When the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign revealed it was firing Professor Steven Salaita, within days more than 17,000 scholars signed a protest document, citing the infringement of Salaita’s free speech rights and right to academic freedom—two of the mainstays of American higher education. It had been discovered that Salaita’s dismissal occurred after several wealthy donors and other powerful individuals had intervened in the academic appointment process, upset by several tweets Salaita had made critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza over the summer. Salaita is pursuing a legal case, but in the meanwhile his speaking schedule is full, as he has been issued numerous invitations to speak on his case and on academic freedom in general.
While Salaita drew massive support from colleagues, students, community groups, and others in the US, what has received less attention is the support he received from outside the US. This is extremely important, for as protests against Israel continue and in fact grow across the globe, one should understand that such acts of silencing resonate with those beyond US borders. The concept of academic freedom has a particular history in the US, emanating from the first decade of the twentieth century in reaction to the firing of professors for speaking out publicly in favor of views and policies decidedly not popular with university presidents and boards of trustees; most notably chastised and persecuted were those professors who espoused socialist and pro-union views. Today it is clear that criticism of Israel is the issue, and that the significance of Salaita’s case is not limited to the US.
In France and the UK, the Association des Universitaires pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine (AURDIP) and the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine issued a joint letter to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise:
We are particularly disturbed that Professor Salaita’s constitutionally protected expression of his views, not disseminated in the name of the university or at its expense, may have served as the stimulus for his dismissal… Perhaps most alarming are reports that your dismissal of Professor Salaita comes in response to pressure from individuals or organizations opposed to his political views. Increasingly, individuals or organizations are intervening in campus matters across the United States (and Europe), claiming to defend the ethnic or religious sensitivities of students from views they find objectionable. We regard these interventions, which have the effect of chilling freedom of expression, as profound infringements of the freedom of intellectual inquiry and deliberation which is fundamental to university life.
Professor Ivar Ekeland, President of AURDIP, notes:
“When you are losing an argument, try to stifle your opponent. The Israeli government is losing the battle for public opinion, and I am appalled by the lengths to which its supporters will go to prevent our expressing the moral outrage we feel at its actions, or even describing the reality of the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Every day they go one step further. This summer in France, the government outlawed public protests against the mass killing and destruction operated by Israel in the Gaza strip. Today, university administrators try to prevent professors to express their opinions on social networks. This of course fits into a wider framework of surveillance and control: under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, our governments are trying to take away the essential freedoms the people have won since the American and French revolution. It is a war on democracy, and it has to be fought every inch of the way”
In Israel, Professor Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University and author of Israel’s Occupation, writes:
“I will only say one or two things that stand out to me as a foreigner. First, the University’s relation to the students is noteworthy; they are treated in this saga by the Chancellor as young children—not even adolescents—rather than as adults, and as consumers rather than citizens who have come to acquire an education. The whole case made by the university against Professor Steven Salaita hinges on these two assumptions, assumptions that in my view undermine the very mission of a university—the search for truth and the education of citizens. In Israel, one should note, students are not treated as children but more and more as consumers. One other issue that has been mentioned again and again but should perhaps be further emphasized involves social media. This is an age—for better or for worse—that the lives and opinions of both professors and students are exposed in ways they have never been before. The university is basically demanding that faculty change their lives outside the university setting, outside the workplace, so that it fit the mores within the workplace. This again is misguided and probably also unconstitutional. Finally, regarding the content of the tweets, while I find some of them reprehensible, they are surely not a cause for dismissal. This is liberalism 101, John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty. What is interesting in this case is the level of monitoring on any critical utterance related to I/P. I doubt that the same level of surveillance takes place in relation to other issues.”
And in Tunisia, coverage of the case pointed out that the high ideals of academic freedom and free speech were simply not valid when it comes to criticism of Israel. Thus, the Salaita case has proven to be an international scandal for anyone who wishes to put forward the United States as a bastion of free speech and academic freedom.
Chancellor Wise and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees have tried to nullify this criticism by saying that it’s an issue of “civility,” not rights, but the major professional organization of the American academy, the American Association of University Professors, is not buying that. It issued this powerful rebuttal: “the AAUP has long objected to using criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty evaluation because we view this as a threat to academic freedom. It stands to reason that this objection should extend as well to decisions about hiring, especially about hiring to a tenured position.”
With the alibi of “civility” thus removed, and with the principles of free speech and academic freedom still intact, what remains in view is the blatant capitulation of the University of Illinois administration and trustees to political, ideological, and financial pressure, hardly a lesson they would want to teach their students. And as we have seen, it’s hardly a lesson that would sit well beyond the United States, either.