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Dehiring at University of Illinois Threatens Tomorrow’s Scholars

The role of donors and corporate-driven university boards in academic appointments undermines critical research

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Photo: ilovebutter)

As the third Gaza war in five years winds down, another battle heats up in the United States over the limits of acceptable or civil criticism of Israel. No lives have been lost, but reputations, careers and livelihoods have been damaged, perhaps irredeemably so, by this latest conflict.

It began on Aug. 2, when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) withdrew a job offer to Palestinian-American scholar Steven Salaita for comments he made on Twitter about the war in Gaza. The politicized nature of the process has caused uproar among scholars, who are demanding his reinstatement and refusing to teach or collaborate with the university. As the fall semester begins, we are likely to see heated protests in support of the embattled professor. The pressure from students, faculty and thousands of scholars in the United States and around the world already changed the calculus, although just how and to whose benefit remain in question. 

On Sept. 1, after a meeting with chancellor Phyllis Wise, several students at the university reported that she told them that she reversed her decision and would now forward Salaita’s dossier to the university’s board of trustees for approval. On the morning of Sept. 2, however, she informed a group of professors, including English professor and director of the initiative in Holocaust, genocide and memory studies Michael Rothberg (a Salaita supporter), that there was no change in the status of his case and a reversal of her decision “was very unlikely.”

Regardless of the outcome, the particulars of Salaita’s case set a dangerous precedent for the future of academic freedom and scholarly independence. If allowed to stand, his dehiring will have a devastating effect on scholars working in highly politicized fields such as Middle Eastern studies and climate science, where critical and untempered public debate is most crucial. That’s not all: It will also limit the freedom of students and faculty to push the boundaries of knowledge and, in the process, their identities and futures toward new and unexpected horizons.

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Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California: Irvine, and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

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