Reinstate Justice at the University of Illinois: An Open Letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise

The University of Illinois campus. (Photo: Christopher Schmidt)

Reinstate Justice at the University of Illinois: An Open Letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise

An open letter calling on the UIUC chancellor to reverse the severing of Prof Steven Salaita's offer of contract.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise

University of Illinois Urbana Champaign

Dear Chancellor Wise:

I write as the organiser of an online petition supporting Professor Steven Salaita's reinstatement which has garnered 16,670 signatories as of this writing.

I call upon you and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) to immediately reverse the travesty of severing the offer of a contract of tenure as Associate Professor in the Department of American Indian Studies, to Palestinian-American Professor Steven Salaita which he accepted in good faith and subsequently resigned from Virginia Tech, uprooting his wife and baby son from their home in Virginia to move to Chicago.

Your unconstitutional revocation of employment violates the very "principles of academic freedom and tenure laid down by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to which, you maintain, in the third paragraph of your offer, UIUC subscribes - particularly as the revocation was laid ostensibly on grounds of "uncivil speech" in a series of tweets by Professor Salaita.

Your unconvincing excuse for firing Professor Salaita is astutely challenged by petitioner Aaron Dailey Davis, who commented,

"There is nothing outrageous about Prof Salaita's honest and heartfelt commentary on the brutal, day-after-day-for-weeks long, massacre of the Palestinians - his people - that we all witnessed over the last month. It is the act of you firing him that is outrageous. It is you telling a Palestinian man who teaches the history of colonial slaughter in the Americas that he cannot respond accurately to the colonial slaughter of his own people that is outrageous."

Furthermore, people can judge for themselves where the real incivility has been committed in the light of your riding roughshod over the Department of American Indian Studies by not consulting them on your scandalous decision. Its director, Professor Warrior, by contrast demonstrates true civility: "I remain committed to Steven's appointment and to the principles of academic freedom more and more at stake here at Illinois and in the academic world more broadly."

Reflecting their deep concerns, UIUC's American Studies Program faculty cast a vote of no confidence in you as chancellor. On August 24, its website said its "sentiment is based on Wise's decision to effectively fire Prof. Steven Salaita, whose de facto hir(ing) had been properly vetted...and approved by the college through standard academic procedure."

Your own current and former students and faculty as well as people from all over the world, including Austria, Australia, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Kenya New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Uganda, United Kingdom et al, have made thousands of comments in which they view this scandalous situation from various angles such as,

"the connection between Professor Salaita's dismissal and the cause of indigenous peoples at the hands of settler-colonial powers."

"The defense of the Israeli occupier is the last allowable and politically correct vestige of racism and colonialism in the United States where illegal and immoral criminal actions of the Israeli occupier apparatus are defended in all levels of our society including academia."

"The controversy is over truth-telling about Israel and it is constructed & punished as heretic by ardent pro-Israelis."

"I am a professor and a Jew, and I am critical of Israel. Should I fear losing my job as well?"

Chancellor, these concerns are more than justified by the confirmation on what everyone already strongly suspected and what the UIUC administration had lied about - namely, you and your board unconscionably succumbed to Zionist threats to withdraw funding:

"the university responded to an open records request from Inside Higher Ed for communications to the chancellor about the Salaita appointment, prior to her action to block it. The communications show that Wise was lobbied on the decision not only by pro-Israel students, parents and alumni, but also by the fund-raising arm of the university. The communications also show that the university system president was involved, and that the university was considering the legal ramifications of the case before the action to block the appointment."

So there we have it - an orchestrated campaign of about 70 emails. Against that are the voices of over 16,500 petitioners, the voices of more than 3000 scholars from around the world who are now boycotting the University of Illinois, many of whom are potential tenure referees who will not be available to support your administration and who have sent individual letters putting forth civil and cogent arguments against the decision (including professors from prestigious law schools around the country), and the voices of a number of academic and other associations.

One thing we can be sure of - pro-Zionist money talks to this group of wealthy business people on the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois like nothing else does. Even an appeal to the legacy of Chair of the Board of Trustees Christopher Kennedy's father fell on deaf ears. On the eve of the second meeting of the Board on this issue, I wrote to Mr Kennedy:

"Specifically, I would like to draw your attention to two developments in the discourse concerning Israel/Palestine that put the situation in a wider political context than the one that dominates both US government foreign policy and, it appears, the policies of UIUC.

The first development involves the increasing parallels that are being made between Israel's colonial military and the actions of the Israeli-trained police in Ferguson, Missouri, deployed to crush unarmed protesters demanding justice for the brutal murder of eighteen-year-old black American Mike Brown. More generally is the point Professor Brittney Cooper made in an article in Salon on August 5 titled "I was wrong about Gaza: Why we can no longer ignore the horrors in Palestine - I tried to limit my exposure to the bombings and screams. But here's why being black in America made me think twice," which is this:

'The same kind of nuance, the same hermeneutic of suspicion, the same ethic of care, that frames our understanding of black suffering and violence - unchecked policing, nonexistent economic opportunity, mass incarceration - in this political moment in the US should frame our understanding of Gaza's relationship to Israel. America's sordid history of settler colonialism, slavery, mass incarceration and other racially driven social ills teaches us a lot about why our country identifies with Israel and it teaches us everything we need to know about why we shouldn't.'

I don't presume the knowledge you have of your father, but I understand enough about his life in American politics to know that he stood for racial equality and social justice."

But, Chancellor, the remarkable thing is that, by its discredited action in firing Professor Salaita, your administration has managed to unite against them thousands of faculty on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the name of academic freedom and due process.

I urge you to stand again with these thousands of principled people who are concerned about Professor Salaita's academic future as a brilliant rising scholar in his field, and restore your reputation and the battered prestige of your own university.

Otherwise, this fight is far from over.

Dr Rima Najjar

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