I’ve been meaning to write about this for over a month now, but a variety of circumstances has made it impossible for me to find the time. For those who don’t know, a friend and colleague, Steven Salaita, has been fired (by the Chancellor, not the faculty) from a tenure-track position in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign because of a few tweets that he wrote expressing the rage that he felt at Israel for the genocidal rampage it unleashed on Gaza over the past couple of months. This is, of course, goes against the norms of how universities operate and the freedoms they are supposed to uphold (namely the freedom of speech).
Tomorrow the trustees will be meeting to discuss this once more so the university has an opportunity to do the right thing. I sent them the following letter today:
10 September 2014
Dear Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois:
For the past month I’ve been following the news about Professor Steven Salaita with great interest. He is a tremendous colleague and scholar, one who I feel fortunate enough to have worked with in various academic contexts over the past several years—from American Studies to organising with the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Although I am no longer an academic, I want to lend my support to Professor Salaita’s case because I think that the teachers and students alike will suffer without his presence on campus. His congenial and collegial nature—which only a brief meeting can reveal—make him an important asset to any academic institution. Moreover, Professor Salaita an invaluable scholar—indeed he single-handedly created this subfield of indigenous studies in which he compares Palestinian and American Indian histories and cultures.
When I did teach and conduct research I found his scholarship to be quite influential, especially The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan, which I taught in my American Zionism course at the American University of Beirut. His work was deeply appreciated by my students and they certainly gained a new framework for understanding the dual contexts of colonialism in West Asia and North America.
As a public intellectual, I find his writing deeply moving and significant. He’s one public intellectual I continue to read and follow in my post-academic life. From his online presence on Twitter to his active life as a voracious book reader and reviewer on Goodreads, he helps spread knowledge and ideas in a variety of venues. It is refreshing to see an academic speaking freely about issues affecting real people’s lives, whether in Palestine or in the U.S., in ways that illuminate the nuances and contextual aspects of whatever issue he lends his pen to. How ironic that Professor Salaita’s fearless behaviour led to his firing from an institution that is obligated to uphold the values of free speech.
I urge you to reconsider your decision to fire Professor Salaita. At this juncture maintaining your stance will only harm your institution, as you must be aware of the petitions and boycott campaigns already receiving tremendous support. But as Professor Salaita stated so eloquently in his address at UIUC yesterday, the issue is far larger than him if you proceed down this path. You are sending a dangerous precedent for academia as a whole. Please do the right thing and reinstate Professor Salaita.
Dr. Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman
This case is significant for a number of reasons–not the least of which is the type of precedent it could be setting for how universities act not only in relation to the subject of Palestine, but in terms of free speech more generally. Here are a number of excellent articles on the subject that can give some terrific background and insight, including Steven’s appearance at the university for a press conference today along with his attorneys from the Centre for Constitutional Rights (their letter to Phyllis Wise may be read here). There are also links to a site to show you what you can do to support Steven from sending funds for his legal fees to boycotting UIUC until it reinstates him. Also, there is a petition at Change.org that, as of today, has over 18,000 signatures! Click here to add your name to it.
Jakeet Singh’s “Why aren’t we talking about racism and colonialism in the Salaita affair?” (Electronic Intifada)
Christine Des Garennes and Julie Wurth’s Who is Steven Salaita? (The News Gazette)
“UI precluded any honest debate” (The News Gazette)
“A LETTER FROM ROBERT WARRIOR” (Campus Faculty Association)