Denial of Job to Harsh Critic of Israel Divides Advocates of Academic Freedom

August 07, 2014

Leading proponents of academic freedom are divided over a last-minute decision by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to revoke a job offer to a professor accused of incivility in his criticisms of Israel.

Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for academic affairs, informed the job candidate, Steven G. Salaita, on Friday that they were effectively revoking a written offer of a tenured professorship made to him last year by refusing to submit it to the system’s Board of Trustees next month for confirmation.

The two administrators’ letter to Mr. Salaita did not offer an explanation for their decision other than to say they believed the board’s approval of his appointment was unlikely. But they sent their letter just weeks after Mr. Salaita first came under fire on the popular conservative blog The Daily Caller for his incendiary criticisms of Israel, and many faculty members on the campus suspect the rare job-offer revocation was in response to that controversy.

Mr. Salaita did not return emails on Wednesday requesting comment. He had already resigned a position as an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech to take the new position as a tenured professor of American Indian studies at Urbana-Champaign, starting next week.

Mr. Salaita was notified of the job offer last October by Brian H. Ross, the interim dean of the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, after a faculty committee and Jodi Byrd, then acting director of the program in American Indian studies, had signed off on the move. Mr. Ross’s letter had noted that Mr. Salaita’s appointment remained subject to approval by the university’s Board of Trustees, but the board generally approves, as a matter of routine, the list of faculty appointments brought before it at meetings.

Robin Neal Kaler, a spokeswoman for the university, had defended Mr. Salaita’s right to tweet his views about Israel last month when interviewed by The News-Gazette, a local newspaper, about the controversy. She told the newspaper, "Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees."

On Wednesday, however, Ms. Kaler declined to discuss the revocation of a job offer to Mr. Salaita, saying, "As a matter of university policy and practice, we do not comment publicly upon nor discuss generally any personnel matters, including matters involving employment or tenure."

AAUP Divisions

The question of whether the university acted appropriately has fanned tensions within the American Association of University Professors, which had already been divided over how American academics should appropriately express concerns over Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.

Cary Nelson, a former president of the AAUP who remains a member of its Committee A on Academic Freedom of Tenure and often writes about that subject, on Wednesday expressed support for the decision to deny Mr. Salaita a job at Urbana-Champaign, where Mr. Nelson is a professor of English.

"I believe the chancellor made the right decision," Mr. Nelson said in a written statement accusing Mr. Salaita of having made comments about Israel that amount to hate speech and incitements to violence.

"Academic freedom does not require you to hire someone whose views you consider despicable," Mr. Nelson said. "It prevents you from firing someone from a job for their views."

"When Salaita tweets, ‘If you’re defending Israel right now, you’re an awful human being,’" Mr. Nelson said, "he issues a judgment about his future students that would justify them believing they would be academically at risk in expressing pro-Israeli views in class."

"It’s not a violation of academic freedom," Mr. Nelson said, "to decide you don’t approve of someone’s publications or their public use of social media. It’s not a violation of academic freedom to decide not to hire someone with a deplorable role as a public intellectual."

Anita Levy, associate secretary in the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance, on Wednesday said Mr. Nelson "does not speak for the association." She said her national office had not been contacted by Mr. Salaita and has too little information about his case to take a formal position on it.

The Illinois Conference of the AAUP has not shown such reluctance to get involved, however. In a statement issued on Wednesday, its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure said that it supports honoring the appointment to Mr. Salaita and that a revocation of the appointment over his tweeted statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be "a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country."

The statement protested that the university needed to afford Mr. Salaita due process before reversing the appointment. It added: "There is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach. These statements were not made in front of students, are not related to a course that is being taught, and do not reflect in any manner his quality of teaching."

"Professor Salaita’s words, while strident and vulgar, were an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East," the statement said. "Issues of life and death during bombardment educes significant emotions and expressions of concern that reflect the tragedy that armed conflict confers on its victims."

No Strangers to Controversy

Among those signing the Illinois conference’s letter was John K. Wilson, a co-editor of the AAUP’s blog, Academe. He argued that Mr. Nelson generally can be counted on to stick up for a faculty member in Mr. Salaita’s position, but the former AAUP president appears to have "a blind spot" when it comes to the academic freedom of critics of Israel.

The controversy over the handling of Mr. Salaita’s appointment is not the first time Mr. Nelson has clashed with critics of Israel within the AAUP and elsewhere in academe. He has been a vocal opponent of calls for academic boycotts of Israeli universities by the American Studies Association and other groups, leading to accusations that he has a pro-Israel bias. He has denied such criticisms and is co-chairman of the academic advisory council of the Third Narrative, a group that seeks to promote moderation in discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Disagreements related to that conflict came to a head in the AAUP last fall, when its Journal of Academic Freedom published an issue dominated by essays calling for an academic boycott of Israel. One such essay revisited a 2006 decision by the AAUP to cancel an international meeting on academic boycotts.

Mr. Salaita, for his part, has been a controversial figure at Virginia Tech. He came under heavy public fire last fall after arguing in an essay published in Salon that public appeals to "support our troops" serve to discourage legitimate criticism of U.S. military actions while actually doing little to help military personnel or veterans. A university spokesman supported Mr. Salaita’s right to speak on the issue but angered faculty members by distancing the institution from his views.

Among the recent statements for which Mr. Salaita is under fire are tweets in which he has used obscenities and vitriolic language in denouncing Israel’s military actions in Gaza. In one, he said, "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?" In another, he said, "Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just (expletive) own it already." In another, he wrote, "By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror."

Robert Warrior, a professor of American Indian studies, English, and history at Urbana-Champaign and director of its American Indian studies program, said the program had been aware last year in discussing Mr. Salaita’s appointment of the strong views he had expressed on blog posts. But, Mr. Warrior said, Mr. Salaita’s tweets did not come up.

"We did not discuss social media as being somehow scholarly content," Mr. Warrior said. "I don’t remember social media coming up as a topic of concern or conversation." He added, however, that social media might have come up were they to be "talking about Steven’s appointment today in the immediate aftermath of his tweets around Gaza, and if he were in the middle of a very controversial string of posts."