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American University of Beirut students protest in support of Steven Salaita as school president intervenes to cancel hiring process

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Students at the American University of Beirut have been organizing on campus since AUB President Fadlo Khuri canceled the hiring of Professor Steven Salaita based on accusations of ‘procedural irregularities’ during the hiring process. As a #StudentsforSalaita press release explained, “Students are concerned this controversy follows Salaita’s persecution at UIUC, as well as the changing perspectives within the administration on the legitimacy of pro-Palestinian scholars.”

Below is an update issued yesterday by #StudentsforSalaita which offers an update on Salaita’s case.

#StudentsforSalaita are struggling against violations of academic freedom at AUB. To reiterate our previous concerns and a brief timeline of relevant events (link), on March 30th, 2016, President Fadlo Khuri unilaterally cancelled the search committee after its recommendation of Dr. Steven Salaita for the Director position at CASAR. When AUB students were made aware of the situation two weeks later, we started a petition (link) on April 13th, 2016 demanding the reversal of this decision. At a town hall on the same day, Khuri alluded to the petition, offering the rather feeble clarification, “We can’t hire people just because they are [students’] favorite teacher”. The petition received over 1,000 signatures in less than two days and created a student movement for academic justice at AUB.

On April 14, 2016, The Office of the President responded to the petition with a “Message from President Khuri,” an e-mail sent to the entire AUB community that at best can be thought of as a dismissal of student concerns, and at worst, a fabrication containing numerous outright lies. Rather ironically, Khuri’s misleading email characterized our objections as “malicious distortions,” despite the errors in his own account and in the process at large, as detailed below. (Rumor has it that the response wasn’t even authored by President Khuri, but instead by Dr. Nadia El Cheikh, a favorite next-in-line for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences position.) In response, we at #StudentsforSalaita circulated a press release within the hour, asserting that Khuri had used unsubstantiated procedural irregularities as a cover for political motivations.

The two striking aspects of this cancellations at this point were that that 1. the AUB community knows of no official investigation into the so-called “procedural irregularities” 2. nor has a detailed explanation of these irregularities been made available to the search committee. It seems that Khuri’s reliance on gossip in place of an internal investigation to justify cancelling the search committee and his refusal to immediately initiate a new search committee support #StudentforSalaita’s claim that this was indeed a politically motivated decision. #StudentsforSalaita were compelled to carry out our own investigation and discovered that all three of Khuri’s vague ‘procedural violations’ could be countered by a quick reference to the Hiring Guidelines and Faculty Bylaws (link).

In light of our findings, #StudentsforSalaita held a reverse town hall on April 20th, inviting President Fadlo Khuri to talk to the community at large and affording him the opportunity to explain the absurd invocation of “procedural irregularities.” We hoped for a bit of transparency on a Wednesday evening and imagined, even, that a bit of tea and the stunning view in Building 37 might break the ice and allow for an open and transparent conversation. Khuri, however, was unable to attend because of his prior commitment to throw pigeons at the annual football game (link).

The following points were publicly discussed at our well-attended reverse town hall:

  • The procedural violations have not been explicitly stated. Neither the current Director of CASAR nor the search committee itself received a memo from the administration explaining in detail what procedures were “violated” during the job search before or after its cancellation. As of the publication of this piece, this remains true.
  • American Senators previously lobbied Khuri to reconsider Salaita’s post at AUB. President Khuri received phone calls from two Illinois senators in the summer of 2015 condemning the hiring of Dr. Steven Salaita as Edward Said Chair at CASAR, singling out his pro-Palestinian views as the reason for their denouncement.
  • Khuri has only minimal understanding of the Humanities and Social Sciences.During a private meeting between CASAR Director Lisa Hajjar, Provost Mohamed Harajli, and President Fadlo Khuri, Khuri revealed that he would rather a new FAS Dean select the new CASAR director and insinuated that he already had someone in mind. When asked whether his preferred candidate for CASAR specialized in American Studies, Khuri replied, “One of those fields.” He echoed this sentiment during his subsequent town hall when he said that the FAS departments are “essentially doing the same thing.”
  • CASAR is not the only target at AUB. Similar transgressions occurred in other humanities and social science departments, resulting in unilateral interventions in the hiring processes. Fear among faculty over job security prevents them from contesting Khuri’s unethical and coercive administration. Our inability to tenure faculty here has a clear impact on the ability for our teachers to advocate for our learning.
  • Khuri shouldn’t have even been talking about this publicly. Khuri’s discussion of the alleged violations in the Message to the AUB community in itself violated the confidentiality clause of Section 3.9 of the Faculty Manual. (link)
  • Khuri may be sacrificing Palestinian intellectual space in order to secure American funding. Khuri’s refusal to promote Salaita may be related to a pending National Institutes of Health donation to AUB. The NIH, which are a part of US Department of Health and Human Services, are the US’ medical research agency.

Any of these points, alone, would raise eyebrows, and in concert they have cast a heavy shadow on Khuri’s new presidency. In response, on the 22nd of April, #StudentsforSalaita coordinated a walk-out for the launch of the FAS 150th Anniversary Celebration during President Fadlo Khuri’s planned “Welcoming Speech.” Khuri, however, left the country the night before, leaving Interim Associate Provost Dr. Nadia El Cheikh to read his speech in his place. #StudentsforSalaita held posters during the speech demanding academic freedom, transparency in governance, and that the recommendation of the CASAR search committee be respected. Faculty members, students and other members of the community have praised us for such public demands of accountability.

#StudentsforSalaita will continue to act in protest until their demands for the reversal of the cancellation and the respect of academic freedom and the humanities be fulfilled.

About Students for Salaita

Students for Salaita is a collective of American University of Beirut students and allies that have circulated a petition demanding that “the unanimous recommendation by the CASAR search committee to hire Professor Salaita be respected.”

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2 Responses

  1. ritzl
    April 26, 2016, 4:54 pm

    Sounds like President Khuri could have a long and glorious career as an “expert reviewer” of McGraw-Hill textbooks on the Middle East.

    The same strict attention to detail and open process is required.

  2. pabelmont
    April 27, 2016, 11:06 am

    Who can doubt the “reach” of AIPAC? Imagine not only firing a teacher but seeking to close all similar avenues of employment. How does $15/hour (minimum wage coming someday soon to theaters near you) sound to you — that is, if you can get a job at all?

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