”

      “They suggested that as an observant Muslim I was disqualified from leading” the school, Ms. Almontaser said. “To stir up anti-Arab prejudice, they constantly referred to me by my Arabic name, a name that I do not use professionally.”

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/17/education/17principal.html?_r=0

      The backdrop to this, and the real reason she was fired, was most likely because her shirt supported Palestinian resistance in the IP conflict, and this is the motivation for Ms. Springer of the campaign against the school, as numerous postings by Ms. Springer on the conflict suggest – if it is the same Ms. Springer:
      (eg. http://www.jewishpress.com/news/former-ambassador-for-israel-again-ambassador-for-a-smaller-israel/2014/01/14)

      • W.Jones
        September 9, 2014, 6:39 pm

        Lysias:

        Reinstatement is usually treated as a last resort, particularly when money will not make the employee whole for the harm caused. However, some employers will offer reinstatement as part of a settlement negotiation to limit their financial burden. If the employee has a strong desire to return to the role then the employee’s attorney can also try to negotiate that as part of a settlement. Settlement is more likely to result in reinstatement in a larger company where there are more job openings and it is easier to either place the employee in the same position under different management or place the employee in a new position with comparable pay and benefits. – See more at: http://kielichlawfirm.com/employment-discrimination-job-reinstatement/#sthash.Sm4Zd94L.dpuf

  3. Pretext
    September 9, 2014, 4:56 pm

    Unflinching and unapologetic. Bravo Professor Salaita. Bravo.

  4. eGuard
    September 9, 2014, 4:57 pm

    No video???

    There was a student walk-out too. To me that sounds impressive. After all, we’ve not heard much yet from the students (quite reasonably for August). But this month we’ll see what the students are up to.

  5. Elliot
    September 9, 2014, 5:34 pm

    Exciting stuff! I hope he has good people advising him. His strategy is to take on Phyllis Wise. Can he bring enough embarrassment to the U of I so that they ditch her and bring him back.
    May the better man win.

  6. seafoid
    September 9, 2014, 6:38 pm

    This story has echoes of the news from Israel where Palestinian citizens were sacked on the basis of their Facebook activity during the massacres.

    I hope Salaita gets justice. His family don’t deserve the shoddy treatment the bots gave him.

  7. seafoid
    September 9, 2014, 6:39 pm

    The American Indian angle is very interesting too, of course. Broken promises. Imperialism. Lack of intellectual honesty. Systematic discrimination.

  8. W.Jones
    September 9, 2014, 9:07 pm

    It’s surprising how too frequent this is.

    Mar 25, 2011

    Donald Wagner, Middle Eastern studies professor at North Park University in Chicago, was fired last year after working in the school for 15 years. An activist for Palestinian human rights and director of North Park’s Center of Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), Wagner was popular with students, but controversial within the evangelical Christian university’s larger community. Student leaders and faculty members started a petition — which eventually had more than 500 signatures, including some from members of North Park’s board of trustees — to rehire Wagner as an adjunct professor. But on May 18, after negotiations with faculty members, North Park announced that it would not rehire Wagner. School administrators have cited financial pressures as the reason for Wagner’s departure.

    In an email interview with F, Wagner said, “There are a number of pro-Israel organizations in the U.S. that monitor faculty who take up justice for the Palestinians, even when those faculty present a balanced and honest approach to this controversial topic. Faculty who do not have tenure are most vulnerable, but others are harassed and monitored as well.”

    fnewsmagazine.com/wp-2/2011/03/25/controversial-class-canceled/

  9. Nina F
    September 10, 2014, 1:41 am

    From Corey Robin’s blog, here’s more information re the Salaita press conference that took place Tuesday, with a link to video:

    http://coreyrobin.com/2014/09/09/a-palestinian-exception-to-the-first-amendment/

  10. aiman
    September 10, 2014, 4:13 am

    Brilliant. Let truth not bend even an inch to the warped definition of civility. These corrupt money-changers who administer the great institutions betray the very principle of learning and rationality.

  11. justicewillprevail
    September 10, 2014, 5:56 am

    And elsewhere, a chaplain who had the audacity to hope for a two state solution, and caution that Israel’s actions might contribute towards anti-semitism, was forced to resign:

    http://www.lobelog.com/bruce-shippman-criticize-israel-at-your-own-risk/

    You aren’t allowed to think such things, never mind express them. It is pretty amazing that this kind of thought policing is rife at supposed centres of learning and debate, of all places. But hysterical zionism has normalised this mind patrolling to the extent that institutions which supposedly encourage open minds and intellectual enquiry cannot exchange opinion or express diverse points of view. This is not education, it is propaganda masquerading as such. But you pay for it (or at least donate heavily), you get it.

  12. DICKERSON3870
    September 10, 2014, 7:44 am

    RE: “Salaita speaks publicly for the first time since firing . . .”

    AN EXCELLENT COMMENTARY: “Is The Salaita Case a Breakthrough Moment? Israel’s Fatal Over-Reach”, by Andrew Levine, CounterPunch.org, 9/11/2014
    LINK – http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/09/05/israels-fatal-over-reach/

  13. Talkback
    September 10, 2014, 8:09 am

    Only Hasbara is free spech. Everything else is verboten.

  14. seafoid
    September 10, 2014, 10:19 am

    Have any prominent Native Americans said anything about this case ?

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