The Chronicle Review

'A Growing Hunt for Heretics'?

What is at stake in the Salaita affair

Greg Kahn/GRAIN

Steven Salaita
September 03, 2014

Steven G. Salaita was to begin his job as a tenured professor in American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in mid-August. But on August 1, Phyllis M. Wise, the chancellor, notified Salaita that she would not forward his appointment to the Board of Trustees, because an affirmative vote, she wrote, was "unlikely." Her decision has provoked considerable outrage.

Below, two professors from the university's English department, Feisal G. Mohamed and Cary Nelson, debate what’s at stake in the Salaita affair.

Feisal Mohamed

Feisal Mohamed: Chancellor Wise’s actions have been widely condemned in the academic community and beyond. A petition very quickly gathered 17,000 signatures; some 1,700 academics have pledged to boycott our campus in protest, and in the case of many English professors, that boycott extends to the writing of tenure letters. The Modern Language Association has made an official statement denouncing the decision, as have the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Illinois chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and the national AAUP.

You are not only a former AAUP president but also a current member of its Committee A, which addresses issues of academic freedom. Beyond that, you have fought energetically throughout your career to defend academic freedom and to promote shared governance between faculty and administration. The Salaita decision seems like the dire justification of Cary Nelson’s decades-long foreboding about the corporate university’s assault on tenure. And yet you are the only person I know who publicly supports the chancellor’s decision. How do you explain this paradox?

Cary Nelson

Cary Nelson: Since I have defended pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel faculty speech for years and would do so again, why have I not done so in this case? When I defended Ward Churchill and Norman Finkelstein, I felt free to condemn what they said while defending their right to say it. And I defend Salaita’s right to say what he did. But I would not be willing to hire Churchill or Finkelstein. In both cases, I think their arguments are unsound and their rhetoric often counterproductive. They do produce books that stimulate debate, which is one genuinely meaningful social and pedagogical use, and no doubt that is true of Salaita as well. But when weighing a hiring decision, I look for work I feel is soundly argued, well supported, original, and well written, whether I agree with the positions someone takes or not. I need to feel the work will advance knowledge and understanding in the discipline in a major way.

And in Churchill’s and Finkelstein’s cases, since, like Salaita, they aim to be public intellectuals, I would also feel bound to ask what public identity they are crafting for themselves, what their impact as public intellectuals is, and whether it is beneficial to the university and to society. I am justified in doing so, however, only because their public presence and commentary fall in the same areas as their academic work. If Churchill or Salaita had created a public identity as climate-change deniers, it would be irrelevant.

One odd feature of the current debate is that people have pretty much abandoned what we have learned about language over the last hundred years. Meaning is not stable and ultimately decidable, so the battle over what Salaita’s tweets mean in an ultimate sense is largely futile. And no one can be certain what Salaita intended with his tweets. But one can track how people experience them and what their social, cultural, and political impact is. And on those grounds, several tweets cross the line into anti-Semitism. They also intersect with, condense, amplify, intensify, and comment on his books and essays on the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are part of his professional profile. The idea that they are opinion, not scholarship, is not a sound basis for discounting their significance. Salaita’s 2011 book, Israel’s Dead Soul (Temple University Press), is a collection of opinion pieces, not a research project or a scholarly monograph, but no one suggests it isn’t part of the case for his appointment.

"It is just plain lazy to confine your evaluation of a scholar’s record to media allowing 140 or fewer characters."

For me, the Salaita case remains a hiring decision. That is the fundamental difference between him and the people I have defended. Some disagree, arguing that the offer of a job gives him the rights and protection accorded University of Illinois faculty members. I believe he does not get those rights until the contract is approved by the Board of Trustees. But I agree the argument can go both ways. Perhaps I am wrong, but that is the basis of the stand I have taken. That said, I did not participate in the university’s decision-making process in any way, I never communicated my views to anyone in the administration, and even now, after the chancellor’s somewhat helpful but also rather abstract and formulaic memo—no doubt constrained by legal advice—I have no way of knowing what her actual reasoning was. I am troubled by how late in the process the decision came, which is one reason I endorse the idea of a financial settlement. Of course, I may be naïve in thinking the university’s decision was based on academic, not political, grounds. Were I to learn otherwise, I would join in condemning the administration.

Mohamed: My feelings on the tweets are not so different from yours. Those who brand them as anti-Semitic are wrong, but those who claim that they are completely devoid of anti-Semitism are not quite right, either. Salaita’s tweets frequently trade in a kind of anti-Zionist rhetoric that summons and sustains millennia of anti-Jewish sentiment hard-wired into Western culture. Nobody should be fooled when people adopt a posture akin to saying, "I am completely opposed to anti-Semitism, but I think Zionists would kill Jesus given half a chance." There is a certain kind of person who, to paraphrase Marvell, doesn’t break his shins but by stumbling upon a Zionist. Steven Salaita may or may not be such a person; he certainly can tweet like one. But I hasten to add that this is a far cry from inciting imminent lawless action, or spreading hate speech, or any other form of expression that Western democracies have proscribed.

That’s my interpretation, not far from yours, and if you and I were on the search committee responsible for this hire, we might have had opportunity to air such views. But neither of us was on that committee. So we are both professionally obliged to recognize that our readings are the kind of second-guessing of hiring decisions that is a favorite faculty parlor game.

Partly because people love to second-guess a search, committees generally do a very careful job of vetting applicants. There is no service assignment that faculty members take more seriously, even though it is enormously time consuming. Because this was a senior hire, the program and college in question also had to solicit external evaluations from experts in the field. In this case, I think our American Indian-studies program made a good-faith effort to hire a scholar of national profile who would advance its path-breaking work in global indigenous studies. What’s more, nobody has disputed that it was successful in achieving that aim.

Were there a transparent and carefully defined procedure in the chancellor’s office that mirrored this level of care, I might be inclined to think that Wise’s decision is defensible. What we have in front of us is exactly the opposite: Some sort of mysterious communications took place among the chancellor, President Bob Easter, the trustees, and the development branch of the university, all of it ostensibly centered on the "incivility" of tweets, and then an offer was revoked without consulting the program affected.

"Civility" has always been a convenient pretext for excluding certain people and ideas from the academy, which I imagine is why the national AAUP voiced reservations about it. There is some irony, first of all, that such terms as "civility" and "collegiality" were often used in the postwar years to justify the exclusion of Jewish faculty. That is just one instance when a threat to civility has really meant "too ethnic for our comfort"—though it could also mean "too leftist" or "too feminist." It is especially troubling, then, that the university has used the term to trump the internal decision-making of an ethnic-studies program—and a program of American Indian studies, no less, as though the natives were not capable of civil conduct if left to their own devices.

Because it is a term without any concrete professional meaning, "civility" can be conveniently deployed by reactionaries who find certain ideas unpleasant or threatening to their worldview. If it were going to be applied in a meaningful way, a college would need to develop specific policies on civility and classroom climate with transparent forums of review. Such a policy would have to take into account a faculty member’s entire record: student evaluations, peer evaluations from colleagues on campus and beyond, cases of departmental or campus censure if they exist. So far as I know, none of those professionally significant records indicate that Steven Salaita is a motiveless malignity. We are left, then, with a case built on speculative conclusions drawn from tweets. I hope that there was outside political pressure involved, because the alternative explanation is a deadly combination of administrative sloppiness and autocracy. It is just plain lazy to confine your evaluation of a scholar’s record to media allowing 140 or fewer characters.

Nelson: I would not myself use "civility" as a basis for the decision not to complete Salaita’s appointment. His social-media presence raises far more serious concerns than that. Of course, when the AAUP properly rejected "collegiality" as an independent category in personnel decisions, it also made clear that a lack of collegiality could well be an underlying component in the inability to perform other professional responsibilities adequately. In a hiring or a tenure decision, a department could well decide that a person’s temperament had (or would) make it impossible to serve on committees or work with students. I am raising these concerns not to address Salaita’s case, but to define some general principles.

Hiring committees make all sorts of judgments about a candidate’s skills, character, personal presence, and potential. The committee’s need to compare candidates makes that inevitable. Tenure decisions also bring into play issues that do not bear on a faculty member’s daily life on campus. Thus a faculty member who, for example, distributes racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Asian, or anti-Semitic remarks through social media cannot be punished for doing so. But an institution could decline to award tenure for that reason.

A hiring with tenure implicates the same principles and also assigns a higher level of responsibility to the upper administration and the trustees. Awarding tenure is not a pro forma responsibility at any stage of the process. A new appointment with tenure implicates those responsibilities as well. It’s not uncommon for upper-level administrators to overrule faculty-committee decisions about awarding tenure. It is not logical to claim that tenured appointments to people outside the university involve less administrative responsibility than promotion to tenure for faculty members already on campus. This was an appointment with lifetime tenure. Few involved in the debate seem entirely to understand the difference.

That said, we need much clearer national guidelines about which concerns and criteria are appropriate in each of these processes. That is something the AAUP needs to address. Our existing guidelines are not sufficiently detailed.

In terms of what happened at Illinois, I doubt if donor threats played a role in the university’s decision. A large institution like this is not vulnerable to financial losses of that scale, and it would be abandoning its principles to make them a consideration. Just because people threatened to stop giving money to the university does not prove that those threats played any role in the chancellor’s decision. You talk with donors, trying to explain the university’s values, but you do not honor their demands.

I would also be more supportive of the search committee and program processes had they not occurred over a year ago—in spring 2013—because Salaita’s profile has changed since then. It is supplemented by his 2014 essays and social-media activity. I am not second-guessing the search committee’s evaluation because it did not evaluate his more recent work. Finally, I am not persuaded that every faculty member involved in Salaita’s 2013 evaluation would have supported hiring him had the case been reviewed again in July 2014. Now, of course, a firestorm has erupted, and no one will come forward to say his or her view of Salaita’s candidacy has changed. Intimidation and name-calling now reign.

There is also a complex question about the nature of this appointment. The American Indian-studies program considers Salaita a specialist in comparative indigeneity, based particularly on his first book, Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan (Syracuse University Press, 2006), which argues that the Palestinians are the only indigenous people in the area and thus the only ones with a decisive right to live there. Is that a scholarly or a political position? Did the university endorse that political stand by hiring Salaita at first? The political-versus-academic basis of the arguments about indigenous status are way beyond the capacity of an upper administration to adjudicate. In the case of the Middle East, they involve complex questions of cultural continuity as well. I have read subtle arguments about indigeneity on both sides of the debate, but I do not count Salaita’s among them. I haven’t read everything he has written, but I have read two of his books, begun a third, and read numerous essays and blog entries. I have not learned anything substantial from anything he has written. I do not believe he is a first-rate scholar. I raise these issues merely to register some of my personal thinking about the appointment.

Mohamed: We’re back to the parlor game. But more troubling is that last question, which I find deeply misguided. In making a faculty hire, a university never endorses political positions, even if those positions are central to a body of scholarly work. A university creates spaces where such arguments are tested in free and open debate, so that we can wrestle with the kinds of things you raise in your very important question, one that is fraught in all humanistic disciplines: Is this scholarship, or politics, or both? Is it always both? We care about academic freedom, and we expect university administrators to care, so that we can pursue such questions without having meddlesome bureaucrats with mysterious motives rig the game from the start.

There is another way in which your second question is unsettling. It suggests that the university is not a forum where faculty debate ideas, but that it is the job of faculty members to be emissaries of the university brand. That is precisely the view of academic freedom that we see emerging from the chancellor’s office. Several letters to Phyllis Wise have accused her of hypocrisy, pointing out that she herself defended the principle of academic freedom when she declined to take disciplinary action against student tweets in which she was personally attacked in racist and misogynist language. There is no hypocrisy, really. What we are seeing is the adaptation of the term "academic freedom" to a customer-service model of higher education: It now means that student-customers—and, by extension, alumni patrons—are always right, a definition necessitating constraints on the speech of us learning-service providers. In this spirit, our university has engaged in two political dismissals over the past six months: not only Salaita but also James Kilgore.

My sense is that Salaita’s thoughts on indigeneity are more complex than you allow, and that in his recent work especially he uses the term to problematize the land claims of both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. So the trend in his thinking seems to me to run in exactly the opposite direction from what you have described. And his contributions to Salon over the past year strike me as provocative in ways that are fundamentally productive.

The tweets are largely a pretext; it is Salaita’s vocal advocacy of the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement that is the true source of animosity against him.

What has changed in the past year is the growing influence of the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement in the American academy. The American Studies Association boycott seems to me a real turning point, one likely to inspire new friends and enemies. This, I think, is the elephant in the room. The tweets are largely a pretext; Salaita’s vocal advocacy of BDS is the true source of animosity against him. Much as I am ambivalent about BDS, and about academic boycotts, I am deeply troubled by the move to kill those topics of conversation on campuses nationwide. The current controversy seems to me but one chapter in a growing hunt for heretics.

Nelson: There are no few BDS activists among faculty members at Illinois, including those in the American Indian-studies program. No doubt we will hire other people who endorse the movement or play a significant role in it. Salaita’s BDS advocacy is protected political speech and has no bearing on his appointment. As it happens, his tweets that mention BDS are unexceptional. Unlike his remarks on Israel, Zionism, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they aren’t different from what scores of other students and faculty members write. His other tweets may have a second life as slogans that people reproduce or quote in anti-Semitic actions, but I do not see a second life for his BDS remarks. They just aren’t interesting or distinctive enough.

There is no possibility that the topics raised by the BDS movement will be suppressed on American campuses. In the wake of events in Gaza, their presence on campuses here and abroad will increase. So, unfortunately, will all sorts of bullying, including efforts by BDS advocates to demonize their opponents and persuade people that BDS is a victim of efforts to silence speech. I strongly prefer reasoned argument to intimidation. You and I are capable of civil discussion, despite our differences. Members of the faculty have a special responsibility to offer models of rational analysis. That is part of what we owe our students and the world.

Hiring decisions can and do involve judgments about the quality of a person’s writing and public statements. Years ago the AAUP censured an institution because its board made it clear that it would never hire a Marxist. That was an unacceptable political decision. But I could easily reject a candidate because I thought his or her Marxist arguments were unsophisticated, unoriginal, formulaic, unreflective, etc. In the case of Kilgore, I thought the reasons for not renewing him were deplorable. I stood up in the faculty senate, held up a copy of one of his novels about South African politics, and urged that its superb quality be the basis of deciding whether to renew his appointment. I was also one of 300 people who signed a petition urging his reappointment and was part of a smaller group who delivered the petition to the chancellor. Why did the protest stop there? Why the vastly different level of local and national response to the Kilgore and Salaita decisions? I do not know the answer to that question.

Mohamed: Again we’ve found some common ground: I also supported Kilgore’s reappointment, and thought that it was utter nonsense that he was terminated for his involvement in the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s—involvement that he had been conscientious about disclosing throughout his employment at the university. I can hazard two guesses as to why the response is so different this time around. First, in the Kilgore case, the provost reacted with that tried and true parliamentary tactic for throwing cold water on a controversy: He formed an investigative committee, which is now performing its work at a glacial pace. Calls for due process were satisfied, so the protest has cooled. The second reason, which many will deny, is that faculty members have internalized hierarchies of academic labor as hierarchies of academic value, so that the dismissal of a lecturer is deemed a sad reality of our fallen world, while the dismissal of an associate professor is a desecration of sacred ground.

We’ve also circled back to our central point of disagreement: whether or not the deliberative portion of the hiring period was open or closed when the chancellor sent her letter to Salaita on August 1. How can you claim that the process was still open in one breath, and say that Salaita should receive a financial settlement in the next? The first claim suggests that he was merely a candidate, and the second that a contract had already been struck with the university.

You’ve also stated that "awarding tenure is not a pro forma responsibility at any stage of the process." The structure of the process suggests otherwise. There is significant lag time between approval of the case by the provost and approval by the Board of Trustees, and in fact that final stage of approval customarily comes a month after the appointment begins. The provost and his committee scrutinize the academic standards of tenure, largely engaging in procedural review. The trustees, by contrast, are presented an appointment alongside a host of matters relating to university expenses for the academic year. Their concerns are budgetary rather than academic.

So the academic side of the appointment is pro forma by the time it reaches the trustees. The provost’s is the highest academic office on campus. In an enormous institution with many moving parts, the chancellor and trustees are simply too far removed from the departments to engage in a meaningful back-and-forth on intellectual priorities and directions.

"The current controversy seems to me but one chapter in a growing hunt for heretics."

Basics of contract law also tell us that the hiring period was over. The institution extended an offer, Salaita accepted it and performed actions in reliance on the offer, namely leaving his position at Virginia Tech and making arrangements to move his family. Chancellor Wise’s letter of August 1 seems designed to limit potential reliance damages incurred before the September 11 meeting of the trustees. Having achieved that aim, she may now forward the case to the Board of Trustees. (We’re hearing conflicting reports on whether she will; if she does, it will be with the knowledge that they will inevitably vote against Salaita.) I suspect that many courts would find that the university has breached a contract. How far would a financial settlement extend to remedy this breach? A year’s salary? That would do nothing to address the fact that the University of Illinois’s actions have significantly damaged Salaita’s prospects in the profession.

A settlement also would not address broken trust in university governance. Several departments are now contemplating, or have already passed, no-confidence votes in the campus leadership. And with reason: How can we extend job offers or pass along the tenure files of junior faculty members knowing that they can be unilaterally dumped by the chancellor?

There is only one real remedy available, and it cannot come soon enough: to complete the work of the American Indian-studies program, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the provost’s office by appointing Steven Salaita as an associate professor at the University of Illinois.

Nelson: I would not prejudge the amount of a settlement offer. It could be substantially larger than you suggest. Nor, of course, do I agree that he was dismissed. But I respect your conviction—and that of several of my friends—that he was. I agree with you that it is going to take more than a settlement to undo faculty dissatisfaction about shared governance. What a settlement will do is allow faculty members to concentrate on the long-term policy issues.

I would like to suggest another way of thinking about Salaita’s social-media project. An Asian-American faculty member wrote to me as follows: "If he had made any kind of similar remarks about Asian-Americans or African-Americans, [faculty members] would be up in arms. ‘Asian-Americans are ineffective lovers.’ ‘I wish all the Koreans would go missing.’ ‘Even the most tepid overture to Japanese humanity can result in Korean histrionics.’ "

That kind of thought experiment is a useful way of asking whether attitudes toward Jews, Zionism, and Israel have made Salaita’s rhetoric more acceptable to some. Because tweets circulate as independent statements, moreover, they are also adaptable to other uses. Consider what the following Salaita tweets would "mean" if they were scrawled on Jewish businesses, apartment buildings, or synagogues: "You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing," "Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948." Perhaps instead they could be printed on banners and carried aloft in mass demonstrations. Salaita would not be personally responsible for such uses, but the rhetorical character of his tweets may encourage their repurposing. At the very least, a faculty member should reflect on such matters when distributing statements or slogans through social media. As one commentator has remarked, "Should an American institution of higher learning employ someone who tweeted, say, that black Americans were ‘transforming "racism" from something horrible into something honorable since 1964’ "?

Feisal G. Mohamed (@FGMohamed) and Cary Nelson are professors of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mohamed is co-editor, with Gordon Hutner, of the forthcoming A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Higher Education. Nelson is co-editor, with Gabriel Brahm, of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, forthcoming from Wayne State University Press.