How Fighting the Corporatization of the American University Can Get You Fired from Your Teaching Job
When Israeli bombs were falling on Gaza this summer, killing more than 2,000 Palestinians, it ignited a global controversy about whether Israel’s actions constituted war crimes. That controversy, in some ways, manifested at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The board of trustees, responding to intense pressure from donors, voted to block the appointment of Native American studies professor Steven Salaita due to his “uncivil” tweets criticizing Israel’s assault on Gaza. Salaita, who is Palestinian and the author of Israel’s Dead Soul, left his job at Virginia Tech to take a tenured position at the University of Illinois. However, only a few weeks before he was supposed to start his new position, the school’s chancellor informed him that the job offer had been rescinded.
The incident sparked a backlash from scholars, civil rights groups and activists who argued that the university had violated Salaita’s freedom of speech by firing him. More than 6,000 academics have signed on to an academic boycott against the university and 16 of the school’s departments have passed no-confidence votes against the chancellor.
Salaita’s case is not extraordinary in that he is one of many college professors who have been fired or denied tenure for expressing viewpoints critical of Israel. Last week, Salaita spoke at several campuses about his battle with the University of Illinois. One of the lectures took place at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), which is not unfamiliar with explosive controversies related to Israel and Palestine. Almost two years ago, several New York City councilmembers threatened to pull funding from Brooklyn College if the school’s political science department did not drop its co-sponsorship of an event advocating for the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel to end its military occupation of Palestine.
Salaita’s appearance at Brooklyn College caused a similar uproar last week. Several New York politicians, including State Assemblyman Dov Hikind demanded that the event be canceled. It was the only stop on Salaita’s tour to elicit such a response from elected officials.
To better understand the controversy at Brooklyn College and Salaita’s case in general, I spoke to Kristofer Petersen-Overton, who in his first teaching position as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College had an experience similar to Salaita's. In 2011, several alumni, including Hikind, publicly objected to Petersen-Overton’s appointment to teach a graduate-level class on the Middle East. Hikind accused him of being “an overt supporter of terrorism” because of an academic paper he wrote about the concept of martyrdom in Palestinian society. Brooklyn College, which initially explained it was dismissing Petersen-Overton because he had not completed his PhD and thus was not qualified to teach the class, eventually reinstated him a week later in response to a global campaign from many of the same people protesting the decision against Salaita.
Alex Ellefson: One of the biggest differences between Salaita’s dismissal and yours is that you were eventually reinstated while he was not. Why do you think that is the case?
Kristofer Petersen-Overton: They just didn’t anticipate that there would be any resistance. Because in most cases, there’s not. My case, I think reflects much more deeply the predicament that adjuncts are in. You can just get rid of an adjunct and they quietly leave. Which I wasn’t prepared to do because I knew that this was coming out of a long campaign of attacks against people who write critically about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. So I was ready for this. I never imagined it would happen but I was prepared. I thought it might happen at some point in my career but I never imagined it would happen during my first semester of teaching.
AF: What do you mean when you say you imagined it could happen at some point in your career?
KPO: If you look at the people who had been sacked prior to my case, you’re talking about pretty well known scholars. Norman Finkelstein, Rashid Khalidi, Juan Cole, Nadia Abu El Haj. These are people who are either tenured or on a tenure track as Finkelstein was. But why are you dealing with a small fry like me? So I never imagined it would happen when I was a graduate student.
AF: How do you prepare for something like that?
KPO: The first thing I did as soon as I heard that I was fired was to literally just do nothing but write to every Middle East organization I could think of. I wrote to student groups, activist groups, professional associations, personal contacts, friends, scholars. And within a few hours, you get emails back from some of these sources.
But also, I should say that I got lots of support from the faculty and student activists at Brooklyn— Corey Robin in particular, a lot of focus has been put on my colleague Corey Robin recently. He’s now the chair of the political science department at Brooklyn College. He was very much involved in the whole movement to boycott the University of Illinois if they refused to reinstate Salaita. That was Corey’s idea. And he’s got a lot of good connections on the left to journalists and scholars, etcetera.
AF: One aspect of Salaita’s case that is particularly unique is that the issue of donor pressure has been highlighted in a way that it hasn’t in the past. Hundreds of emails about the chancellor’s correspondence with donors have been made public due to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. Considering the academic boycott initiated by Corey Robin, what do you think will win out in the end? Academic pressure or donor pressure?
KPO: Donor pressure. Absolutely. I mean, this is part of a larger trend towards the corporatization of higher education in this country. And look, I say that I didn’t get very much involved in the Salaita case but I did spend several hours looking up contact information for every single trustee member. Of course, they try and keep that very secret because they don’t want to get notes from everyone. So I spent hours googling and finding all this information and posting it on Facebook and circulating it around. And people filled in missing ones that I wasn’t able to find.
But just looking at their background. You’re talking about a board of trustees, very similar to CUNY, in which nearly every single person comes from a business background. I think there was one woman who had experience in elementary school teaching. But overwhelmingly, they’re from business backgrounds.
AF: Yes, most board of trustees members come from business backgrounds, What do you think that means when it comes to stifling criticism of Israel on college campuses?
KPO: Well look, they’re running a business. And if it was unpopular to go on Twitter and talk about any subject that is as inflammatory as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, especially when you’re critical of Israeli actions, if that was perceived as being unacceptable and a potential threat to the University’s financial base, of course you’re going to have a similar situation. It just happens to be that on this particular issue, you’re taking a big risk if you choose to speak on social media in an inflammatory way. And Salaita, that’s his style. Of course, he had nothing to worry about because he had tenure. But in that brief period that he gave up tenure at Virginia Tech, that brief moment before the ink had dried on the contract… Yeah, his case is really disturbing.
AF: Does that say something about what these controversies are all about? In a broader context, is this a conflict between politics and academia?
KPO: Well, at the end of the day, it’s economic. In the age of the neoliberal university, the university is interested in having professors who do not hold viewpoints that are too unconventional. A certain level of unconventionality might be acceptable on certain issues. You can have some people who are mildly critical of U.S. foreign policy, perhaps. It’s like, “Okay, ha ha. Those are the leftist professors at the university.”
But if that position seriously runs against the grain of donors and political elite and people who are closely connected with the running of the university, then you’re going to have a problem. Then you won’t get the position. You won’t be reappointed. And in most cases this is just sort of quietly done. You’re never fired. You’re just not reappointed and you no longer show up and someone fills your place. Someone who knows how to keep their mouth shut because they recognize that there are no institutional protections for adjuncts.
AF: Some of Salaita’s tweets were provocative and he admitted that. What do you think about his tweets?
KPO: I mean, provocative and provocative. Is it provocative when people blandly and casually support drone strikes or the war in Iraq? No one complains about that. Salaita is apparently endorsing violence because he has an innuendo, and sure, it’s inflammatory but it’s only inflammatory because of the political culture that doesn’t accept that. We don’t bat an eyelash when people support all kinds of murderous military interventions.
AF: How did that very public battle affect your experience as a professor? Were your students aware of it and how did they respond?
KPO: Oh yeah, of course they were aware of it. I won’t go too much into the particulars in class but I can tell you how this one particular student who had complained about me interacted with me and the other students. There was a lot of tension and for me, it was my first teaching experience, so that was also a bit of a crash course on how to navigate sensitive topics. I mean, this student, she really crossed many lines, constantly emailing me, openly challenging me in a very confrontational way. I used to get home from that class and have a shot of whiskey. I dreaded this class. I only taught it on principle at the end of the day.
AF: Was there any support from your students?
KPO: Oh yeah. Most of them are great. I’m still in touch with one guy who took the class. He disagreed with me politically but he enjoyed the class. I’m friends with him on Facebook and we never had the kind of confrontation that I had with the other student. A number of the students were very supportive, very nice. I had many people write to me afterwards saying: “Wow, I can’t believe how much patience you have. I would have lost it.”
AF: Did your experience at Brooklyn College change your perception of academia?
KPO: Oh yeah. I was just new to teaching. I had no idea what an adjunct even was. And the first semester I’m teaching I have a very serious lesson in the professional disparities in the contemporary university. That was kind of a shocker.
But it reinforced a view of the academy that I’m not particularly fond of. Noam Chomsky will criticize the academy for being very intellectually authoritarian. For the most part you are dealing with careerists and those who crave to be close to power. And that was a picture of the academy that I never accepted.
And now, being in the university, I see that a lot of what Chomsky’s critique is based on is absolutely true. Figures who are very outspoken and politically involved and engaged in ways that really challenge the structure of the university are just rare. Because they are by and large weeded out before they get to those positions.
AF: What do you think needs to be done to protect future professors who find themselves in a similar position?
KPO: Well, you need to abolish the board of trustees at most universities. That’s the first step that you could take. I mean, there’s a lot of criticism directed at modern universities about administrative bloat. At many universities you have more members of the administration than you have actual faculty. And that’s a huge change.
So obviously, this is part of the corporatization. This is part of cultivating a very carefully crafted brand image of the university. That’s what that is. And taking away the power over academic decision-making from the faculty.