We previously wrote about the decision of the University of Illinois to withdraw the employment of Professor Steven Salaita due to his publication of anti-Israel views on Twitter. I raised concerns over the decision as punishing an academic for views expressed outside of the classroom. It appear that the American Association of University Professors has the same concerns. The AAUP has passed a censure of the University — a significant sanction for a university that has strived to be included among the top school.
Steven Salaita had already been offered a tenured position in the American Indian studies program on the Champaign-Urbana campus and was just waiting for approval by the university’s Board of Trustees, usually a perfunctory stage. However, Salaita posted strongly anti-Israeli sentiments after the start of the recent war in Gaza. After those postings, he was informed that the university was rescinding its offer due to opposition on the board.
Salaita is a former associate professor at Virginia Tech. He was offered the new job with an $85,000 salary last October to begin on January 2014. The University was enthusiastic about his joining the faculty. In a letter from Brian Ross, the interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, he was told “Please let me express my sincere enthusiasm about your joining us. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a wonderfully supportive community, and it has always taken a high interest in its newcomers. I feel sure that your career can flourish here, and I hope earnestly that you will accept our invitation.” Salaita signed the offer letter and accepted the position.
The situation changed when Salaita turned to Twitter to express his views about the Israeli attacks in Gaza. For example, on June 20, after three Israelis were kidnapped and killed, Salaita wrote: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the (expletive) West Bank settlers would go missing.” Then, on July 22, he wrote: “#Israel kills civilians faster than the speed of 4G.”
He has also tweeted that “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” In another tweet he suggested that journalist Jeffrey Goldberg ought to get “the pointy end of a shiv.”
Just a couple weeks after those tweets, on August 1st, U. of I. Chancellor Phyllis Wise informed Salaita in an email that the offer was being rescinded because his appointment was subject to approval by the university’s board of trustees, and the appointment would not be submitted to the board: “We believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely. We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty … Thank you for your interest in and consideration of the University of Illinois.”
However, U. of I. English professor Cary Nelson, former national president of the American Association of University Professors, supports the decision to rescind the offer. He notes that Salaita had not yet been formally hired and that his tweets showed that he was “not the right fit for the campus.” He views the tweets as anti-Semitic and can be viewed as linked to his work: “It is because the tweets are an extension of his publication, they are central to his work and many feel they cross the line into anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitism does (bother me) and what appears to be almost a solicitation of violence.” Nelson has been criticized on the Internet by advocacy groups for being part of an effort to block Salaita due to his views.
However, the connection to his work is precisely the point for many of his supporters who note that the university was already aware of his views since he is the author of a 2011 book, “Israel’s Dead Soul.” He has a long academic interest in colonialism and Palestine. This also includes his book, The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan: Middle East Studies Beyond Dominant Paradigms (Syracuse University Press). He is also part of a large number of faculty members who have called for boycotting Israeli academic institutions.
The AAUP has denounced the University of Illinois for violating academic freedom. In an email sent to faculty on Saturday, University Chancellor Phyllis Wise said the decision was “disappointing, but not unexpected.”
There continues to be an uncertain line drawn as to what comments are deemed sufficient to terminate academics as shown recently by the controversy surrounding Saida Grundy at Boston University. For academics, uncertainty over what they can say is a direct threat to academic freedom. There seems no discernible line between comments attacking whites (Grundy) and comments attacking Israel. Indeed, Grundy’s comments referred to students and faculty on campus. We have discussed how people are increasingly being punished for statements on social media. This trend is far more worrisome when it is used to terminate academics for expressing unpopular views or theories. For that reason, as offensive as I found her comments, I viewed Grundy’s comments are protected and supported the decision not to termination her. I prefer a bright line rule than the fluid standard that emerges from these cases.
What do you think?