Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jascik today reports a disturbing development in the Steven Salaita firing case at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Phyllis Wise, the university’s chancellor, was lobbied by 70 pro-Israel folks, including donors, who were upset by Salaita’s comments on twitter about Gaza. The school’s fundraisers were alarmed and sought a meeting with Wise.
The communications show that Wise was lobbied on the decision not only by pro-Israel students, parents and alumni, but also by the fund-raising arm of the university. The communications also show that the university system president was involved, and that the university was considering the legal ramifications of the case before the action to block the appointment.
Most of the emails have the names of the senders redacted and some are nearly identical, suggesting the use of talking points or shared drafts. Many of the letter writers identify themselves as Jewish and/or sympathetic to Israel, as students, parents or alumni, and as people who say that the tone of Salaita’s comments (especially on Twitter) makes them believe he would be hostile to them and to their views.
“If I happen to register for Mr. Salaita’s course, how could I respectfully engage in conversation and learn material?” asked one email. Another said: “As a Jew, I do not feel comfortable knowing that the University of Illinois allows and supports this sort of behavior. I am currently an incoming senior, and while this is not the first time I have felt anti-Semitism at the University of Illinois, this is by far the most extreme and hurtful case.”
Seventy people wrote to Wise to urge her to block Salaita’s appointment (it is possible that some of the email messages are duplicates from the same person — the redactions make it impossible to tell). Only one person — an alumnus — wrote to urge Wise not to block the appointment. Of Salaita, this alumnus wrote: “He offers what may be an inconvenient and unpopular viewpoint to many; however as a teacher, I have come to fully believe that is what makes for the richest of educational experiences.”…
By the way, there is simply no evidence that Salaita, who was hired to teach American Indian studies, is anti-Semitic. He doesn’t like Israel, he’s very clear about that. But he didn’t say a word against Jews.
Here’s the fundraising stuff. This was obviously not a routine matter. All the development people jumped in:
While many of the emails are fairly similar, some stand out. For instance, there is an email from Travis Smith, senior director of development for the University of Illinois Foundation, to Wise, with copies to Molly Tracy, who is in charge of fund-raising for engineering programs, and Dan C. Peterson, vice chancellor for institutional advancement. The email forwards a letter complaining about the Salaita hire. The email from Smith says: “Dan, Molly, and I have just discussed this and believe you need to [redacted].” (The blacked out portion suggests a phrase is missing, not just a word or two.)
Later emails show Wise and her development team trying to set up a time to discuss the matter, although there is no indication of what was decided.
At least one email the chancellor received was from someone who identified himself as a major donor who said that he would stop giving if Salaita were hired. “Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses. This is doubly unfortunate for the school as we have been blessed in our careers and have accumulated quite a balance sheet over my 35 year career,” the email says.
These emails are indicative of a crisis. Does anyone doubt that concerns about donors played a role in Chancellor Wise’s decision to cashier Salaita, nine months after he was offered and accepted a job at the school? This seems to me another demonstration that we cannot come to terms with the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel till we deal with the role of Zionist funding in our political and public life. This is the factional problem identified by Madison in the Federalist Papers; there is no national interest here. And we are going to be able to have that discussion now, because it is increasingly a generational rather than a religious issue. It’s about older Jews steeped in Zionist ideology. Young Jews are ever more distant from Zionism.
Thanks to Alex Kane.