Why aren’t college presidents writing letters of concern about Salaita?

The firing of Professor Steven Salaita highlights infringements on academic freedom in the US.

'One wonders why it is that critics of Israel are particularly vulnerable to attack,' writes Palumbo-Liu [AP]

In December 2013, over 200 college presidents and administrators wrote op-eds and issued statements criticising the vote of the American Studies Association for endorsing the academic boycott of Israel. Many of them asserted that the boycott ran counter to the principle of academic freedom. Phyliss Wise, Chancellor of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign was one of them. Here is what she wrote regarding the American Studies Association’s resolution to endorse the academic boycott of Israel:

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign opposes the boycott of Israeli academic institutions and endorses the statement made by the AAUP [American Association of University Professors]. At Illinois, we value academic freedom as one of our core principles and cherish the critical importance of the ability of faculty to pursue learning, discovery and engagement without regard to political considerations.

Bypassing even a cursory reading of the actual text of the resolution, which made it clear that this was a boycott of Israeli institutions, not individuals, and that the resolution did not prevent collaborations between individual scholars, critics of the academic boycott evoked the statement of the American Association of University Professors, taking the AAUP as the gold standard when it comes to issues of academic freedom.

Academic loses job after anti-Israel tweets

In July, during the Israeli army’s offensive on Gaza, Professor Steven Salaita and I wrote a piece in Al Jazeera America wondering why these same college presidents, so ready to denounce the ASA and the BDS movement for supposedly curtailing academic freedom, were not saying anything to protest the Israel’s closing of Palestinian universities, its destruction of property, and its harassment and intimidation of teachers and students. We wrote:

This silence might seem reasonable. It is, after all, not an intrinsic part of a college president’s job to comment on injustice. Forms of oppression affecting campuses around the world are so numerous that any concerned president could easily fill his or her day drafting statements of condemnation. 

However, when a university president decides to comment on what he or she believes to be an injustice – as many presidents did by publicly denouncing the ASA boycott – then a burden of consistency prevails. The rush to condemn the ASA for supposedly threatening academic freedom transformed those university leaders from executives into proponents. It is therefore reasonable to expect from these proponents a commensurate rush to decry demonstrable restrictions on academic freedom by the same state whose violations the ASA resolution denounces.

Now there is another egregious violation of academic freedom that demands to be called out.  And while many from around the world have done so, not a single college administrator who rushed to fire off their self-righteous missives about the academic boycott of Israel has uttered a word – a glaring inconsistency once again prevails.

Professor Steven Salaita was recently summarily fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. As I wrote in The Huffington Post:

Salaita, after going through the normal process of the job search and hire, was offered a tenured position by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign on the basis of a thorough and dispassionate evaluation of his excellence in scholarship and teaching. Nevertheless, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise has decided not to honor that commitment, for reasons unknown and undisclosed, and instead has informed Salaita that his appointment will not be formally presented to the UIUC Trustees for final approval.

It was reported by various news organizations, including Inside Higher Education, that those familiar with Wise’s decision have said that UIUC reacted to external complaints about Salaita’s comments on social media regarding Israeli state actions and policies.

Up until very recently, those defending UIUC’s actions have argued that no real contract was offered. But the News Gazette released key university documents pertaining to the case, including the actual offer letter, dated October 3, 2013 and signed by the dean at the university, which reads in part: “I am pleased to offer you a faculty position in [American Indian Studies] at the rank of Associate Professor… This appointment will carry indefinite tenure. This recommendation is subject to approval by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.” The dean then offers a paragraph citing the university’s commitment to academic freedom, as defined by the American Association of University Professors.

Defenders of Salaita’s firing have latched onto the fact that the offer, while signed by the dean, is contingent upon final Trustee approval. But in a document attached by the dean to his letter, the actual process of Trustee approval is explained:

The University of Illinois Statutes (Article IX, Section 3.a.) provide that only the Board of Trustees has the authority to make formal appointments to the academic staff.  New academic staff members will receive a formal Notification of Appointment from the Board once the hiring unit has received back from the candidate all required documents, so the appointment can be processed.

The Trustees’ approval is thus based simply and entirely on the “new academic staff member” returning “all required documents” (which Salaita did). It is emphatically not dependent on their judgment as to the soundness of the appointment; they are not in the position to second-guess their university faculty. 

Immediately after the firing, the Organizing Collective of the US Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (USACBI) issued a statement which “strenuously protests the targeting of Professor Salaita for his political viewpoints which should be protected under the First Amendment, and demands that he be reinstated and allowed to continue with his academic pursuits and his teaching duties and that the university protect his rights to engage in political discourse on and off campus.”        

For its part, even the AAUP, which opposes the academic boycott favoured by USACBI, has taken an immediate stand against this action, stating Salaita’s academic freedom has been violated. Both the Illinois chapter of the AAUP and the national office of the American Association of University Professors have come to Salaita’s defence:

The Illinois Conference Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors supports the honoring of the appointment of Steven G. Salaita in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Reports that the university has voided a job offer, if accurate, due to tweets on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country…Professor Salaita’s words while strident and vulgar were an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East…Yet the University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America.

The action also has been condemned by the Center for Constitutional Rights; by over 12,000 individuals in the US and elsewhere; by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine and by the Association des Universitaires pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine. A legal opinion has been offered by a Cornell law professor. A boycott against the University of Illinois has already drawn some 1,500 signatures. In each of these cases, a key issue is the denial of academic freedom and due process to Steven Salaita.

One wonders why it is that critics of Israel are particularly vulnerable to attack, and not only undefended by people like those in UIUC’s administration, but even subject to their whims. And furthermore, one has to mention this – if such arbitrary actions, prompted by outside influence and trumping faculty governance, can be undertaken with impunity in this case, there is absolutely no reason to believe that it could not happen again, to any other faculty hire in the country for any other reason, Israel-related or not.  

So, again, all you college and university administrators, if even for your own self-interest and the dignity and autonomy of your institution, isn’t it time you at least issued a statement of concern over this? But if you are truly interested in academic freedom, it is nothing short of base hypocrisy not to protest Salaita’s firing. 

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University.

Follow him on Twitter: @palumboliu