Crushing Academic Freedom: The Professor Who Got Fired After Angering Donors With Pro-Palestine Tweets


On 1 August, Professor Steven Salaita was fired from a tenured position at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign less than a month before he was scheduled to teach his first class there. He had resigned from his tenured position at Virginia Tech, rented out his home in Blacksburg, Virginia for the year, and was finalizing the purchase of a condo in Illinois. A Palestinian-American who writes regularly for The Electronic Intifada, Salon, and other popular media outlets, Salaita is also a respected professor of literature and Indigenous Studies, the author of numerous academic books and essays, and by all accounts, a beloved teacher.

Like all candidates for tenured positions, Salaita had gone through a rigorous hiring process by faculty before being offered the job at UIUC in October 2013.

But beginning on 21 July, the UIUC Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, began receiving a steady stream of emails from wealthy donors to the University protesting the hiring of Steven Salaita. They were opposed to Salaita because of his ardent positions on Palestine and Zionism--ostensibly because of his unrepentant and forceful denunciation of Israel’s 51-day assault on Gaza as communicated via Twitter--and threatened to withhold their largesse if Salaita joined the faculty.

Knowing that Salaita had already signed a contract, Wise apparently made a decision--or gamble--to fire Salaita, invoking the rather vague and insidious value of civility and alleging that Salaita had already violated it, while ignoring the well-defined ones of free speech, academic freedom, and contract law.

Baher Azmy, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights who has represented Salaita since he was fired, told Alternet that the lawsuit they are now putting together will rest on two claims: one, that the University officials deprived Salaita of his First Amendment rights to to speak on a matter of public concern; and two, that the University unlawfully terminated a contract, which had the guarantees of lifetime tenure.

When he Board of Trustees voted eight to one on 11 September to support Chancellor Wise’s summary firing of Salaita, they indirectly agreed to join Wise as defendants of a lawsuit, with the Center for Constitutional Rights leading the charge.

And while Azmy says they have enough evidence in their possession right now to substantiate these claims, his team of lawyers will initiate a broad discovery process in which they seek to unearth the full extent of donor influence on the decision-making process on Salaita, as well as expose, for the purpose of comparison, how the University has dealt with past instances of controversial speech by professors.

Steven Salaita spoke with Alternet on the phone about what he’s doing now, what he wants, and the broad dimensions of his case: what initially appeared to be yet another attack on academics who are outspoken critics of Israel (seen before at Columbia, DePaul and Brown University) now also looks like a move to consolidate power within the UIUC’s Board of Trustees.

Charlotte Silver: Where are you right now and what have you been doing for the last couple of weeks?

Steven Salaita: I am speaking from Northern Virginia, outside of D.C. I just spent a week in Chicago doing a series of talks and a series of smaller events; and meeting with different groups of people who are concerned about Palestine and the situation at U of I. Now I'm at home for the next week, and then it’s off on the road again-- almost continuously until Thanksgiving.

CS: Like anyone else who planned a move to a new state to start a new job, your life in Virginia was put in upheaval. Tell me what the last couple of months have looked like.

SS: Hectic or chaotic are probably good words to describe it. When we were in Blacksburg, Virginia--that’s where we were moving to Illinois from--we had everything set up [for our move to Illinois], we were closing on a condo in Illinois in two weeks, we had our movers set up, we had our house in Blacksburg rented out, and the tenant and his family were on the brink of moving in.

So when I got the email notifying me of the termination of contract it was absolute upheaval. We had to work out an alternate schedule with the renter of our home. We had to break the contract on the condo in Illinois, and that was dicey. Then we didn’t have a place to live and no income and our health insurance was about to run out because I had already resigned from my position at Virginia Tech. So we scrambled and decided to move in with my parents. They have a townhouse here in Northern Virginia. It was about one of the most chaotic and busiest weeks of my life.

CS: So you were dealing with all of the material chaos while also having to mentally adjust to the reality of what had happened.

SS: That’s exactly right.

CS: Ok let’s go back to August 1, when you received the letter from Chancellor Phyllis Wise, informing you that you no longer had a job. You didn’t make any public statements until some time after the news of what happened to you got out in the media. What was going on on your end while you were being quiet publicly?

SS: Oh wow, I’d say it happened in stages. At first I was trying to figure out if it was all real. I was in conversation with close and trusted friends who were providing moral and emotional support. I was in touch with the Department of American Indian Studies [at UIUC] and seeing what was happening on their end and how they felt about everything, and of course they were terribly upset about what had happened as well. I was in conversation with various attorneys trying to figure out what my options were. A lot of civic and legal groups spoke to me, I was in communication with a lot of scholarly associations, who wanted to know what the heck was going on. It was really strange, and still is really strange that although I was out of a job-- and

I’m still out of a job-- it’s been one of the busiest times of my life. The days have just been hectic.

CS: How did the news of your firing get out initially?

SS: Yeah, it’s kind of an interesting story. I was keeping it under wraps. I'd spoken with the Program Director at the time of my hire, Jodi Byrd, and then the current Unit Director, Robert Warrior. I had spoken with them just to get a sense of everything that was going on and what the administrators on campus were saying.

Honestly, I was trying not to tell anyone. I didn’t want it to become a story or a circus because my goal at that point was to work it out with the University. Because once things hit the news and they get their own momentum it becomes incrementally more difficult to come to some sort of resolution, or it certainly offers challenges that I didn’t want to deal with, and I knew that people would be asking questions and I didn’t know I would be able to answer them.

So, all of a sudden about four, five days--within a week of my having received the termination letter--Scott Jaschik from started calling me. He was on to a story that I had been summarily dismissed from a tenured position. I refused to talk to him but it was at that moment that I realized the story was going to go public. I don’t know who he was speaking to or how he got his information, but all of a sudden he put up that story and it went viral from there. As soon as that story came out it was an issue, the box was opened and I was flooded.

CS: When that story initially broke, what kind of responses were you hearing?

SS: A number of things simultaneously. The things that stands out to me were an absolutely overwhelming response of friendship and outrage on my behalf-- from friends and colleagues and former students, and a lot of folks in academe, who I didn’t know at the time.

Right after that story broke, there were a lot of different takes, and a lot of them missed the mark--a lot of them continue to miss the mark-- this notion that there was no contract, that I had never been hired, that I wasn’t qualified to teach American Indian Studies. And so there was an overwhelming rush for everyone to post their interpretation of it online, and it was a little bit bizarre reading everybody with a third-hand take acting like they were experts on the situation.

What happened--as the record has cleared up over time--is very very simple: I was fired because of donor pressure and the tweets were a pretext.

CS: Why do you think you became such a high stakes hire for them that they would risk a lawsuit and public backlash?

SS: To be honest, I’m still thinking through the same things, my thinking is that there is still a lot of information yet to be heard. We don’t really know who the specific donors are. All of the public documents that the university has released are redacted. We don’t know who the backroom players are. I think one of the reasons this case got so much interest in the first places was the timing of it, and the seemingly arbitrary and punitive nature of it and what position it put me in personally.

I did think it was interesting that some time last week, the Board Chairman Christopher Kennedy was quoted in the Chicago Tribune. He said that the response the university has received was ‘super surprising.’ So my feeling is that the University doesn’t appear to have seen this type of backlash coming, they figured they would do what they have to do, there might be some grumbling, they’d quell it. It’s been kind of remarkable for everybody that this much sustained energy has been in evidence for over two months now.

CS: What prior interaction with Wise had you had before that letter?

SS: None, not a bit.

CS: Obviously you have been an outspoken public figure since the application process began, were your politics brought up during the interview and hiring process?

From my end, no--I don’t know what the committee discussed behind closed doors. But it’s considered pretty tacky to bring up one’s explicit political commitments in an academic search process. The assumption is they know where I stand and if it bothered them then I wouldn’t have made it this far in the process to begin with.

It was a rigorous search process: they focused on my research, my teaching, on my professional service--the formal things. There was no mention of Twitter, social media, those things didn’t play a role in the search committee evaluations.

My viewpoints are extremely public and available, which I think gives us a damning irony: they either knew about all of this based on public record, based on the materials I submitted for the job and didn’t do anything until donors started pressuring them, or they knew absolutely nothing about me until donors started pressuring them and then all of a sudden they became experts on the academic hiring process. Either way it doesn’t look good.

CS: At that point, the hiring process had been controlled by faculty and they weren’t responsible for the revocation of your hire?

Exactly. If you try to put in context, my hire was approved either directly or indirectly by over 100 faculty members.

Anyone who spends time in academe knows how absolutely rigorous that process is and, in addition, I was coming in as tenured, so they had to get at least four or five referees to vet my application, so these are folks from different universities who look over my work, who read my research, who look over my teaching evaluations, who read my pedagogical dossiers, to make sure I'm suitable for tenure.

So it has to go through a lot of vetting-- that’s one reason why faculty are so up in arms that in just a ten minute window the trustees decided to wave their arms and throw all that out the window. The University has very specific by-laws that if some issue arises with a hire, they are supposed to go back to the Dean and department chair and [go through a process] to resolve the issues. The Chancellor and the Board appear to have completely bypassed that.

CS: Since June your pinned tweet has been, “I try my best to remember that we don't just stumble into political consciousness; it's better to teach than to berate or shame.” Tell me about your academic background-- where did you do your schooling and at what point did politics become central to your analysis, if there was a starting point?

SS: I try not to forget about the tremendous privilege to which I've been subject to in my life. To be able to receive an education, to be able to travel. I didn’t just wake up one day with a political consciousness of Palestine, or colonization, or indigenous peoples or any of these things. It wasn’t just the result of reading or studying and experience, but other people teaching me and sharing things to read and facilitating my ability to travel.

I try to remember that when somebody expresses a point of view that might be considered naive that people are apt to do on Twitter or in the college classroom--naive, not malicious--I don’t think we should condemn them out of hand but speak with them and have a real conversation, and that’s an ethic I take from my undergraduate classes. Undergraduate students have a wonderful moral center and a well-developed ethical point of view, but they don’t necessarily have a political consciousness or even an awareness of a lot of these issues around the world, so they very often repeat the common neoliberal discourse that that they were raised into and that defined their existence for their entire lives.

I think part of teaching is to, instead of losing patience, help nudge them in supportive ways to a more complex understanding of the world.

CS: Phyllis Wise and supporters of the administration’s decision-- like Carrie Nelson-- all began their statements about you with an assertion that they’re dedicated to academic freedom--or a version of academic freedom. I'm wondering if you could tell me what you think the difference is between your and your supporters’ concept of academic freedom and theirs?

That’s a fantastic question. There are probably lots of differences, both micro and macro differences, but I would probably say that the most conspicuous difference is that those who are displeased with the administrators’ actions are actually practicing their stated beliefs in academic freedom; whereas those who are supporting the administration’s decision are actually saying one thing and doing another.

CS: You’ve talked about the erosion of academic freedom as universities have come to function more like corporations. Can you expand on how the the integrity of universities is being lost, and why a public institution could become so vulnerable to donors throwing their weight around?

SS: We have to think about whether we want donors to be part of the hiring process, and there is only one reasonable answer to that: No.

We also have to think about these longstanding hiring processes and whether they can be just waved away on the whims of administrators. And finally, the Board exists to make decisions to run the business and financial side of the university which is important and a complicated task but they’re not necessarily qualified to make hiring, firing or tenured decisions. So if they suddenly add to their charge maintenance of the faculty and the academic side of the university, then they are going to have an extraordinary amount of power in the university structure, in places where they aren’t designed to have power, and that’s power over research, student affairs, pedagogy, and so on.

The corporatization of higher education and neoliberal economies governing campuses is happening across the country. I think that is one of the major elements [in my situation] that people are reacting so strongly against, because they’ve seen it before. My situation just happens to be an especially punitive incarnation of a problem that a lot people have been assessing for a number of years now.

CS: Right now there are two simultaneous efforts to counter what the University of Illinois has done--your lawsuit and the academic boycott. What are the objectives of this campaign and lawsuit? What are your goals right now?

SS: Quite simply re-instatement. I’m holding up my end of the contract, so we want the university to hold up its end of the contract so I can join my colleagues and students at University of Illinois, so I so I can get to work and become part of the campus.

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