Could I Have Been Steven Salaita? Could You?

August 25, 2014, 1:08 pm


Why is nobody inquiring about UI Board chair Christopher Kennedy’s role in the Salaita affair? Photo credit

Probably not. Of course. Maybe? Sure! Look at the number of distinguished people who have signed the general letter of support vowing not to engage with the University of Illinois until Steven Salaita is reinstated as an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. We are talking about 1500 potential tenure referees who will not be available, for starters. Look at the impressively large number of faculty making a similar pledge under the rubric of “Un-tenured and Un-tenurable Faculty.” Go here to find and sign a letter.

What is responsible for this kumbaya moment in academia, one in which conservatives, liberals, libertarians and radicals, the contingent and the distinguished chairs, are in solidarity? Regardless of our other differences, all of us understand that our non-academic utterances –whether in social media, an op-ed, a talk or in the college alumni magazine — could easily have bite us in the behind under such policies. This is a school that believes in civility and protecting students from harm so much that it defended its risibly offensive and racist faux Native American mascot until 2007, two years after a famously progressive organization, the NCAA, decreed that the mascot was “hostile and abusive,” banning UIUC from hosting post-season play.

In the Salaita case, we are seeing the same strategy: through Wise, the UIUC Board of Trustees has decided to insist that it is right and hope the whole thing goes away. By doubling down on their decision to rescind a job offer that was made and accepted almost a year ago, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees have managed to accomplish what no one else has. They have united thousands of faculty, many of whom quarrel regularly and nastily about Israel-Palestine, in defense of a common understanding of academic freedom.

Congratulations, guys! It’s a miracle!

For academics who have been without an Internet connection for the last few weeks, Steven Salaita, formerly an English professor at Virginia Tech, was offered and accepted a tenured associate professorship at UIUC in October 2013, negotiating a fall 2014 start to fulfill his commitments at VT. In mid-August, however, having cut his ties in Virginia (which included his resignation from a tenured job, his spouse quitting her job, and the couple renting their house) Salaita was informed that the final hurdle of his appointment, approval by the Board of Trustees, would not occur.

This group of wealthy business people who are entirely unqualified to judge his scholarship, teaching and collegiality may have feared that Salaita’s presence on campus would put them in the position of upsetting other rich folks. Evidence has emerged today that he was potential Donor Kryptonite. The stated cause for rescinding the offer is a public relations problem masking itself as an intellectual/teaching/collegiality problem (those at UIUC opposing the appointment can’t seem to decide where the danger lies): pro-Palestinian Tweets that Salaita broadcast during the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and the invasion of Gaza this summer. In fact, had the Israeli teens been kidnapped in October, and the invasion of Gaza not occurred until fall, it is quite likely that Salaita would have been a fully tenured member of the UIUC faculty. You can read my initial report on the matter here.  Corey Robin of Brooklyn College has been following developments in the case closely: all of his posts have links to important documents and news stories.

I hope this settles out of court for the sake of the Salaita family. However, I also long for a lawsuit that would give us a full accounting of the back channeling at UIUC; I want to know how many, and whose, fingerprints are on this. Wise is taking most of the heat at this point (last winter, she was the object of a storm of racist and misogynist tweets which may also shape her views on the case.) Take the heat is what Wise is paid to do unless she resigns, which she should have done if, in fact, she really cares about academic freedom as she claims. However, one person who deserves further scrutiny is Christopher Kennedy, the chairman of the Illinois BOT and son of Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy was also responsible for leading the campaign to deny emeritus status to University of Illinois – Chicago education professor Bill Ayers, a highly respected scholar in the field of education, in 2008.

Why? Right wing bloggers and “news” sources created a campaign around the fact that Prairie Fire, a collective publication authored by Ayers and other members of the Weather Underground Collective in 1973, had listed the RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan as one in a long list of 200 political prisoners and radical activists they admired. Kennedy could have chosen the path of good sense and Christian forgiveness rather than the low road of pointless revenge, but he didn’t.

Denying a retired guy access to the university library was a classy move, Chris, particularly since your own family history argues that people make terrible mistakes and massive errors in judgment, none of which are purely rhetorical, and still go on to live productive lives in service of the public, as Ayers did.

Looking back on it, Kennedy’s successful and pointless vendetta against Ayers paved the way for what happened to Steven Salaita. Other than the principles at stake (free speech, academic freedom, and UIUC’s utter failure to respect the spirit of its own institutional policies), the time to raise questions about this appointment had long since passed. Any of us who have ever changed jobs at the senior level are probably feeling a high degree of empathy for Salaita. Changing jobs is a tense moment, even if it goes well. There is nothing like coming up for tenure the second time around, which most of us have to do when we move as associate or full professors. It isn’t a terrible thing: I found assembling the packet a terrific opportunity to think about what I had done in the first part of my career, and failure to be awarded tenure would not have left me unemployed, thanks to the unpaid leave from Zenith. It did take a long time: about sixteen months, to be exact, from the time I accepted the job offer to final approval by the board.

However, this blog was part of my tenure case. Warts and all. While that is unusual, throughout the interview process, it was clear that my blogging would be under scrutiny for its role in my work as a publicly engaged scholar. Had some trustee gotten huffy about one or more of the numerous steamy episodes at Tenured Radical, not to mention a few ill-fated Twitter wars in which I have participated, questions of academic freedom would have been quite explicit. It was a risk I chose to take, but looking back on it, I don’t think I ever seriously believed that it would be a problem. Now I feel very, very lucky that I am not looking for a job in 2014.

So could I have been Steven Salaita? Yes, and, in a very important respect, no, because the blog had become an official part of the process and was subject to the rules. So in addition to staying on the University of Illinois’ case about their chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom, we academics who are on social media need to create a longer term mobilization on our campuses and in our professional associations to re-interpret current university regulations to take account of Facebook, blogging and Twitter. Under what conditions do they, or do they not, become part of our profile as intellectuals?

If we don’t, they will.

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