SFSC Letter: Reinstate Dr. Steven Salaita

Dr. Phyllis Wise, Chancellor, University of Illinois

I am writing to you to request that you reverse the transparently political decision to dismiss Dr. Steven Salaita. I believe that on this occasion you have received misleading advice from one of your most senior colleagues, Professor Cary Nelson, who has been very active in this matter–but who in my opinion has behaved in a wholly improper manner.

During the early 1990s, when as President of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English I was myself involved in resisting attacks on our universities that took the form of neo-McCarthyist excoriations of “political correctness,” Professor Nelson was widely admired for the lucidity and courage of his defenses of academic freedom.

But in the present case, Professor Nelson has taken positions on the current and ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza that stand in flagrant opposition to the conclusions of all experts in international law. He refuses to concede that Gaza is a territory under occupation, or that the occupation (which he denies) is illegal, or that people victimized by an illegal occupation have a right of resistance. He refuses to condemn rocket and artillery attacks on facilities of higher education in Gaza.

However, he has on the other hand gone so far as to condemn the international campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, launched nearly a decade ago by Palestinian civil society organizations as a peaceful means of exerting pressure on Israel to end its illegal occupation and colonization of Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank–a campaign that has won the support of many prominent Jewish academics, among them Tony Judt, Jacqueline Rose, Ilan Pappe, Judith Butler, and Yakov Rabkin–as a form of violence.

Professor Nelson has in the past been a prominent defender of academic freedom, as well as President of the AAUP. But to the extent that you have taken his advice on the present matter, you have been misled. Professor Nelson’s judgment on the tweets forwarded or composed by Dr. Salaita is no less biased and skewed than his judgment on the state of Israel’s violations of international law to which those messages were responding.

It is my understanding that your approval of Dr. Salaita’s engagement was merely the final formality in a hiring process that had already effectively been completed. Your decision to dismiss Dr. Salaita will do serious damage to the academic reputation of your university. More importantly, the decision was wrong in principle. I hope that you will have the courage to reverse it.

Yours sincerely and respectfully,

Michael Keefer, SFSC Member

cc: Professor Robert Warrior, American Indian Studies, University of Illinois

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