Professor Calls His Ouster over Gaza Comments a 'Teaching Moment' for Academic Freedom

On Tuesday, University of Illinois students staged a campus-wide walkout in solidarity with the ousted professor. (Photo: Virginia Tech University)

Professor Calls His Ouster over Gaza Comments a 'Teaching Moment' for Academic Freedom

Professor Steven Salaita says he stills wants to teach at University of Illinois

A professor of Indigenous studies who has been at the center of controversy over academic freedom at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign spoke publicly on Tuesday for the first time since a job offer at the school was rescinded following remarks he made on Twitter regarding Israel's attack on the people of Gaza earlier his summer.

Appearing at a press conference at the University YMCA, Professor Steven Salaita said that his dismissal has far-reaching implications for the principle of academic freedom in what supporters call the era of the 'corporatized university.'

"As hard as this situation is on me personally, the danger of the University's decision has farther reaching implications," Salaita told the overflowing room. "Universities are meant to be cauldrons of critical thinking; they are meant to foster creative inquiry and, when at their best, challenge political, economic, or social orthodoxy."

The comments were the first made by the professor since his tenured faculty appointment in the American Indian studies program was terminated by University Chancellor Phyllis Wise in early August for making allegedly "uncivil" comments about Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip. The notion of "tenure," Salaita explained during the press conference, "is supposed to be an ironclad guarantee that University officials respect [ideals of academic freedom], and do not succumb to financial pressure or political expediency by silencing controversial or unpopular views."

Salaita, a Palestinian-American, had been awarded the tenured position in fall 2013 and was scheduled to begin on August 16, 2014--just two weeks after Wise rescinded the offer. University documents released in response to a public-records request revealed that Wise had been pressured by numerous pro-Israel students, parents, alumni and big-money donors to abort his appointment. Demands followed critical comments by Salaita regarding Israel's most recent attack on Gaza, during which thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of children, were killed.

As noted during his talk, many groups including the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents Salaita, say that this incident is part of an ongoing, national effort by "wealthy and well-organized groups" to silence the speech of pro-Palestinian students and faculty.

"This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom," Salaita said. "The ability of wealthy donors and the politically powerful to create exceptions to bedrock principles should be worrying to all scholars and teachers." Full text of Salaita's comments can be found here.

Wise later denied that Salaita's opinions were behind his dismissal, and instead cited the mandate for campus discourse to be "civil."

"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," Wise wrote in an open letter on the University blog.

Speaking on Democracy Now! on Tuesday, Columbia Law professor Katherine Franke--who is among the thousands of academics who pledged to boycott the University--explained how the call for "civility" is antithetical to the roll of the academic. Calling for a "civility norm," she says, "undermines what it is we do as academics, which is to think hard and, often in uncomfortable ways, about our settled ideas and settled sense of what we know in the world."

Salaita's firing is evidence of what Franke called the "corporatization of the university."

She continued: "The executive, in this case the Chancellor, sees herself as responsible to investors or donors more than she does to constituency on campus, the academics and students. A university is not just a business where you have a bottom line that satisfies a board of directors every year like other businesses, we have a particular mission at a university--perhaps to do things that are unpopular, that challenge what your donors think is the right way in which you should be thinking about particular problems."

"If you're not doing that," Franke concluded, "you're not running a university. You're running some other sort of ideological machine."

Wise's unilateral dismissal of Salaita has sparked widespread outrage over both her reasoning and lack of due process. On Thursday, the Board of Trustees is set to meet and issue a final rule over whether or not Salaita's termination will be upheld.

At the conclusion of his statement on Tuesday, Salaita reaffirmed his desire to teach at the school, despite his treatment. He said:

I reiterate the demand that the University recognize the importance of respecting the faculty's hiring decision and reinstate me. It is my sincere ho pe that I can - as a member of this academic institution - engage with the entire University community in a constructive conversation about the substance of my viewpoints on Palestinian human rights and about the values of academic freedom.

Ahead of the press conference, students at UIUC school braved pouring rain and staged a campus-wide walkout in solidarity with the Salaita because they say he is the victim of discrimination and that the University's dismissal is a "blatant" violation of his First Amendment rights.

"We're in a situation where the University is totally abusing its power and not recognizing shared government or respecting due process," organizer and UIUC student Rico Chenyek told Common Dreams. "This is an example of blatant discrimination and a violation of the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom to dissent."

He added that Salaita's firing threatens all students and faculty who are among under-represented populations, such as Palestinians or Native Americans.

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