Steven Salaita controversy
The Steven Salaita Controversy is a controversy in which the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign conditionally offered a faculty position to Steven Salaita, only to have Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise withdraw the offer. Wise cited several controversial tweets by Salaita as the basis for withdrawing the offer. While the university's board of trustees initially supported this decision, Salaita fought it, claiming that his academic freedom had been infringed. Salaita insisted that the university reinstate his offer rather than search for a financial settlement.
During the long process of litigation, Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned from her position in August 2015, after she was implicated in hiding e-mails, including some that were relevant to the rescinding of the job offer. The fight between Salaita and the university received national attention as it sparked a debate on the role of academic freedom at universities, including an open letter written by various leaders at the university. In November 2015, the parties reached an $875,000 settlement, and it was agreed that Salaita would not join the faculty at the university.
Prior to the controversy Salaita was a tenured associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. While in that position, Salaita studied and wrote about immigration, indigenous peoples, dislocation, race, ethnicity and multi-culturalism. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times referred to him as a "respected scholar in American Indian studies and Israeli-Arab relations."
On October 3, 2013, the University of Illinois offered a professorial position to Salaita, but withdrew the offer in 2014, after reviewing tweets of his that the university viewed as controversial. Salaita's offer scheduled him to begin in January 2014 at the rank of Associate Professor with indefinite tenure as part of the American Indian Studies Program. Salaita accepted, but with a projected start date of August 16, 2014. In July 2014, before the Board was scheduled to meet to approve new hires, Salaita posted a series of remarks on his Twitter account regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, which included:
- "You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing."
- "Let's cut to the chase: If you're defending #Israel right now you're an awful human being."
- "This is not a conflict between Israel and Hamas. It's a struggle by an indigenous people against colonial power."
- "The logic of 'antisemitism' deployed by Zionists, if applied in principle, would make pretty much everybody not a sociopath 'antisemitic'.
- "If it's 'antisemitic' to deplore colonisation, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have?"
- "Zionists: transforming anti-semitism from something horrible into something honorable since 1948."
- "I repeat: if you're defending Israel right now, then 'hopelessly brainwashed' is your best prognosis."
- "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?"
- "#Israel's bombardment of #Gaza provides a necessary impetus to reflect on the genocides that accompanied the formation of the United States."
- "I refuse to conceptualise Israel / Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs."
Phyllis M. Wise, then-Chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus, received hundreds of complaints about Salaita's Twitter remarks from university donors and others connected to the university who objected to Salaita's behavior, some characterizing the remarks as vulgar, and others seeing them as anti-Semitic.
In a statement released on August 22, 2014, Wise wrote:
A pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas. One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives. Robust--and even intense and provocative--debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university....What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.
The university's code of conduct for faculty requires practicing "respect by treating others with civility and decency". Wise announced that she was withdrawing the job offer before Salaita's appointment could be approved by the University Board of Trustees. Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre and Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise wrote to Salaita saying that they had chosen not to present his potential appointment to the Board on August 1, 2014, after Salaita had resigned his position at Virginia Tech. On September 10, 2014, the trustees voted down a proposal to reconsider his offer of employment, and on September 11, 2014, the university's board of trustees voted 8-1 to support Chancellor Wise's decision. Salaita declared this was an infringement on his academic freedom and insisted the university reinstate its offer rather than search for a financial settlement.
Communications released subsequently show that the withdrawal of Salaita's employment offer came after contentions by faculty, students and donors that Salaita's tweets regarding Israel's military actions in Gaza were anti-Semitic. The chancellor of the university stated that the decision was not influenced by these communications. Salaita rejected the accusations of antisemitism in an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward, saying he is "deeply opposed to all forms of bigotry and racism including anti-Semitism". He countered that the situation is part of a campaign by "wealthy and well organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty".
The case received wide attention on many college campuses because it raises the issue of suppression of academic freedom regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette pointed out that the situation was unique because so few "prospective employees ... would engage in the kind of self-destructive behavior that Salaita did between job offer and contract approval". In response to the university's actions, a group of over 40 Jewish faculty and students at the university signed a letter to Chancellor Wise and the board, protesting what they consider an unjustified conflation of "criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism."
An outcry ensued, both at the university itself and in other academic institutions. Five departments voted "no confidence" in Chancellor Wise, several academic organizations condemned the university's actions, and some scholars cancelled lectures scheduled at the university. On its website the American Indian studies program shared its statement of no-confidence, "With this vote of no confidence, the faculty of UIUC's American Indian studies program also joins the thousands of scholars and organizations in the United States and across the world in seeing the chancellor's action as a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech." Cary Nelson defended the decision on the basis that Salaita had not yet become a faculty member at the time that his offer was withdrawn, but the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a publication which stated that "Professor Salaita's appointment should have entitled him to the due process rights of a tenured faculty member" and that the university "violated the AAUP/AAC&U 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure". The Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at UIUC stated that "The process by which Dr. Salaita's proposed appointment was withdrawn and eventually rejected did not follow existing policies and procedures in several substantial respects...The reasons given--the civility of tweets made by Dr. Salaita in the summer of 2014--is not consistent with the university's guarantee of freedom of political speech...however, ... the Chancellor has raised legitimate questions about Dr. Salaita's professional fitness that must be addressed." It recommended that Salaita's candidacy "be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for reconsideration by a committee of qualified academic experts."
Salaita has received support for his cause from the Modern Language Association, the AAUP and the Middle East Studies Association. However, Cary Nelson, the President of the AAUP from 2006 to 2012, lamented that it has become difficult to find an academic arena "grounded in an empathy for both Palestinians and Israelis". Glenn Greenwald, a journalist and constitutional lawyer, used the Salaita case as an example to show that Muslims and pro-Palestinian activists bear the brunt of free speech violations in the West since the Charlie Hebdo shooting. In another article he described Salaita's firing as "likely illegal".
In August 2015, Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned after she was implicated in hiding emails that involved the rescinding of Salaita's job offer. Shortly thereafter, 41 department heads, chairs and directors, predominantly from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, published an open letter titled "Acting Chancellor Barbara Wilson and President Timothy Killeen should call for the reinstatement of Steven Salaita at the September 2015 board meeting."
Scholars see this case as a perfect example of why universities must train and be prepared to address the uptick in attacks on university professors. They speak of the need to educate professors on the new challenges that exist with social media. They point to the problem of it being an unavoidable risk that scholars now face. They recommend professors and universities try to be ready for these situations.
In March 2015, Todd Samuel Presner, the director of the Jewish studies center at the University of California, Los Angeles, joined Cornel West and Anita Hill in cancelling lectures they were scheduled to give at the University of Illinois over this controversy. Presner notified Phyllis Wise that he would not visit the campus for its Rosenthal Lecture because of how she and the university board handled the Salaita case. The lecture, "A Message in a Bottle: Holocaust Testimony and the Jewish Future", was scheduled for April 27. Presner wrote in his letter to Wise: "I condemn anti-Semitic speech and also recognize his right to express his views. At the same time, I also believe that we need to thoughtfully and honestly confront the complex and violent reality that spawned these speech acts (and many others, on both sides). That's a tall order when the silencing of dissent at all levels of public and private discourse is evermore prevalent and particularly when that silencing comes from the very places that are meant to protect it." Celebrated civil rights activist and academic Cornel West also canceled a speech scheduled in April at the University of Illinois because of the university's treatment of Salaita. He described the university's decision to cancel Salaita's employment offer "a moral scandal".
In November 2014 Salaita sued the University of Illinois to force them to release all records relating to the hiring process, as required by the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. In June 2015, a federal judge ruled that the university must release any e-mails relevant to the Salaita firing. The university complied with the court order in August, and made hundreds of e-mails available to the public.
In January 2015, Salaita sued to have his job offer reinstated. In August 2015, a federal judge rejected the university's motion to dismiss the case. In so doing, the federal judge allowed a spoliation of evidence claim to proceed against the University of Illinois. Rather than litigating the claims, the University of Illinois settled the action at cost of more than $2 million.
The November 2015 settlement involved the university paying Salaita $600,000, and a further $275,000 to cover his legal expenses. The university did not admit wrongdoing, and justified the settlement by noting that it had already spent $1.3 million on the case, and that the cost of proceeding to trial would likely have exceeded the settlement amount. As part of the settlement it was agreed that Salaita would not join the university faculty.
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