Academic Freedom

Steven Salaita’s New (Temporary) Career: Public Speaker

October 28, 2014

As Steven G. Salaita prepared for a public lecture at Centenary College of Louisiana in late September, he was nervous. It was his first presentation about his scholarship since the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had rescinded a job offer to him for tweets critical of Israel.

A month later, those public-speaking jitters have mostly subsided. Mr. Salaita has presented on nearly a dozen campuses since Illinois’s Board of Trustees officially denied him the position, and the media frenzy around his case has calmed.

But a whole new set of worries sits on the horizon: While Mr. Salaita has been able to keep busy through his newfound celebrity status, it will eventually fade. In the end, he acknowledges, he is unemployed and unsure of his next move.

‘Extremely Chaotic’

Overnight, it seemed, Mr. Salaita had made a transition from a typical professor to a poster child for academic freedom.

Mr. Salaita, a former professor of English at Virginia Tech who was set to assume his new position at Illinois at the start of the fall semester, drew pushback for a string of profanity-laden tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he posted over the summer.

As a result, Illinois’s chancellor, Phyllis M. Wise, notified him that she would not be forwarding his appointment to the university’s Board of Trustees for final approval. She offered no further explanation, saying only that an affirmative vote by the board was unlikely.

The news of his firing was thrust into the spotlight: Academic associations urged the chancellor to reconsider, individual scholars began boycotting the institution, departments there cast votes of no confidence in the administration, and Mr. Salaita promised a legal battle.

Mr. Salaita has maintained that star image, traveling around the country giving talks on topics including academic freedom, the corporatization of academe, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In the last month, he has made appearances at one college in Louisiana and five in Illinois.

“It’s been extremely chaotic,” he said in an interview on Monday at George Mason University, where he gave a lecture to about 30 students, professors, and family members. “I’m actually really shy and introverted, so being in the spotlight has been an adjustment for me. But I try to remember it’s a flash point more than anything else.”

Basak Durgun, a cultural-studies graduate student at George Mason University, was among the attendees. She has followed his case over the last several months, she said, and she wanted to hear his side of the story. She was also interested in hearing his views on the corporatization of higher education and how it affects hiring decisions.

As a graduate student and adjunct who will be navigating the academic job market soon, Ms. Durgun said the topic was important to her. “If a tenured professor can be fired for his views,” she said, “I’m under the gun even more so.”

'Deeply Worried'

Those larger systemic issues, Mr. Salaita said, are what he believes has kept so much attention on his case. “To me, it feels impossible to predict what’s going to happen in terms of people’s interest in this situation,” he said. “As long as the broader issues this situation informs exist, there will remain some interest. This conflict informs a bunch of other issues already on people’s minds.”

And how. Mr. Salaita has been asked to speak at two universities in New York and at the American Studies Association's conference, in California, by the end of the year. And, he said, “my spring calendar is filling up rapidly.”

While he makes his rounds, he will also be sorting out what happens next between him and the University of Illinois. Although he has not yet taken any concrete legal action, he said, it is still a possibility. His goal remains to reclaim the American Indian-studies position he had been offered there.

As a backup, he has also started scanning job ads but has made no moves. Is he anxious about the academic job hunt? “I’m deeply worried,” Mr. Salaita said.

“If I do get offered a job elsewhere, it will become a story. Administrators know it will become a story, and they might shy away from that,” he added. “Another thing is that people affiliated with U. of I. have smeared me as anti-Semitic, and that’s a difficult reputation to shed. I’m afraid there will be a word association between me and anti-Semitism. I hope I can overcome that, but I’m not extremely optimistic.”

For now, he said, he is enjoying his moment while it lasts.

“I’ve experienced something in my career I never expected,” he said. “First I was fired. Now I’m in the spotlight. It has helped me grow intellectually, it’s helped me appreciate the inherent goodness and decency of most people. The fact that people are rallying together and treating this as a communal matter says a lot.”

But he realizes this is all temporary, he said, and he welcomes the day when his life’s norm is restored.

“I don’t know how long I can make my career giving talks about my situation with the University of Illinois,” he said. “I’ll be thrilled if or when I get the chance to go back to a quiet existence and back to the classroom and to the everyday life of a professor, rather than the life of a free-speech celebrity.”