Scholars Pledge to Boycott UIUC Over the Firing of Steven Salaita
On 6 August, Inside Higher Ed reported that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) had rescinded a job offer to Steven G. Salaita, who was set to begin a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program this month. The article quoted “sources familiar with the university’s decision” as saying that the rescinding of Salaita’s job offer was due to the “tone” of comments that he had made on social media regarding Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza. The report also quoted UIUC English Professor Cary Nelson as attributing the decision to what he referred to as Salaita’s “venomous statements” and “foul-mouthed presence in social media,” specifically in tweets that criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza.
According to a public records request by the Chicago Tribune, Salaita had received an offer letter on 3 October 2013 from Brian Ross, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UIUC, and had signed the letter on 9 October. As recently as 22 July, a UIUC spokeswoman defended Salaita's comments on Twitter and elsewhere, stating that "faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees." However, on 1 August, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise informed Salaita via email that his appointment would not be submitted to the board of trustees.
Almost immediately, opposition to what amounts to the firing of Steven Salaita for voicing criticism of Israel came from both individuals and organizations concerned with freedom of expression and academic freedom. Statements from the American Association of University Professors and the Illinois Conference Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the AAUP, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association, among others, called for the honoring of the job offer to Salaita and decried the violation of academic freedom. Several petitions, including one that currently has more than fourteen thousand signatories, demanded his reinstatement. A letter addressed to Chancellor Wise and signed by twenty distinguished faculty, including Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Joan Scott, declared, “We should not forget why John Dewey, Arthur Lovejoy, and Edwin Seligman, the founders of the AAUP, sought to protect academic freedom—to ensure that academics could act as a check on the tyranny of public opinion.” Both Corey Robin and Robin D. G. Kelley have pointed out that the firing of Salaita for his social media commentary flies in the face of Chancellor Wise’s own statements on academic freedom.
[UPDATE: On 15 August, an open letter to Chancellor Wise signed by twenty prominent scholars of free speech and constitutional law was released; it addresses the violations of free speech and academic freedom in the university's actions towards Salaita and calls for UIUC to submit his appointment to the board of trustees. The letter notes that "the constitutional problem underlying the withdrawal of an offer of employment to Professor Salaita on account of his opinions on the Middle East affects not only him individually, but all current and prospective faculty at the University of Illinois insofar as it will have the predictable and inevitable effect of chilling speech—both inside and outside the classroom—by other academics" and places the actions against Salaita in the context of previous violations of academic freedom at the University of Illinois.]
Taking the next step, hundreds of academics have now pledged to take a range of actions that amount to a boycott of UIUC until the university honors the job offer to Salaita. Bruce Robbins, who had previously served as a Mellon Distinguished Visiting Professor at UIUC, announced that he was canceling an appearance at the university in October since “the decision...to fire Professor Steven Salaita for his political views makes it impossible for me to have anything more to do with that campus, at least until that decision is reversed and Professor Salaita is reinstated.” In an open letter to Chancellor Wise, Robin D. G. Kelley declared: “If we are unable to persuade you of the moral, ethical, intellectual, and legal reasons why you should reverse course, I cannot in good conscience step foot on your campus so long as you hold the position as Chancellor. And I will encourage my colleagues to do the same.”
There are a number of ongoing campaigns calling for such a boycott of UIUC. A statement signed by hundreds of scholars declares that the signers “will not give guest lectures or provide public speeches at The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign” and calls on faculty and administrators to “honor the boycott until Professor Steven Salaita is made a formal and binding offer of employment with tenure, exactly the same offer that has been revoked.” If you are a scholar with an academic affiliation and would like to sign this letter, click here. [UPDATE: This letter has now been signed by more than one thousand scholars and academics.]
Several hundred more scholars have signed pledges that they will not participate in or attend any events, including academic conferences, at UIUC until this decision is reversed. Individual boycott letters are being compiled for scholars in English, history, philosophy, political science, rhetoric and composition, sociology, and women’s studies, gender studies, and feminist studies. To see a full list of these campaigns and to find contact information in order to sign on, click here.
[UPDATE: There are now additional statements of boycott from communications scholars and from contingent academic workers (under the title "From the Un-tenured and Un-tenurable Academic Community.") To sign the letter from communications scholars, click here; to sign the letter from contingent academic workers, click here.]
According to this account, there are now more than 1500 scholars and academics who have pledged to boycott the University of Illinois until it reinstates Steven Salaita.
Individual letters can also be sent directly to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise, at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org; letters should be copied to Professor Robert Warrior, chair of the American Indian Studies department, at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information and analysis on Steven Salaita and UIUC:
Ali Abuminah, “University of Illinois Faces Growing Boycott Over Firing Palestinian-American Professor”
Ali Abunimah, “Zionist Groups Planned to Lobby University of Illinois Trustees Over Salaita Appointment”
Michael Berubé, Open Letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise
Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill V. Mullen, “Is the Firing of Steven Salaita the Beginning of a New Blacklist?”
Sarah Irving, "Fired Professor Voiced 'Legimitate Outrage' Over Gaza Attack, Say University of Illinois Colleagures"
Robin D. G. Kelley, “Why Did You Fire Professor Steven Salaita?”
Scott Lemieux, “Yes, Steven Salaita Was Fired, and No, It’s Not Defensible”
David Lloyd, “Cary Nelson: The Lackey of Power”
Phan Nguyen, “Reading Salaita in Illinois—By Way of Cary Nelson”
Corey Robin, “Shit and Curses and Other Updates on the Steven Salaita Affair”
Corey Robin, “Six Statements Cary Nelson Thinks Should Get You Unhired at the University of Illinois”
USACBI Condemns UIUC Firing of Arab-American Scholar Steven Salaita
John K. Wilson, “Fighting the Twitter Police”
This article was first published on Jadaliyya.