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Salaita firing has ‘crippled’ U of Illinois’s ability to hire excellent scholars

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Corey Robin has a report on developments in the Salaita case containing the stunning news that 34 administrators at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign have written to the school’s incoming president stating that the firing of Salaita last summer for speaking his mind on twitter about Israel’s assault on Gaza has “crippled” their efforts to recruit top-level scholars, as Robin says:

That 34 heads of departments and units are now signed on in opposition to the university’s handling of the case is also a big development. Back in the summer, it seemed as if we were hovering at about 15 or so departments. Clearly, far from diminishing, the controversy on campus has only expanded.

What’s even more amazing is where it has expanded: three of the signatories are chairs of the departments of chemistry, math, and statistics. The opposition has spilled beyond the walls of the humanities and social sciences

The administrators’ letter appeared on the Academe blog, as an open letter from Department Heads at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to incoming president Timothy Killeen about the Salaita case. “The Department of History has already abandoned a previously authorized senior search in U.S. history this year in recognition of the bleak prospects of attracting suitable applicants in the current climate,” they report, and: “we cannot hope to recruit excellent senior faculty” because candidates cannot “trust” the school to honor principles of free speech. 

The most important thing about this letter is that these officials are uncowed by the Israel lobby; they are standing up for Salaita, defying any risk. Another sign of the changing climate in the U.S. The letter begins:

The recent words and actions of senior officials in connection with the decision to revoke an offer of a tenured position in American Indian Studies to Dr. Steven Salaita have done genuine damage to the university, and especially to the Urbana-Champaign campus, that remains largely unrecognized outside of the affected units. The program in American Indian Studies has itself obviously suffered the most as the result of the administration’s actions, but the harm to other units is also significant and ongoing. Representatives of the American Anthropological Association, the American Comparative Literature Association, the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Studies Association, and the Modern Languages Association, among others, have issued strongly worded statements or letters critical of the university. More than 5,000 academics from across the country and around the world have expressed their disapproval by boycotting UIUC. More than three-dozen scheduled talks and multiple conferences across a variety of disciplines – including, for example, this year’s entire colloquium series in the Department of Philosophy – have already been canceled, and more continue to be canceled, as outside speakers have withdrawn in response to the university’s handling of Dr. Salaita’s case. The Department of English decided to postpone a program review originally scheduled for spring 2015 in anticipation of being unable to find qualified external examiners willing to come to campus. Tenure and promotion cases may be affected as faculty at peer institutions consider extending the boycott to recommendation letters.

Most troubling of all, the ability of many departments to successfully conduct faculty searches, especially at the senior level, has been seriously jeopardized. While the possible negative effects on even junior searches remain to be seen, the Department of History has already abandoned a previously authorized senior search in U.S. history this year in recognition of the bleak prospects of attracting suitable applicants in the current climate. An open rank search in Philosophy attracted 80% fewer applicants at the rank of associate or full professor than a senior search in the same area of specialization just last year. We have long been proud of the University of Illinois’ ability to maintain and extend its excellence through the recruitment of the very best scholars in the world. In many disciplines, however, we cannot hope to recruit excellent senior faculty to this campus, or to retain many of those already here, when they can no longer trust that this university will honor the principles of faculty decision-making, free speech, and freedom to conduct research.

The department heads specifically deplore the statement by Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the school’s ceo, that the school will not tolerate “disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” followed by the board of trustees’ declaration that there is no place in a democracy for speech that does not promote “civility.” What a standard!

The administrators also criticize the hasty manner in which Chancellor Wise upended a months-long process of selecting Salaita in a few days in July and August as Israel conducted its onslaught on Gaza. As Salaita expressed rage over the actions, Wise was meeting with alarmed fundraisers at the school.

Here, by the way, is a video of Salaita’s appearance at Brooklyn College two weeks back, alongside Katherine Franke and Corey Robin. Salaita graciously cops to using the word Zionism in “crude and rudimentary ways” on twitter and takes the blame for that; but explains that in his book Israel’s Dead Soul he fully explores these questions. Nation building gave way to ethno-nationalism as the Zionist project unfolded, he explains, at 1:35. “‘Who is a Jew?’ is a question taken up by the state,” he says. “I don’t want the state defining my religious identity.”  

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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12 Responses

  1. just
    December 9, 2014, 10:44 am

    Actions have consequences, Chancellor Wise.

    You should have wised- up. The implications of firing him are far- reaching, indeed. As they should be. I hope that they rattle the foundations of every academic institution for a long time.

    The letter is a doozy.

  2. lysias
    December 9, 2014, 11:48 am

    Somebody should submit a complaint to the body that gives this university its accreditation. Perhaps that would provoke an investigation.

    • pabelmont
      December 9, 2014, 12:02 pm

      Lysias: Dis-Accreditation! Wow! Terrific idea. Just raising the idea, no matter what happens.
      Phil: Thanks for keeping us current on this.

  3. JLewisDickerson
    December 9, 2014, 2:34 pm

    RE: The department heads specifically deplore the statement by Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the school’s ceo, that the school will not tolerate “disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” followed by the board of trustees’ declaration that there is no place in a democracy for speech that does not promote “civility.” ~ Weiss

    [TEVYE]
    Civility! Civility! Civility!
    Civility! Civility! Civility!

    [TEVYE & PAPAS]
    Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
    Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
    And who has the right, as master of the house,
    To have the final word at home?

    The Papa, the Papa! Civility.
    The Papa, the Papa! Civility.

    [GOLDE & MAMAS]
    Who must know the way to make a proper home,
    A quiet home, a kosher home?
    Who must raise the family and run the home,
    So Papa’s free to read the holy books?

    The Mama, the Mama! Civility!
    The Mama, the Mama! Civility!

    [SONS]
    At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade.
    I hear they’ve picked a bride for me. I hope she’s pretty.

    The son, the son! Civility!
    The son, the son! Civility!

    [DAUGHTERS]
    And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix,
    Preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks?

    The daughter, the daughter! Civility!
    The daughter, the daughter! Civility!

  4. David Doppler
    December 9, 2014, 4:20 pm

    Thanks, Phil, for this report, which I can’t help but consider in light of Naftali Bennett’s recent performance at the Saban event, also covered here in granularity (what would we do without MondoWeiss?)

    The kind of “strength of inner spine” talk Bennett used, sort of boasting that he didn’t care what he was being confronted with by Saban and Van Dyk, just denying others’ perception of reality in favor of imposing a different perception, when contrasted with the tools used in that effort (threats of insidious payback for European boycott by Bennett and Israel, “hey, my company makes the authentication software most banks rely on for you to access your accounts”), ruination of career applied to Salaita, ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, applied to Palestinians, and the audiences to which the Zionist cause is applying these tools (the New York Jewish community for Bennett, academia, in the case of Salaita), is truly impressive in the depth of its stupidity and naivete. As if techniques that might have worked, for awhile at least, in influencing a crowd or other community in an ancient marketplace or city, will work just as well applied to the digital globe, American academia, and a sophisticated New York Jewish community gathering.

    I don’t know if there’s polling associated with such an appearance, but I’d love to know what the general mood was in response to Bennett’s performance? If he does other than drop like a rock in his efforts to seize power in Israel, I’ll be painfully surprised.

    • Mooser
      December 9, 2014, 6:43 pm

      One of the commenters, “JonS” attended the Naftali Bennett affair, and found it a bit down-market for his taste.

  5. Nevada Ned
    December 10, 2014, 1:18 am

    An old saying in the academy is that “it takes ten years to gain a reputation, and twenty years to lose one”.
    In other words, there is a time-lag between how good you are and your reputation. And some places “coast”‘ on their past accomplishments.

    In the case of U Illinois, they have gotten a bad reputation in a real hurry.

    Of course, they can always hire SOMEBODY (someone who needs a job), but they would prefer to make a national search, make an offer to the best candidate, and win a recruiting war with other institutions.

    I’m actually quite surprised (and gratified!) at the continuing turmoil at Illinois over the Salaita case.

    • Annie Robbins
      December 10, 2014, 3:21 am

      Of course, they can always hire SOMEBODY (someone who needs a job), but they would prefer to make a national search, make an offer to the best candidate, and win a recruiting war with other institutions.

      that would be pretty tough right now, because why would any “best candidate” (who one would naturally assume has many options), accept a job at a university so tainted? how could IU ever win a recruiting war at a time like this? practically unfathomable given the fact so many of the echelon of academia have risen up in support of salaita.

    • Annie Robbins
      December 10, 2014, 3:26 am

      In other words, there is a time-lag between how good you are and your reputation. And some places “coast”‘ on their past accomplishments.

      i think you are missing the point. “it takes ten years to gain a reputation, and twenty years to lose one” means if you’re really good (think mel gibson or brad pit) it takes ten years in the business to get your name in the headlights. but if you f*ck up (being drunk and screaming about jews or beat your wife/lover) people won’t forget that for twenty years, if ever.

      that said IU could get rid of this in a flash by rescinding and offering salaita his job back. and another university could really amp their creds by hiring him. he’s hot hot hot. what a move that would be.

      • Ageel
        December 11, 2014, 12:25 pm

        My thoughts exactly. I’m surprised that he hasn’t been hired by another university yet. Last I heard is that he was suing the school. Any word on that?

    • CigarGod
      December 10, 2014, 10:22 am

      So often these guys seem to develop a seige mentality and dig in and even double down. You know how pointless it is to try to get rational responses from some commenters on this site (years and no progress). Unpredictable behavior, inconsistencies. I often hear the words of jim morrison when i watch these guys brains unravel. “…his brain is squirming like a toad.”

  6. W.Jones
    December 10, 2014, 4:02 am

    UIUC is a very well ranked school. I wanted to go there for their language program years ago. They must be taking a real hit.

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