Salaita firing turns into a ‘catastrophe’ for University of Illinois

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The Steven Salaita case at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign keeps boiling away on the stove. The university surely hoped that it would die away after Chancellor Phyllis Wise fired  the Palestinian-American scholar in early August over angry tweets Salaita had posted about Israel’s massacres in Gaza, just nine months after he had agreed to come to Illinois to teach American Indian studies. But the case isn’t going away, it’s just getting more attention. It is now, as Columbia law professor Katherine Franke says below, an “unfolding catastrophe” for the school.

(Image: Twitter)
(Image: Twitter)

Emails that Wise exchanged on the case have been published, and though heavily redacted, show that she was more concerned about a donor who is on the board of the Jewish Federation and Hillel, two Zionist organizations, than she was about the views of academic officials who report to her. (That’s neoliberal Zionism in a nutshell).

Also, Inside Higher Ed reports that UIUC is seeking to reach a financial settlement with Salaita. The chairman of the board told the Chicago Tribune: “We are not trying to hurt the guy. We just don’t want him at the university.” Generally such settlements include a gag clause; UIUC would probably pay anything right now to make this go away. But Salaita may have the upper hand. He is a cause celebre. The American Historical Association has published a strong letter from its president, past president, and president-elect telling Wise that unless she reverses her decision, her school will gain a reputation for “arbitrary administrative practices.” In a veiled threat, these leaders let Wise know that they may warn members who are thinking of applying to the school.  Rehiring Salaita is “the only satisfactory outcome. We implore you to reverse your decision.”

And Katherine Franke has withdrawn an agreement to speak at the school but stated she’s coming out there anyway to participate in a forum on the case, in a brilliant letter to Wise denouncing Zionist pressure campaigns of the sort that came to bear on Wise, to which she foolishly acceded.

More on the developments:

Phan Nguyen has posted 443 pages of the redacted emails on-line.

Corey Robin has published a post called Reading the Salaita papers in which he demonstrates that as the crisis broke upon Chancellor Wise in late July she did not discuss the matter with her academic team even as she was having frantic meetings with alumni, trustees and development officers. The university as corporation.

What’s most stunning about these documents is that they show how removed and isolated Chancellor Wise is from any of the academic voices in the university, even the academic voices on her own team. As she heads toward her August 2 decision to dehire Salaita, she is only speaking to and consulting with donors, alums, PR people, and development types.

Robin saves the best for last:

Apparently, Carol Tilley on Twitter revealed earlier today the identity of that the alum whom Wise scrambled to rearrange her schedule over. His name is Steve Miller; the UIUC redactor failed to catch it. Tilley then tweeted some other information about Miller. He’s a huge venture capitalist. In 2010, he donated a half-million dollars to endow a professorship in the UIUC business school. He’s given money for years to endow the Steven N. Miller Entrepreneurial Scholarships. He believes in “venture philanthropy.” And he’s on the board of Hillel.

Miller is a graduate of UIUC and is on the board of the Jewish Federation of Chicago, too– a leading organization in the Jewish establishment, along with Hillel. (This is further evidence of my point that the Israel lobby is based on financial contributions and on the Jewish presence in the establishment, Jews in their 40s and older who were indoctrinated in triumphalist Zionism, such as Brian Roberts and David Cohen, leaders of Comcast, the largest media company in the world, or Thomas Kaplan, who is married to an Israeli and funds an organization that is pushing war with Iran. Today all the mainstream Jewish organizations are Zionist, and you have to reckon with this sociological/religious issue, as uncomfortable as it is, in a process of decolonizing Judaism from Zionism.)

The neoliberal/Israel lobby nexus behind the UIUC leadership is also the subject of an excellent investigative piece by Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill V. Mullen at Electronic Intifada. Consider Christopher Kennedy, the board chair who made the comment to the Chicago Tribune that we don’t want Salaita at our school.

Kennedy, the son of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, is the chairperson of Joseph Kennedy Enterprises, a financial entity named after his grandfather.

One of the directors of Kennedy Enterprises is Roy J. Zuckerberg.

When not acting as a director of Kennedy’s business empire, Zuckerberg also serves as chairperson of the Board of Governors of Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In 2009, Zuckerberg received an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University for his contributions as a “generous philanthropist, an enthusiastic Zionist, a concerned and influential member of the US Jewish community.”

Here are excerpts of the blunt and straightforward letter to Wise from the American Historical Association presidents, saying that Wise’s “civility” standard for hiring sounds good because we all want civility, but warning that as a speech requirement at a university it will impose a chilling atmosphere, even for tenured faculty. The presidents warn that they have a concern about their members applying for positions at the school.

August 31, 2014

…We did not speak out earlier because of the ambiguity initially surrounding some of the facts of the case. Professor Salaita’s status with respect to the conventions of your hiring process was at first unclear, but we subsequently learned that your Board of Trustees votes on appointments only in September, so that scores of new University of Illinois faculty begin teaching each fall without Board approval. In addition, your administration initially offered no substantive explanation for its last-minute withdrawal of the offer. We naturally gravitated to the universal assumption that Professor Salaita’s suddenly high profile on social media as an opponent of Israeli military action in Gaza had prompted the decision. But, still, despite our awareness that the case might involve a violation of the right of free speech, we chose to remain silent until the facts had been clarified.

That clarification came with your open letter of August 22, in which you stated that your administration objected not to Professor Salaita’s pro-Palestinian stance on Twitter but rather to the style in which he expressed it. Specifically, you held up “civility” as a necessary attribute of free speech in a university community. Even assuming that Professor Salaita’s tweets, sent from a private account, should be considered part of the campus environment—which is far from evident—revoking his job offer because of them is unacceptable. The insistence that all speech must be “civil” harbors serious danger for the health of our institutions of higher learning and for American democracy generally. Especially when used as an administrative guideline at a great research university like Illinois, it requires us to raise our voice in protest.

The First Amendment protects speech, both civil and uncivil. It does so for good reason. The United States made a wager that democracy can flourish only with a robustly open public sphere where conflicting opinions can vigorously engage one another. Such a public sphere rests on the recognition that speech on matters of public concern is often emotional and that it employs a variety of idioms and styles. Hence American law protects not only polite discourse but also vulgarity, not only sweet rationality but also impassioned denunciation. “Civility” is a laudable ideal, and many of us wish that American public life had more of it today. Indeed the AHA recommends it as part of our own Statement on the Standards of Professional Conduct. But imposing the requirement of “civility” on speech in a university community or any other sector of our public sphere—and punishing infractions—can only backfire. Such a policy produces a chilling effect, inhibiting the full exchange of ideas that both scholarly investigation and democratic institutions need.

If allowed to stand, your administration’s punitive treatment of Steven Salaita will chill the intellectual atmosphere at the University of Illinois. Even tenured professors will fear for their job security, persuaded that their institution lacks respect for the principles of academic freedom. The unhappy consequences for the untenured will be even more pronounced. A regimen of defensive self-censorship will settle like a cloud over faculty lectures and classroom discussions. Faculty will be inclined to seek positions elsewhere. This, surely, is not the future you wish for your historically great institution.

While we have thus far dwelt at length on the justification that you gave ex post facto for the rescinding of Professor Salaita’s offer, we find the procedural irregularities entailed in that decision equally troubling. On this score, too, the facts of the case have emerged more clearly since August 1. The recruitment of Professor Salaita was carried out with scrupulous care and adherence to prescribed procedure. The American Indian Studies Program chose him as their preferred candidate after a national search; every subsequent level of the University administration below the Chancellor endorsed that choice. His scholarship passed muster with your trusted colleagues. Especially important, in light of your remarks of August 22, he has a record of teaching successfully at Virginia Tech, and by all indications, students of every stripe felt welcome in his classroom. Finally, your University provided him with a standard written job offer of the type that routinely guarantees appointments at Illinois. By depriving him of that appointment, you do him a personal injustice. You also disrupt your own system of internal university governance, sowing distrust by ignoring its counsel. And, at the national and international levels, you risk saddling your institution with a reputation for arbitrary administrative practices. Certainly the American Historical Association would have concerns about our members applying for positions at Illinois.

In sum, every aspect of this case points to the reinstatement of the offer to Professor Steven Salaita as the only satisfactory outcome. We implore you to reverse your decision and to put your great university back on a course worthy of its history. Sincerely,

Jan Goldstein, President, American Historical Association

Vicki Ruiz, President-Elect, American Historical Association

Kenneth Pomeranz, Immediate Past President, American Historical Association

Next, here are substantial excerpts of Katherine Franke’s wonderful “catastrophe” letter to Wise, dated yesterday and widely circulated, informing the chancellor that Franke has cancelled her appearance at the school but is coming to Illinois at her own expense this month to participate in a forum that will deal with the debate on the Israel/Palestine issue and the uses of the anti-Semitism charge by Zionists to stop criticism of Israel. Franke says she wants to meet with Wise. This thing isn’t going away! Also note that Franke’s own dean’s office once told her she couldn’t teach a course with Palestine in the title.

Dear Dr. Wise:

Last June several University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign faculty invited me to your campus as part of The Cultures of Law in Global Contexts Initiative and the Gender and Women’s Studies Department’s Queer Studies Reading Group. I agreed to come in late September and give several public lectures and hold intensive sessions with graduate students in the humanities, law, and women’s/gender/queer studies.  For this I was generously offered a modest honorarium plus the costs of travel and accommodation.  I enthusiastically looked forward to working closely with the UIUC’s outstanding interdisciplinary group of faculty and students who are thinking in new and challenging ways about notions of globalization, nationalism, personhood and justice across a range of disciplinary locations…

Regretfully, I write to inform you that on account of the decision to rescind an accepted offer of employment to Professor Steven Salaita, I must now cancel my visit to the UIUC campus in late September.

I have long held the view that the use of boycotts as a tactic to protest an unjust practice by a state, business or academic institution may be appropriate in the right context, such as the current crisis at the UIUC, but that those who pledge to honor a boycott cannot rest their political commitments exclusively on a promise not to do something.  Rather they should also pledge to affirmatively engage the injustice that generated the call for the boycott.  For this reason, rather than merely boycotting your institution, I plan to travel to Urbana-Champaign in mid September at my own expense to participate in a forum (located off campus) with members of the UIUC community in which we will explore the manner in which the termination of Professor Salaita’s employment at UIUC threatened a robust principal of academic freedom.

Of equal, if not greater, importance, at this forum I plan to explore with UIUC faculty the complex questions of belonging, dispossession, and possibilities for legitimate uses of state and non-state violence that may underlie Professor Salaita’s tweets on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

We would be well served to relate them to a rich academic literature that has aimed to give meaning to this particular struggle.  UIUC’s world-class faculty in history, comparative literature, post-colonial studies, Jewish and Arab studies, ethnography, and human rights, are more than equipped to unpack Professor Salaita’s brief comments on social media (most would admit that 140 characters do not allow for nuance, rigor or careful analysis), taking them as a starting point instead of an end of a discussion about complex questions of belonging, dispossession and identity.  Rather than appealing to norms of civility and safety that risk inoculating the UIUC community from challenging and uncomfortable inquiry, an approach that appreciates the norms and values of an academic institution would substitute rigorous interdisciplinary and scholarly analysis of the possible meanings of a provocative comment such as “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” Should we take from such a statement a cynical, if not offensive, apology for antisemitism or does it suggest a deeper critique of the unintended and tragic consequences of certain extreme forms of political Zionism?  Perhaps both?  This conversation may include thoughtful consideration of the perils and merits of academics’ use of social media.  Instead of being afraid of ideas that may be disturbing or provocative, or prejudging their meaning and declaring them off-limits, scholars aim to unpack them and interrogate their possible implications.  I suspect that this conversation could generate disagreement, but I am certain it would galvanize a rich scholarly inquiry that has been lost by banishing Professor Salaita and his ideas from the UIUC campus.

As for my decision to decline the departmental invitation to speak at the UIUC, allow me to explain why I have chosen to take this course.  The statement you and your Board of Trustees issued on August 22nd, affirming the decision to terminate Professor Salaita’s employment, as well as emails related to this matter that were released to the public last week, make clear that this catastrophe is not really about Professor Salaita and the UIUC’s interest in preserving a civility norm on campus.  Rather, it is better and more accurately understood as the most recent iteration of a well-funded, well-organized and aggressive strategy to censor academic scholarship, research or discussion that is critical of Israel or Israeli state policy. So too it aims to censor scholarship, research or discussion that expresses sympathy for the rights of Palestinians.  With the assistance of consultants and other branding experts, the strategy has been to frame comments critical of Israel as an affront to civility in the university context.  To those of us who have defended academic freedom on this issue in recent years, your statement on the Salaita case echoed, in profoundly disappointing ways, the framing that has been advanced by political operatives who seek to capture the parameters of discussion of Israel/Palestine in an academic context. We at Columbia University are no strangers to this pressure, as we have experienced, and weathered, enormous outside pressure placed on our administration to deny tenure to scholars whose academic work criticizes Israel or political Zionism.  I have had my own lectures taped and then critiqued by members of the David Project, have been instructed by my dean’s office that I cannot give a talk in which the word “Palestine” appears in the title because “there is no such place as ‘Palestine,’” and my former dean refused to accept a grant I received to fund scholarly work designed to create space in academic contexts for critical discussions of Israel/Palestine.

The strategy behind the campaign opposing Professor Salaita’s appointment at the UIUC seeks to reframe any discomfort that might arise around the competing claims to belonging, dispossession and identity in Israel/Palestine as a fundamental problem of intolerance, disrespect or abuse.  This tactic insinuates as a baseline a particular stance or orthodoxy with respect to the highly contested claims to truth or right on this issue that can then be intolerated, disrespected, or abused.  The emails disclosed from your office from university donors, alumni/ae, and others clearly document that the UIUC has been targeted by a particular kind of pro-Israel pressure group hoping to purge the professorate and the campus of parties who they deem to have taken positions (whether in their academic or personal capacities) hostile to an uncritically felicitous conception of Israel.  That the UIUC administration would surrender to that pressure, and then defend the decision to do so, in the name of a civility norm on campus, is both disingenuous and disheartening….

In addition to myself, Professor Salaita, and many other scholars holding appointments at peer academic institutions whose scholarship and other advocacy contain remarks that would run afoul of the UIUC’s new civility policy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would surely be unwelcome at the University of Illinois as an invited lecturer on the basis of his recent uncivil comments on social media, swearing vengeance against the “human animals” who captured and killed three Yeshiva students in the West Bank last June.

My most sincere regrets that on account of the unfolding catastrophe surrounding the termination of Professor Salaita’s employment I will be unable to accept your faculty’s invitation to visit the Champaign-Urbana campus to give a lecture on The Cultures of Law in Global Contexts.  However, I do hope that we can meet in mid September, either in a public or private context, when I come to central Illinois to participate in an off-campus session with a community of scholars who do not fear, nor are intolerant of, provocative, challenging, and even uncomfortable ideas.


Katherine M. Franke

I hope you noticed Franke’s openness to an intellectual discussion of the ways that anti-Semitism has been revised by Zionists. In her footnotes, Franke refers to Corey Robin’s astute observation that the Israel lobby has removed the opprobrium from the anti-Semitism charge, making it a badge of honor for some:  “Israel and many of its defenders claim that Israel is coterminous with Jewishness — indeed, sometimes, that Israel exhausts the definition of Jewishness; Israel has come to be associated, in the eyes of many, with colonization, racism, occupation, population transfer/ethnic cleansing; and movements against colonization, racism, occupation, and the like are considered to be honorable because those things are thought to be, like antiSemitism itself, among the great sins of the 20th century.  Because of these three developments, Israel has perversely made anti-Semitism into something honorable: i.e., a discourse that is not about animus toward Jews but rather about opposition to colonization, population transfer, occupation, and the like.” Robin goes on to say that he disagrees with this understanding of anti-Semitism. (No wonder The New York Times lately published a piece calling Robin one of the two best on-line journalists.)


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half a million dollars for an endowed chair? Income on that is chicken feed, would be even if interest rates were above their present rock-bottom. It would have to be supplemented to pay a distinguished scholar a decent salary. Illinois is selling itself very cheaply. It is remarkable how little thought was put into the decision, how oblivious Wise was to the prospect of resistance.. People like Wise are used to doing as they pleased… Read more »

Wow. That’s simply amazing. But I disagree that anti-Semitism can be honorable, except in the very narrow sense that sought to redefine it as “new Anti-Semitism” as any Anti-Israeli or Anti-Zionist policy or argument, in which case I’d put it in quotes, referring to that narrow definition only, which deserves to be rejected. But the argument is joined with vigor in academia. Phil’s wish has come true, at least in part.

And what a lousy battleground to choose, since we all know where academia will come out, even if some will allow [have allowed] themselves to be corrupted by money and clever politics. Key question: what will Salaita do? Will he settle, or hold out for re-reversal?

Salon published an article yesterday called “They are intellectually underpowered and full of themselves, because they’ve been told their whole life how wonderful they are”. Subtitled: “William Deresiewicz on millennials, the meritocracy, student loans and what’s wrong with the Ivy League” In the spring of 2008, William Deresiewicz taught his last class at Yale. In the summer of 2008, he published an essay explaining how an Ivy League education had messed up his life, and… Read more »

There continues to be no evidence that Wise decided not to hire Salaita because of “Zionist pressure.” Wise herself has explicitly repudiated that position. The vast majority of the correspondence sent to Wise on the Salaita issue was from students, parents, and alumni, and not from donors. There is no greater slippery slope threat to academic freedom than the idea, promoted by the BDS community, that scholars, or academic institutions, may be held accountable for… Read more »