Steven Salaita Finds a Home

I am happy that Steven Salaita has just been hired by the American University of Beirut. I don't know Salaita and he has written some nasty things about me, so my pleasure at his hiring is, in the strictest sense, impersonal. Its source is what happened to him at the hands of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Back in 2013 he was a young professor at Virginia Tech with a specialty in indigenous peoples and colonialism, and in the fall of that year he was recruited by the American Indian Studies Program at Illinois. After a national competition and the usual vetting by departmental and college committees, he was offered a tenured position. The letter he received named a salary, welcomed him to the university community and declared how pleased everyone was at the prospect of having him as a colleague. In the months that followed moving costs were negotiated, an office was designated and courses were assigned. He quit his job, sold his house and looked for somewhere to live in Urbana-Champaign. And then, less than three weeks before classes were to start, he received a communication from Chancellor Phyllis Wise telling him that the offer was being rescinded because she had determined that the Board of Trustees would not approve his appointment. She cited a boilerplate proviso (honored much more in the breach rather than in the observance) buried in the contract he had signed: "Subject to the approval of the Board of trustees."

What had happened? Well, in the spring and summer Salaita had issued a series of tweets castigating the state of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Here are a few of them: "if you're defending Israel right now you're an awful human being"; "If Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?"; "Zionists: transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948." Not surprisingly, the circulation of these and similar tweets caused alumni, parents and donors to write angry letters to the chancellor's office. After Wise's decision not to forward Salaita's file became known, equally angry letters were written by those on the other side who were outraged by what they saw as an improper intrusion of politics into an academic process. Wise responded on August 22, insisting that her decision "was not influenced in any way by [Salaita's] ... criticism of Israel." Rather, she claimed, her worry was the intemperate, uncivil and contemptuous tone of his communications: "What we cannot and will not tolerate are personal and disrespectful words ... that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them."

It is easy to understand why Wise (a name that began to seem increasingly ironic) would want to deny any relation between her action and disapproval of Salaita's partisan views; for if that were her reason for turning back his appointment, she (and the university) would be guilty of violating both his first amendment rights and his academic freedom rights. Under either doctrine a state agency cannot deny a benefit to someone otherwise qualified because it doesn't like what that someone says. What is required is that the offending words be linked in a causal narrative to Salaita's unfitness for the position he sought and was (he thought) given. You have to be able to argue that his tweets demonstrate that he is or would be a bad teacher.

That is what Wise tried to do when she wrote that a "student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that ... disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner." Little to quarrel with there, but one can and should quarrel with the implication that Salaita's performance in the public square predicts that he will not be thoughtful and respectful in the classroom.

Like any other citizen, Salaita has the right to publicly express his opinions, and the fact that he has done so and done so in sharp language cannot legitimately be said to disqualify him as an instructor unless there is proof that he does not respect the distinction between academic and political behavior and uses his classroom either to recruit students to his views or to berate students who hold opposing views. All the evidence indicates otherwise: teaching evaluations -- available of course to the committees that evaluated him -- and unsolicited student letters testify to Salaita's scrupulous fairness and to his proceeding in what the American Association of University Professors' 1915 statement on academic freedom and tenure termed "a scholar's spirit." (The AAUP has recently censured the university.)

The committee charged by the university with investigating the "Matter of Steven Salaita" came to the same conclusion: "There is no evidence that Dr. Salaita has functioned improperly as a teacher," and in acting as she did, the committee added, Chancellor Wise "conflated political speech with professional speech" and made the former the basis of an unsupported judgment on the latter. No teacher should be afraid that a remark he makes in the heat of public debate will be read as a blueprint for his performance in an academic setting. When all is said and done, and despite the protests of Wise and members of the Board of Trustees, the only reason for the university's refusal of an appointment was its dislike of, or discomfort with, his political views. The cardinal rule in the academy is that academic decisions -- positive or negative -- should not be made on the basis of political affiliations. The university violated that rule every way from Sunday and made Salaita the victim of its inability to keep questions of scholarship and questions of ideology separate.

The irony is that Salaita is himself guilty of the very practice that unfairly deprived him of a position. He is a vocal supporter of the movement to boycott Israeli universities on the reasoning that they are housed in a criminal state born out of ethnic cleansing and engaged in apartheid-like oppression. The point of the boycott is to pressure academics living In Israel to break with their government and lobby for a change in its policies. (In some versions of the boycott, individual scholars are exempted from its sanctions if they publicly denounce the state.) Boycotters are urged to not engage in exchanges with Israeli scholars, to not invite them to conferences, to remove them from positions on editorial boards and to reject the essays they submit to scholarly journals. (All these things have been done.) In short, what boycotters do -- and do with an insufferable dose of self-righteousness -- is make academic decisions on political grounds. They say to Israeli universities, 'The politics of your government are the wrong kind and therefore we're not going to play with you.' This is precisely what the University of Illinois has said to Salaita: We don't care about your qualifications; your politics are disagreeable or inconvenient and therefore you can't play with us.

Salaita is absolutely right to say (as he does in a September 2014 statement) that the University of Illinois's "actions threaten principles of free speech, academic freedom, and critical thought that should be the foundation of any university," and he is right also to charge that it was "dislike [of his] political views" and not any documented deficiency in scholarship or teaching that led to his being exiled from the intellectual conversation at Illinois. It is just that he and his friends in the boycott community are doing exactly the same thing for the same bad reasons.

In the course of the Salaita debate three issues have been raised that are red herrings. The first makes a puzzle out of the fact that his employment status is unclear. Was he hired if the Board did not sign off on the appointment? Could he be said to have been fired if he wasn't hired in the first place? It doesn't matter: Whatever his status it remains the case that a benefit he was qualified to receive and was scheduled to receive was withheld for political reasons. End of story.

The second red herring is a questioning of his qualifications for the job. Was he really the best available candidate? Is his scholarship up to the level of a flagship university? But these questions were formally settled when the appropriate committees and offices gave the appointment their imprimatur. You don't get to do do-overs in the academy.

The third red herring is also a third rail: Are Salaita's tweets anti-Semitic? Is he an anti-Semite? For the record I would answer "no" to both, but that is beside the point, which is that being an anti-Semite is not illegal and is not a disqualification for university service, unless your anti-Semitism controls and infects your pedagogical behavior, something that would have to be determined by evidence. No matter how you slice the cake it comes out the same way: He was done wrong.

One more (admittedly ungenerous) word: In his new position Salaita will hold the Edward Said Chair of American Studies. Well, with apologies to Lloyd Bentsen, 'I knew Edward Said, Edward Said was a friend of mine, and you, Professor Salaita, are no Edward Said.' Nevertheless, you are an accredited academic who deserved to be treated as such and wasn't. I hope that you enjoy your new academic home and that the almost-yours academic home that turned you away will end up paying through the nose. (It has already paid close to $850,000.00 in legal fees defending its indefensible action, about ten times the yearly salary Salaita will not receive.)