As Salaita’s case becomes a cause, U of Illinois issues declarations on ‘civility’

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Steven Salaita with his son
Steven Salaita with his son

There have been several developments in the Steven Salaita firing case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The university is obviously concerned that Salaita is becoming a cause celebre. Yesterday it issued two long statements describing Salaita’s alleged infraction as a violation of “civility.”

Salaita is now without a job, a home, and health insurance. His wife also quit her job to move to Illinois. Colleagues have formed a support group that urges folks to “Fight Back” and seeks donations to help his family.

Students at the Illinois campus will be holding a demonstration on Tuesday to demand:

The immediate reinstatement of Dr. Salaita with as a tenured faculty member in the Department of American Indian Studies.

University of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise
University of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise

Phyllis Wise, the chancellor of the university, finally published a letter on the case (in full, below), saying that Salaita’s views on Israel and Palestine had nothing to do with the case; but the university will not tolerate “disrespectful words… that demean and abuse… [others’] viewpoints.” An interesting standard if you are also going to encourage robust, provocative and intense discussion, as Wise also claims.

Board members at the university also issued a letter fully supporting Wise’s decision and expressing the same concern:

“Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.”

Some of the background: Salaita signed a contract with UIUC last October to teach American Indian studies, after receiving an offer from the dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences saying, “I feel sure that your career can flourish here, and I hope earnestly that you will accept our invitation.”

This summer Salaita left his job at Virginia Tech to move to Illinois. But then the Gaza slaughter began, and Salaita’s angry twitter comments about Gaza became controversial, because Israel supporters called attention to them. On August 1, the university chancellor used the fact that Salaita’s contract had not yet gone before the board of trustees to reverse the decision to hire him. That approval is generally a “rubber stamp,” the Chicago Tribune says.

Here is Chancellor Wise’s letter:

Dear Colleagues:

As you may be aware, Vice President Christophe Pierre and I wrote to Prof. Steven Salaita on Aug. 1, informing him of the university’s decision not to recommend further action by the Board of Trustees concerning his potential appointment to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Since this decision, many of you have expressed your concern about its potential impact on academic freedom. I want to assure you in the strongest possible terms that all of us – my administration, the university administration and I – absolutely are committed to this bedrock principle. I began my career as a scientist challenging accepted ideas and pre-conceived notions, and I have continued during my career to invite and encourage such debates in all aspects of university life.

A pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas. One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives. Robust – and even intense and provocative – debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university.

As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.

The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel. Our university is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy. Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate.

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.

As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner.

A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.

As a member of the faculty, I firmly believe that a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois is a tremendous honor and a unique privilege. Tenure also brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.

I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.

Phyllis M. Wise

But a “philosophical” standard for discussion of others’ “viewpoints” would seem to bar angry denunciations of the Soviet Union for invading the Ukraine, or of Communism for limiting human freedom, or of the United States for bugging millions of citizens and killing thousands of Muslims. That sounds absurd, of course; because this sensitivity really seems to go only one way, protecting the feelings of Zionists. Salaita is a Palestinian-American, who was expressing rage on twitter about the occupation of the West Bank and the massacre of hundreds of civilians of his ethnicity, by a foreign country supported by the U.S. He lost his job after pro-Israel folks made an issue of his comments.

Here, by the way, are two of the strongest tweets Salaita issued (and cited by the Chicago Tribune):

In June: You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.

In July: Every time my twitter feed updates, it seems there are new deaths in . kills civilians faster than the speed of 4G.

And here are two of my favorites. Salaita agrees with me on national interest:

1. Rednecks need a new slogan. Instead of “kick their ass and take their gas,” how about “ is a disaster, but Netanyahu is my master”?

2. Republicans are such tough guys, eager to kill 4 God and country. slaps around the US of A, though, and all they do is ask for more.

Notice that he insulted Republicans and rednecks. Somehow I don’t think Chancellor Wise was concerned about their feelings.

Here is a description of Salaita’s situation from the group formed to support him:

Salaita now has no job nor does his wife who quit her job in Virginia to support the family’s move, no personal home to live in, and no health insurance for their family, including their two year-old son…

100% of funds collected will go to Steve’s support and defense; funds are being collected on his behalf by friends, with his knowledge. Thank you for your generosity!

And this endorsement from Columbia professor Bruce Robbins, from “Why This Jewish-American Can’t Visit Urbana-Champaign”

“I will not rehearse for you the reasons why this firing is an outrage to anyone who cares about academic freedom or simple human decency. I’m sure you will already see them very clearly for yourselves…In punishing him for speaking up by taking away his job, Chancellor Wise has inscribed her name in a shameful list that includes Joseph McCarthy, among others.”

Here’s the letter from UIUC board members. I wonder if all of them signed.

Earlier today, you received a thoughtful statement from Chancellor Phyllis Wise regarding the university’s decision not to recommend Prof. Steven Salaita for a tenured faculty position on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

In her statement, Chancellor Wise reaffirmed her commitment to academic freedom and to fostering an environment that encourages diverging opinions, robust debate and challenging conventional norms. Those principles have been at the heart of the university’s mission for nearly 150 years, and have fueled its rise as a world leader in education and innovation.

But, as she noted, our excellence is also rooted in another guiding principle that is just as fundamental. Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.

We agree, and write today to add our collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights – these are the same core values which have guided this institution since its founding.

In the end, the University of Illinois will never be measured simply by the number of world-changing engineers, thoughtful philosophers or great artists we produce. We also have a responsibility to develop productive citizens of our democracy. As a nation, we are only as strong as the next generation of participants in the public sphere. The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multi-cultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.

Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.

Chancellor Wise is an outstanding administrator, leader and teacher. Her academic career has been built on her commitment to promoting academic freedom and creating a welcoming environment for students and faculty alike. We stand with her today and will be with her tomorrow as she devotes her considerable talent and energy to serving our students, our faculty and staff, and our society.

We look forward to working closely with Chancellor Wise and all of you to ensure that our university is recognized both for its commitment to academic freedom and as a national model of leading-edge scholarship framed in respect and courtesy.


Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees
Robert A. Easter, President
Hannah Cave, Trustee
Ricardo Estrada, Trustee
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee
Lucas N. Frye, Trustee
Karen Hasara, Trustee
Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee
Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee
Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee
Edward L. McMillan, Trustee
James D. Montgomery, Trustee
Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee

Paula Allen-Meares, Chancellor, Chicago campus, and Vice President, University of Illinois
Susan J. Koch, Chancellor, Springfield campus, and Vice President, University of Illinois

Donald A. Chambers, Professor of Physiology and Biochemistry; Chair, University Senates Conference

Jerry Bauman, Interim Vice President for Health Affairs
Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel
Thomas P. Hardy, Executive Director for University Relations
Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University
Walter K. Knorr, VP/Chief Financial Officer and Comptroller
Christophe Pierre, Vice President for Academic Affairs
Lawrence B. Schook, Vice President for Research
Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees

Thanks to David Green and Bill V. Mullen.

Correction: This post originally stated Salaita left a job at the University of Virginia. It was Virginia Tech.

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Well first off this kills the argument that he wasn’t submitted to the board. Now he was submitted to the board and rejected for cause. I think the key line is, “Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being.” It… Read more »

How can one “reaffirm a commitment” to something one’s actions show that you have not commitment to in the first place. Aarrgh. I think if Keith (MW commenter) had a “Globalistan” (h/t Annie, Pepe Escobar) view on this I’d probably agree with it. In my college days jobs were relatively… Read more »

Chancellor Wise made things worse with her “explanation”, imho. From 2013 UVA (Cavalier Daily managing board) editorial: “To take academic freedom for granted in the U.S. — where free speech is codified in our constitution’s first amendment — is a comfortable pose. But at American universities, academic freedom is not… Read more »

Professor William Robinson of UCSB was a target of the Israel lobby, with a campaign of intimidation, silencing and political repression, in contravention of academic freedom and University rules, he describes his experience here…

Among the many contemptible things about Wise’s letter, this stands out for me: she doesn’t say A SINGLE THING about her reasons for breaking the contract. Just some assurances that it had nothing to do with Palestine-Israel (a lie, of course), and some nondescript academico-thuggish words about civility, etc., hoping… Read more »