In August 2014, Palestinian-American Professor Steven Salaita received an email from Phyllis Wise, the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He had just accepted a tenure-track teaching position in the university’s American Indian Studies program, and was due to start teaching in a few weeks’ time. Wise’s email notified Salaita that he was being terminated, effective immediately.

Salaita had already resigned from his position at Virginia Tech University, relocated his family to Illinois, and was actively preparing for his fall courses. He had also been closely following Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s brutal assault on the besieged population of Gaza that summer, which killed over 2,000 Palestinians. On his Twitter feed, Salaita had actively expressed his outrage over the wanton massacre. His tweets were sometimes eloquent and meditative, sometimes laced with profanity, sometimes strongly worded, and always impassioned. They were also the reasons why he lost his job at UIUC.

Salaita’s tweets included:

This is not a conflict between #Israel and “Hamas.” It’s a struggle by an Indigenous people against a colonial power. #Gaza #FreePalestine

— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 17, 2014

 

Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.

— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 9, 2014

 

If it’s “antisemitic” to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have? #Gaza

— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014

 

I repeat: if you’re defending #Israel right now, then “hopelessly brainwashed” is your best prognosis. #Gaza #FreePalestine

— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014

 

#Israel’s bombardment of #Gaza provides a necessary impetus to reflect on the genocides that accompanied the formation of the United States.

— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014

Although some had (unfairly) accused Salaita of professing “anti-Semitic” views, the problem, according to Chancellor Wise, was his “uncivil” demeanor in discussing Israeli atrocities against Gazans. As explained on the Chancellor’s Blog, Wise argued that Salaita had expressed his viewpoints using “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

But, Salaita (and many others) believed the real reason for Wise’s decision was pressure from wealthy donors who could not abide having a pro-Palestinian professor on campus. As journalist Nadeen Shaker wrote for Muftah,

The donors – largely pro-Israeli sympathizers– sent emails to Phyllis M. Wise, chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus, who ultimately withheld Salaita’s appointment. The emails, only three of which [had] been released to the public according to Salaita, threatened to withdraw and deny future funding to the university should Salaita’s appointment be finalized.

Many of these emails were made public, as a result of litigation over Salaita’s termination. In response to Wise’s unjustified actions, Salaita filed two separate lawsuits against the university, one to reinstate his employment and the other to release documents pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

After Salaita’s termination, heated public debate erupted around issues of academic freedom, civil rights, freedom of speech, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In the midst of it all, both the chancellor and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida resigned.

Throughout it all, Salaita received substantial support at the university in the form of student walkouts and a vote of “no confidence” for the university’s administration by over a dozen academic departments. More broadly, lectures and events at the university were canceled as part of a far-reaching academic boycott of the university. Many prominent academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Modern Language Association (MLA), the Society of American Law Teachers, and the American Studies Organization (ASA), issued public statements condemning the university’s treatment of Salaita.

Fuck Civility stickers and buttons to support Steven Salaita (credit: Flickr).

Fuck Civility stickers and buttons to support Steven Salaita (Photo source: Flickr).

On Thursday, November 12, the saga between Salaita and UIUC finally came to a close, after Salaita agreed to settle his claims against the school. Pursuant to the settlement, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign agreed to give Salaita $600,000 and pay his legal fees, amounting to nearly $1 million in damages. The terms of the settlement stipulate that Salaita will not seek employment at the University of Illinois in the future and will drop all claims against the school.

After the settlement was announced, Salaita wrote on his Facebook page:

We settled the case against UIUC today, and I am deeply grateful for the support and solidarity from so many individuals and communities. Together, we sent a strong message to those who would silence Palestine activists and limit speech on campus. The activists, students, academics, and others who spoke up with petitions, demonstrations, and investigations proved that grassroots organizing can make a difference. This is an important victory, even if the bigger fight isn’t over. At this point I am ready to move beyond this particular matter and continue doing what I love—teaching, writing, organizing, and contributing in whatever way I can to struggles for justice.

Although Salaita describes the settlement as a positive development and wishes to put the ordeal behind him, many of his supporters consider it a pyrrhic victory.

After learning of the settlement, over eighty academics issued a statement expressing concern about its terms and implications for freedom of speech, academic freedom, and the proper functioning of an academic institution:

On account of the manner in which Professor Salaita was terminated the American Association of University Professors censured UIUC for its failure to conform to sound academic practices as established in AAUP principles. We feel strongly that the monetary settlement of Professor Salaita’s legal claim does not address the underlying breaches of academic freedom and widely accepted standards for the conduct of academic governance that formed the basis of the AAUP sanction in this matter. For this reason we urge the AAUP to not remove UIUC from its list of censured administrations until such time as UIUC adequately addresses the larger pall of uncertainty that has been cast over the manner in which academic freedom is understood and respected at UIUC.

In an essay for In These Times, writer and political activist Marilyn Katz noted some of the many questions that will remain unanswered now that the lawsuit is not going to trial, including the identity of those who reported Salaita’s tweets to the university and the extent and nature of the effort to unseat Salaita from his position. Most importantly, Katz wonders, “Was Salaita’s treatment the result of a zealous individual or part of a larger scheme that has tried to squelch the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement by trying to pass laws in state legislatures, city councils and elsewhere making divestment illegal?”

While much of the political debate about Salaita has centered around academic freedom and civil liberties, there has been little focus on the nexus between these issues and the Palestinian question, or, as the Center for Constitutional Rights describes it, the “Palestinian exception to free speech.” As writer and activist David Green wrote for Mondoweiss:

Usually lost in this discourse, however, is the question of Palestine. Legal discussions of administrative procedures and a broader discussion of academic freedom obviously have their places. But Salaita is targeted because of what he has said about Palestine. He is targeted because at a national level, the Israel Lobby is afraid that it’s losing its control of the narrative. He is targeted because the Board of Trustees and Phyllis Wise have shown themselves to be not only vulnerable to pressure but actively politically repressive, especially regarding Chris Kennedy (Chair of Board of Trustees) and his actions against Bill Ayers and Kilgore.

Salaita is targeted because he would represent the first voice of Palestinian background on this campus who has a record of substantial and articulate advocacy on this issue. He could have set a precedent and by his presence and voice begun to change the atmosphere on a campus that, other than Francis Boyle (International Law), has lacked a bold and persuasive advocate for Palestinian justice among its faculty, and has lacked scholars who forthrightly address Zionist colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and racism in their work. Salaita represents the return of the repressed and a harbinger of genuine openness, and on this basis he has been further and slanderously repressed.

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  • whatever

    I see my comments were removed.

    I apologize for my mistaken belief this was a forum for a dialogue, and not just a monologue of propaganda.