We have learnt that at a recent orientation meeting with senior faculty, University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise claimed that she fired Professor Steven Salaita in part because she was concerned about Dr. Salaita’s classroom teaching.
This is the clearest evidence we have thus far that University administrators at UIUC have caved in to pro-Israel propaganda in firing Salaita.
We submit that Phyllis Wise’s ‘concern’ about Salaita’s teaching is not an academic concern, but a political one.
We also submit that the Chancellor developed this ‘concern’ after Salaita’s publication and teaching record–in other words his academic record– had been vetted and approved by the search committee that offered Salaita his job.
Which political groups have insisted that Steven Salaita is a threat to his students?
1. On July 21st the Daily Caller published an on-line article attacking Salaita’s twitter posts on the war on Gaza as anti-Israel. Immediately thereafter, the local Champaign-Urbana newspaper, News-Gazette, reported that Salaita’s twitter posts were “drawing ire.”
2. According to the Jewish Voice, “in a letter to Robert Easter, President of the University of Illinois, Rabbi Meyer H. May, Executive Director of the Wiesenthal Center and Aron Hier, who heads the Center’s Campus Outreach program, specifically questioned the qualifications of a professor who would liken Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, ‘to a radical extremist group who crucifies civilians and then posts the videos, like trophies, on YouTube.’ May and Hier noted that such outrageous statements present a real danger to the entire campus community, especially to its Jewish students.”
3. Salaita’s status as a “danger” to Jewish students was also reiterated by UIUC emeritus professor Cary Nelson in a public commentary after Salaita was fired. In Inside Higher Ed, Nelson wrote of Salaita:
Will Jewish students in his classes feel comfortable after they read ‘Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being’ (July 8), ‘Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime’ (July 14), or ‘No wonder Israel prefers killing Palestinians from the sky. It turns out American college kids aren’t very good at ground combat?’ (July 23)? The last of these tweets obviously disparages the two young American volunteers who lost their lives fighting with the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza. What would he say if the Arab/Israeli conflict were to come up in a class he was teaching on Arab-American fiction? Would he welcome dissent to his views? Would students believe him if he appeared to do so?
The close alignment of characterizations of Salaita as a classroom concern between Phyllis Wise and advocates for Israel suggest one thing: that Teacher Salaita has been profiled and tagged by the University of Illinois. He has become the “bad Arab.”
We say this because Salaita’s actual record as a classroom teacher is extraordinary.
Let us examine the facts as reviewed by the faculty search committee that hired him (and known to us from a source).
Steven Salaita has taught for eight years at Virginia Tech. In all of this time, no student has ever filed a formal complaint against him.
Student Evaluation forms in most Universities have different categories under which students judge their professor’s teaching. Here is what such a form typically looks like:
To the faculty search committee at UIUC that hired him, Salaita submitted student evaluations for six courses. Five were Undergraduate courses and one was a Graduate course. They were all in Literature, Salaita’s area of expertise.
The student evaluations for Steven Salaita are stunning.
In Fall 2009, 29 of 30 students responding rated Salaita’s “knowledge of subject” as “Excellent”. In the same course, 93 percent of students rated Professor Salaita’s “overall rating” as “excellent,” and 2 as “good.”
In the same term, another group of students gave Salaita nearly identical—though even better —marks: 29 of 30 rated him “excellent” for knowledge of subject, 30 of 30 graded him excellent for grading fairness, and 93 percent rated him “excellent” for overall rating, 1 good.
These numbers repeat consistently over all six of the courses Professor Salaita submitted for review. The lowest rating he received in the “excellent” category for “overall rating” was 86 percent. Salaita never received, in any of the six courses evaluated, a single rating of “poor” for any of ten categories of teaching reviewed. In his lone graduate seminar, he scored a perfect 100 percent rating of “excellence” in the category of “overall rating.”
But for purposes of our argument, it is especially important to note student evaluations of Professor Salaita in the category of “concern and respect” for students. Here is where students evaluate their professor for professional empathy, respect for diverse points of view, and sensitivity to student opinion and student lives.
In the six courses reviewed Professor Salaita scored as follows in this category:
# of Students
30 Total: 28 Excellent 2 Good
30 Total: 30 out of 30 Excellent
10 Total: 10 out of 10 Excellent
29 Total: 28 Excellent 1 Good
28 Total: 28 out of 28 excellent
28 Total: 25 out of 28 excellent, 2 good, one No Response
In addition to these metrics, Professor Salaita submitted a peer review letter of his teaching by a Virginia Tech colleague in English. This colleague visited Salaita’s classes to provide the department an assessment of Salaita’s teaching.
The letter cites Salaita’s numerical excellence in student evaluations, but goes on to praise his teaching in terms that would be the envy of Professors everywhere:
While the numbers are impressive, the student comments bear out in detail how deserving Steven is of the high ratings. The students are acutely aware that they are privileged to be studying with a well-regarded scholar, who draws his knowledge from years of study and experience. Steven is perceived as being knowledgeable and accessible—he takes time to talk with students and to encourage them in preparing their writing assignments… When asked questions in class, Steve gives factual and thoughtful replies. It is clear to all that the teacher has mastery of his field.
Salaita’s colleague goes on to say:
The classes I visited focused on several very contemporary bodies of literature, most specifically Arab-American literature. These works are difficult to understand and appreciate fully without the help of a good guide who knows the turf. Professor Salaita is extremely well-informed on the history and current status of the many nations, political parties and religious sects of the Middle East. This subject matter is urgently important not only for specialists in international affairs, but for anyone seeking to better understand the violent and volatile contemporary world.
This record shows only one thing: that Steven Salaita is an outstanding classroom teacher.
The glaring disconnect between Salaita’s actual teaching record and Phyllis Wise’s ‘concern’ about Salaita’s teaching persuades us that the motivations behind such a concern can only be political—for it certainly isn’t academic.
Indeed, Wise’s use of a language of ‘concern’ about students who might have Salaita as a professor, seems to suggest that she is eager to protect students from Salaita. For those us living in the post 9/11 world, such a language conjures up all too easily images of the “dangerous Arab” or the “angry Arab” that have been used to harass, detain, imprison and expel them. It is shorthand Islamophobia.
The politically motivated firing of Dr. Salaita can not be legally justified by politically motivated insinuations.
Steven Salaita was discriminated against and lost his job. He lost his job because he spoke about the deep injustice and violence suffered by Palestinians. We should not let this act of discrimination be shrouded for us in a language of concern for students or concerns about civility.
It is this war against scholars who criticize Israel that should be rejected as uncivil, illegal, and a threat to academic freedom.