Steven Salaita: The University of Illinois Is Not an Island

UIUC_logoDear Chancellor Wise:

It is with shock and great sadness that I write to you today, upon learning that you have rescinded a faculty position for Dr. Steven Salaita, intended to begin in just days. I will keep my comments brief, as I have little doubt that you are receiving a number of communiqués related to this matter that express similar concern and outrage.

Steven Salaita is an outspoken, prolific author and dedicated researcher who has a long and venerable history of public commentary on US foreign policy – as it pertains to Israel, to be sure, but also on other matters that could be deemed controversial by some. Certainly the University of Illinois was aware of this when it offered Salaita a contract and invited him to move his work, his family and young children and his life to central Illinois and to contribute his intellectual labor to this institution.

Recently, Salaita was the subject of what I can only characterize as a hit piece in the local paper, which drew on a story from a variety of high-profile right-wing sources of dubious reputation. Those critiques were not levied from scholarly quarters, but instead were clearly politically motivated, and did not impugn Salaita’s scholarship, but his public speech. I was also made aware that an organized campaign to pressure the University and to discredit Salaita was launched after the publication of the article. It would have been an excellent time for the University to proactively support its hiring decision, but instead it remained silent.

Further, there is no doubt that the immediacy and ubiquity of social media has led to more complicated relationships for scholars between their professional and personal capacities; as a scholar of social media, I am well aware of this complexity. I also believe that, as these complicated matters are worked out in both academic and public circles, the University has an even greater responsibility than ever to support its faculty and affiliates. This extends to all classes of those in the university community: to adjuncts, graduate students, junior and tenured faculty, researchers, those on the job market and those hired.

In rescinding Salaita’s job offer, the University of Illinois has sent a chilling wave throughout all academe. It has sent an implicit message to all those in its community and those even tangentially associated with it that dissent from mainstream and status-quo points of view, even when supported by a successful research and academic program, will not be tolerated. It suggests that the University of Illinois is not a place for controversial thinking, for political speech, or for anyone who may find him or herself on the margins, politically or socially. It also demonstrates that the concept of “academic freedom” is limited to a select few who already enjoy it, or, even worse, that “academic freedom” may not be a primary tenet to which the University holds at all. Appeals to matters of “tone,” as reported in Inside Higher Ed, ring hollow; such appeals tend to be used to forestall speech that the University deems threatening to its broader social position, ability to attract donors, and desire to function without any resistance whatsoever. While that may be an admirable business model for a corporate entity, it is very much contrary to the traditions, claims and role of the university in society. Now all University of Illinois affiliates must be frightened for their own speech, as it manifests in research, teaching and public roles. Perhaps this was the University’s intent all along. If so, then it would appear that that mission has been accomplished.

Despite a constant encroachment on dissent and speech coming from all sides, including an increasingly conglomerated, corporatized media system and public funding for universities on the decline, the university has long stood as one of the few remaining commons where information could circulate freely and in dialogue with other dissenting ideas. This action has closed the door on that possibility. Further, it may portend a chilling effect of another kind: I can easily imagine a scenario in which scholars of conscience might refuse to participate in events, to deliver talks, or to collaborate with the University of Illinois on academic endeavors of all kinds. I believe you have significantly underestimated the repercussions of this action, and I urge you to reconsider on those grounds, as well.

Finally, as an alumna of the University of Illinois and a professor, myself, I must now reconsider my own plans to be active in the alumni network, including being a signatory to a recent fundraising letter. I cannot go forward with that activity in good conscience.

I will close with this thought: the concept of “academic freedom” is meaningless unless it is employed for marginalized intellectual views, particularly at a time when those views are challenged. With the summary rescinding of Salaita’s employment, the University of Illinois has made it clear that it is, in fact, no champion of the concept of academic freedom at all. I cannot help but feel great, grave disappointment and sadness to see this fact exposed so plainly. This decision will resonate and reflect poorly on the University for some time to come. It is, simply put, a shame.

Please reverse your decision and support academic freedom for all scholars.


Sarah T. Roberts

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