Academic Freedom

What’s Next in the Steven Salaita Dispute?

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle

Steven G. Salaita was promised, then denied, a tenured position in the program in American Indian studies at Urbana-Champaign in 2014. Since then, the program has dwindled, its faculty pulled away to other departments or other campuses.
September 12, 2014

Thursday’s 8-to-1 vote by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees to deny a tenured professorship to Steven G. Salaita over his inflammatory Twitter posts about Israel hardly settles the controversy over the university’s dealings with him.

In fact, by denying Mr. Salaita a position at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus in response to his tweets, the Illinois board might have helped raise the temperature of debates elsewhere over shared governance and the boundaries of academic freedom and free speech on college campuses.

What might the future hold for key figures in the Illinois dispute and other players in academe? Here’s a look at some of the possibilities.

Steven G. Salaita

Photo: Greg Kahn for The Chronicle

At a news conference on Tuesday and in a news release issued after Thursday’s board vote, Mr. Salaita expressed a willingness to sue the University of Illinois for denying him a position in the American Indian studies program at Urbana-Champaign. He has not actually committed to filing such a lawsuit, however, and it remains unclear whether he has a solid case.

To recap key events that any court would need to review, administrators at Urbana-Champaign told Mr. Salaita last October that he had been picked for the job, with his appointment subject to approval by the university board. At Illinois, that process generally is seen as such an inevitable rubber stamp that many faculty hires have gone to work before the board’s vote on them. Mr. Salaita’s appointment, however, became contentious after a popular conservative blog, The Daily Caller, published an article in July calling attention to some of his incendiary tweets about Israel and its military actions in Gaza.

Phyllis M. Wise, chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus, and other university officials were barraged with emails opposed to Mr. Salaita’s hiring, some from donors threatening to withhold gifts. Last month Ms. Wise told Mr. Salaita she would not be forwarding his proposed appointment to the trustees because she viewed its approval as unlikely. She stood by her decision in the face of criticism from his supporters, but she admitted some procedural missteps in her dealings with Mr. Salaita. Ms. Wise sent his appointment to the board when it became clear that state law allows for board votes on faculty appointments that chancellors oppose.

A statement issued on Thursday by Christopher Kennedy, the board’s chairman, suggests that the trustees’ vote on Mr. Salaita was intended to head off any legal claim that the university had denied his appointment the full consideration that the law requires. If such logic holds, any lawsuit by Mr. Salaita probably would hinge on the question of whether he was entitled to the academic-freedom and free-speech protections of the university’s faculty members. The answer to that probably will come down to contract law and whether he had gained any employee protections by virtue of being offered a job.

Top University of Illinois Officials

Photo of Phyllis M. Wise by Darrell Hoemann, The News-Gazette

Chancellor Wise sought at Thursday’s meeting to reassure faculty members angry over her handling of Mr. Salaita's case. She pledged to learn from the controversy, to "work hard to bring the campus together," and to reaffirm her commitment to shared governance and engage in more consultation with deans, departments, and faculty members.

It remains unclear, however, whether she can repair her relations with the faculty. Several academic departments have voted no confidence in her leadership in response to the case.

By speaking out in opposition to Mr. Salaita’s appointment on Thursday, Robert A. Easter, the university’s president, and Mr. Kennedy and other board members might have similarly incurred the wrath of supporters of Mr. Salaita, who accuse them of caving in to big donors and trampling academic freedom.

American Professors

Mr. Kennedy’s statement argued that several of Mr. Salaita’s tweets about Israel "can be easily interpreted as basically anti-Semitic." The Chicago Tribune, in an editorial supporting the board’s vote, asserted on Thursday that Mr. Salaita had crossed the line into hate speech with tweets that said Zionists had been "transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable" and "I wish all the [expletive] West Bank settlers would go missing." The newspaper suggested that no faculty member would be given license to direct similar comments at black people, gay people, or women.

Many of Mr. Salaita’s supporters, however, argue that such comments are not anti-Semitic but fair, if emotional, expressions of opposition to Israel’s actions and to those who allege anti-Semitism in response to criticisms of the Israeli government.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has yet to issue clear guidance on when criticism of Israel amounts to anti-Semitism that violates federal antidiscrimination laws. Some supporters of that nation contend that anyone who is more critical of Israel than nations with worse records, in whatever area they are discussing, betrays an anti-Semitic bias. One advocacy group, the Amcha Initiative, issued a statement this month arguing that the more than 200 Middle East scholars who have signed a petition calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions by people in their field have displayed enough bias to raise doubts about their ability to fairly teach about Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Given the contentious debate over such speech, the University of Illinois board’s vote on Mr. Salaita is almost certain to be seen as chilling faculty speech on Israel. Academic associations that had rallied behind him by boycotting the University of Illinois or otherwise protesting its actions were still deciding Thursday afternoon how to respond to the day’s developments, but they appear likely to keep up, or even escalate, their fight.

Other Colleges

In arguing that Mr. Salaita’s undoing was not his criticisms of Israel but the incivility he displayed in making them, University of Illinois officials have helped feed suspicions among many faculty members that calls for "civility" are, in reality, veiled attacks on academic freedom.

Both Nicholas B. Dirks, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, and Roderick J. McDavis, Ohio University’s president, recently found themselves dealing with faculty defensiveness when their pleas for civility provoked unexpected backlashes that appeared to be motivated partly by the Salaita controversy. Other university leaders now might have a tougher time calling for civility without being accused of stifling speech.

The Program Trying to Hire Salaita

Robert Warrior, director of American Indian studies at Urbana-Champaign, said on Thursday that the board’s vote against Mr. Salaita was going to leave his program down one faculty member. He said that Mr. Salaita had been selected last fall to fill a job search authorized in the spring of 2013 and that no new search had been authorized.