Univ. of Illinois Admits Pre-Emptive Firing of Israel Critic Steven Salaita

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Electronic Intifada

Univ. of Illinois Admits Pre-Emptive Firing of Israel Critic Steven Salaita

Professor of American Indian studies Steven Salaita was offered a job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne before having the offered rescinded following tweets he made critical of Israel during its recent assault on the Gaza Strip. (File)

Finally breaking its silence, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Friday claimed that the firing of Steven Salaita was “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.”

Rather, it was, in effect, a pre-empetive firing based on the assumption that his tweets would make him a bad teacher.

This transparent use of “civility” as a cover to fire a professor with outspoken views on Israel is almost identical to the pretext that was given by DePaul University in 2007 to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein.

In that case, DePaul denied Finkelstein tenure on the vague grounds that he lacked “collegiality.”

In a lengthy mass email to the university community (full text below), UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise makes the following statements that amount to pre-emptive accusations against Salaita without providing any specifics about what he was accused of and no due process to defend himself:

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. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.

As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner.

A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.

When Finkelstein was denied tenure, the Illinois branch of the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) wrote that “collegiality” was a vague, baseless and impermissible criterion in making such decisions.

Already in Salaita’s case, the national AAUP stated that it “has long objected to using criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty evaluation because we view this as a threat to academic freedom. It stands to reason that this objection should extend as well to decisions about hiring, especially about hiring to a tenured position.”

At the blog Academe, a publication of AAUP, John K. Wilson points out the absurdity of Wise’s claim that not just people but “viewpoints” must not be “demeaned”:

Of course, this standard is ridiculous: individuals should be free to say personal and “disrespectful” things about others (for example, everyone should be free to say that Wise’s argument here is both stupid and evil, without facing punishment from the respect police). Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being “disrespectful” is not an academic crime. But it’s notable that Salaita really didn’t say anything personal about anyone. So here Wise greatly expands the concept, declaring that not only persons but “viewpoints themselves” must be protected from any disrespectful words. I am puzzled as to exactly how a free university could possibly operate when no one is allowed to be disrespectful toward any viewpoint. Presumably, Wise will quickly act to fire anyone who has ever disrespected or demeaned Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since all “viewpoints” are protected, then biology professors must be fired for disrespecting creationism as false, along with any other professor who is found to believe or know anything.

The decision to fire Salaita has prompted a growing boycott of UIUC, with more than 2,400 scholars from around the country pledging not to engage with the university.

In a concrete manifestion of this, the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has announced that it is canceling an upcoming conference.

Mass email from Phyllis Wise [Note: a copy is also posted on Wise’s official blog]:

22 August 2014

Dear Colleagues:

As you may be aware, Vice President Christophe Pierre and I wrote to Prof. Steven Salaita on Aug. 1, informing him of the university’s decision not to recommend further action by the Board of Trustees concerning his potential appointment to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.   Since this decision, many of you have expressed your concern about its potential impact on academic freedom. I want to assure you in the strongest possible terms that all of us – my administration, the university administration and I – absolutely are committed to this bedrock principle. I began my career as a scientist challenging accepted ideas and pre-conceived notions, and I have continued during my career to invite and encourage such debates in all aspects of university life.

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.

As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.

The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel. Our university is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy. Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate. 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. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.

As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner. A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.

As a member of the faculty, I firmly believe that a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois is a tremendous honor and a unique privilege. Tenure also brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.

I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.

Sincerely,

Phyllis M. Wise Chancellor

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and a fellow with the Palestine Centre in Washington, DC.  Abunimah is Executive Director of The Electronic Intifada.

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