By Sheila Delany, SFSC Member, The Georgia Straight
Ever had the rug jerked out from under you? Had your life forced into a sudden 180 degree turn? Steven Salaita has. The young professor, author or editor of six books and numerous articles on indigenous peoples, colonialism, and Arabic culture, was a well-liked tenured teacher at Virginia Tech University. Over a year ago, in autumn 2013, he accepted another tenured position in American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He and his wife quit their jobs in Virginia, sold their house, moved north with their child, and Salaita began preparing classes.
Then in August, three weeks before classes were to start, came the surprise. Pro-Israel students and wealthy donors to the University of Illinois, some of them prominent Zionists, had monitored Salaita’s personal Twitter account, on which he had registered angry comments during Israel’s brutal attack on Gaza. Doubtless they also knew that he had been active in the BDS—boycott, divest, sanction—movement to pressure Israel into ending its occupation of Palestine, and particularly the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. They may have known that his parents are Jordanian and Palestinian.
Accusing Salaita of anti-Semitism and incivility, some donors contacted the chancellor of the university and threatened to withdraw funding if the hiring went through. It had, of course, been approved by the department and relevant administrators, and contractually agreed, but now the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, was motivated to interfere. She refused to send the hiring package on to the last step in the process, the normally pro-forma approval of the board of governors or board of trustees. In other words, the job offer was canceled, nullified, withdrawn, rescinded, revoked. This has been variously referred to in news articles as “de-hiring”, “un-hiring”, “reversal”, et cetera.
This decision was so irregular, so bizarrely and obviously kowtowing to politically motivated donors who, moreover, intruded on an individual’s personal communication to censor his freedom of political expression, that it generated international protest. Professors and defenders of free speech worldwide signed petitions, refused to speak at U of Illinois, demanded the hiring go through. Academic organizations have condemned the university, and several of its own departments have voted “no confidence” in Chancellor Wise. Many of its own alumni and alumnae, as well as current students and faculty—both Jewish and not—have protested the decision.
The chancellor did eventually send forward the package; it was turned down (with one honorable exception), and the board has refused to reconsider its vote, so the international protest continues and grows. The case is widely seen as one instance—a very dramatic one—in the attempt by pro-Israel groups to shut down all criticism of Israel’s policies. Such attempts occur often on and off campus in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. The Seriously Free Speech Committee-Vancouver has intervened in many of these cases here and elsewhere; its letters and statement of principles can be found on its website.
Salaita is presenting a short paper at this year’s Modern Language Association convention, to be held this month at the Vancouver Convention Centre. He has agreed to give two talks after the convention, organized by the Seriously Free Speech Committee. The title for both talks is “First Peoples, Palestine, and the Crushing of Free Speech”, with two venues. On Monday (January 12), Salaita will speak at SFU’s Harbour Centre campus (515 West Hastings Street) at 7:30 p.m. in the Segal Rooms. On Wednesday (January 14), he will speak at UBC’s Green College at 5 p.m. in the Coach House. (Green College is across from the Rose Garden parking lot on Marine Drive and next to the Museum of Anthropology.) Both talks are free, and several of Professor Salaita’s books will be available for purchase at both talks.
Currently, a financial settlement has been offered by the university and rejected by Salaita; his goal is reinstatement. He has been speaking across the U.S., may sue, and the debate rages on.