This is now six days old, but we failed to pick it up: Steven Salaita had a dignified op-ed up at the Chicago Tribune, “U of I destroyed my career,” saying that wealthy donors to the University of Illinois acted to put the kibosh on his job when he dared to go on twitter to condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza:
In the weeks before my move [to Illinois from Virginia, in July], I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel’s actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza’s children.
A partisan political blog cherry-picked a few of those tweets from hundreds to create the false impression that I am anti-Semitic. Publicly disclosed documents reveal that, within days, University of Illinois donors who disagreed with my criticism of Israeli policy threatened to withhold money if I wasn’t fired. My academic career was destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a few 140-character posts.
This is not only devastating to my family; it is a grave threat to faculty and students everywhere….
In response to the overwhelming criticism, the university and its supporters argue that, constitutional and contractual obligations aside, my challenges to Israeli government action were anti-Semitic, and my discourse on Twitter — a medium that is designed to be quick and sometimes cutting — was “uncivil.”
Such tactics are increasingly being used to silence faculty and students on campuses across the country for speaking in support of Palestinian human rights…
In taking the extraordinary step of terminating me from a tenured position, University of Illinois leadership adopted a false narrative in order to appease a few wealthy donors rather than uphold critical principles of free speech and academic freedom.
Salaita also went on Law and Disorder last week and spoke movingly about the support he’s gotten, his importance to Israel supports because he endorsed BDS, and the degree to which the “incivility” discourse about his criticisms of Israeli recalls the discourse about Native Americans in the U.S., which is his area of study. “In this case civility means acquiescence to power, and incivility equates to dissent.” On that show too, he spoke about donor pressure.
The head of the American Jewish Committee in Chicago has responded to Salaita in the Chicago Tribune by saying that Salaita’s incivility re Israel on twitter constituted “intimidating behavior that no student, Jewish or otherwise, should be forced to confront in a university setting.”
Scholar Denise Cummins has a strong op-ed in favor of Steven Salaita up at PBS, she also talks about “wealthy donors.”
In the Salaita case, wealthy donors overrode faculty governance in order to control faculty hiring. They did this because they vehemently disagreed with the job candidate’s political beliefs as expressed on Twitter. Professors in American universities develop their own courses and select their own curricular materials. So this means that these wealthy donors exercised direct control over curricular content — what students can and will learn in the classroom — when they decided who should be hired to teach at UIUC.The Salaita case has opened up a Pandora’s box of conflicting issues in American academe. The tenure faculty are outraged that the rights, freedoms, and privileges of one of their own have been so summarily curtailed, and faculty governance so casually brushed aside. Yet they are remarkably silent when these same offenses are committed against the new faculty majority of adjuncts. Academic freedom is indeed a cause worth fighting for, a vital necessity in a free and productive society. But as these two parallel stories – the abuse of adjuncts and the fall of Salaita — so plainly demonstrate, tenure is neither necessary nor sufficient to guarantee such freedom.
This should be a moment of deep reflection inside the Jewish community. These wealthy donors are Zionists, the same people Rep. Beto O’Rourke is afraid of in El Paso. We play a central role in supporting liberal institutions because of our astounding success in the United States. Yet our community is wholly identified as Zionist, in fact the American Jewish Committee was once anti-Zionist and now it is completely Zionist, meaning that it hushes any criticism of a foreign country; and so a passionate Palestinian intellectual, Steve Salaita, can set off a panic in the fundraising offices of a major university with a few angry, witty, brilliant tweets. And lose his job. Is that the kind of power we want? No. We want to exercise power with our brains, with our young social justice activists, with our fresh brave universalists.