U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Notes From An Emergency: A Call For Historians to Demand Justice for Steven Salaita

Introduction

Three prisoners are about to be executed by firing squad. The sergeant in charge of the execution approaches each of them, asking if they want to be blindfolded.

He asks the first: “Do you want a blindfold?”

“Yes,” comes the reply, in a resigned tone.

He turns to the second man.

“Do you want a blindfold?”

“Okay.”

Finally, the sergeant arrives at the third man.

“Do you want a blindfold?”

“No,” the third man replies.

At this, his neighbor leans over, and says: “Don’t make trouble. Take a blindfold.”[1]

I have been thinking about this bit of gallows humor (from the deep archive of Jewish gallows humor) a lot lately. It is a profound joke, more profound, maybe, than it seems at first. In any event, not making trouble is no longer an option, if it ever was.

***

On May 14, 2014, The New York Times published a column entitled “The Commencement Bigots,” written by Timothy Egan.[2] Slate published something similar by Amanda Hess at around the same time.[3] I’m sure there were others, roughly along the same lines. May was a good month to be in the “kids these days”/ “leftists are the real McCarthyites” business.[4]

Egan column is a prolonged lament, a melancholy rumination on the injuries suffered cases of Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde at the hands of certain illiberal bachelors-to-be of the arts and sciences.

Protests by students at Rutgers had convinced former Secretary of State Rice to call off her planned commencement address in New Brunswick, just as actions by students at Smith College drove IMF head Lagarde to withdraw from similar commitments in Amherst. The final insult, for Egan (in his assumed position of last defender of the liberal academy), was the rejection, by popular dis-acclamation, of Robert J. Birgeneau as graduation speaker at Haverford College (Birgeneau, former Chancellor at Berkeley, is disliked by many progressives and leftists, who blame him for failing to reign in police repression of peaceful protests). Rice, Lagarde, Birgeneau: each deprived of their right to intone dull platitudes and hit applause lines by unnamed undergraduate “bigots.”

Egan paints Rice, Lagarde, Birgeneau as victims of a new offensive against academic freedom, thought leaders unfairly denied a platform upon which to thought-lead (this is all a little insane, of course, since these are people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year giving speeches, and who, unlike the rest of us, have ready access to TV appearances and newspaper op-ed pages).

***

Overlong preamble notwithstanding, I am not writing today to revisit the awfulness of Timothy Egan.

I am writing today for a much more important reason. We now face a real example—not some figment of the op-ed writer’s imagination ––of the contemporary academy silencing dissent.

A real betrayal of academic freedom—stunning, almost surreal in its Kafkaesque evilness––now unfolds at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Here, we have seen real bigotry, triumphant. Thus far, the Timothy Egans have been silent. That’s not a great surprise. (We will be the first to celebrate them, however, should they swerve from familiar patterns and demonstrate a little backbone and intellectual consistency).

The rest of us, however, need to speak up. Right away. Loudly and persistently. This is an emergency.

I refer here to UIUC’s announcement of the non-act of “un-hiring” Professor Steven Salaita. The details of the case, as best as I can reconstruct them, are as follows. Salaita is a well-regarded and professionally accomplished scholar of comparative ethnic, Arab American, indigenous, and American studies. He was, until recently, a tenured professor in the English Department at Virginia Tech. Earlier this year, Salaita accepted an offer to move into a tenured position at UIUC in the American Indian Studies program. Salaita resigned from Virginia Tech, and his family prepared for a move to Illinois.

As is typically the case in higher education, some paperwork remained to be “rubber-stamped” by the Board of Trustees as Salaita worked to get ready for the Fall 2014 semester at UIUC. Responsibility for passing on these materials to the Board of Trustees fell to UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise. Earlier this month, Wise abruptly and without warning or explanation chose not to pass Salaita’s paperwork on to the Trustees, essentially firing him by way of a covert “un-hiring.” The widespread perception within the media (left, right, and not-otherwise-specified) is that Wise embarked upon this unusual course of action in response to concern (On whose part? Expressed in what way?) regarding Salaita’s Twitter account, which contained material to which some supporters of Israel objected.[5]

Salaita, in the meantime, no longer has a job to return to in Virginia. Scholars from all corners of academia are outraged, boycotting UIUC, and trying to mobilize around Salaita’s cause. To our embarrassment, historians have been among the least active participants in this campaign. Let us pledge to correct for this, presently.

Whatever one’s ideological position, Salaita’s case would seem to be a clear example of the breach of academic freedom, an extraordinary insult to the hiring committee that offered Salaita the appointment, a violation of the norms of employment law (pegged to the doctrine of “promissory estoppel”),[6] and of course, most crucially, an act of aggression against the career of a fellow scholar.

But because we live in the time and place that we live in: let us cut to the quick. I have read through Salaita’s tweets, and have reached the conclusion––as a Jewish historian, a historian who has read widely in the history of anti-Semitism, and a trained close-reader of texts in general––that there is no anti-Semitism to be found here. On the contrary, Salaita’s relevant tweets seem to fall into two areas (all of which fall well within the norms of political speech): 1) outrage and sorrow in the face of the death and suffering; 2) strong condemnation of the ideology of Israel’s right wing, the actions of the IDF, and the “my country right or wrong” groupthink of Zionist hyper-patriots, often expressed in layered and sequential messages, caustic or ironic in tone. Not everyone likes such tweets. So what?

We should not have to do this. We should stick to questions of form and refuse all inquiries into content. It doesn’t matter what Salaita tweeted. We have played into their hands. We know that to engage in this exercise is to say: “yes, there is a case in which a Twitter feed could be so damning that this would be the correct way to handle the employment of professors.” We have to refuse this. We have to insist that everyone is entitled, as a civil right, to a full expressive life outside the workplace, a life that includes engaging in whatever politics towards which one feels drawn, and using social media in whatever ways one sees fit. I know that smug commenters love to laugh at coddled academics, unused to the “real world” of business, wherein employers have normalized ideas of “culture” and “fit” as ruses of discrimination, insisted upon the provision of credit scores, demanded Facebook passwords, and in many sectors eliminated any meaningful distinction between the time of work and the time of life. To those commenters we say: this is all a goddamn nightmare, outside or inside the academy. Its metastasis outside the walls of the university does not justify its importation within them. Let’s make it stop, everywhere.

Finally, emphatically: this is not a Zionist/anti-Zionist issue. Every academic should feel terror in her bones that after writing a dissertation, publishing a series of peer-reviewed books and articles, accumulating a stellar teaching and service record, and working through the complex process of applying for jobs, a career might be stopped dead in its tracks because a well-positioned bureaucrat has decided that the paperwork should not be sent through to the Board of Trustees. This should spook a Marxist as much as an Austrian, a deconstructionist as much as a New Critic, a Young Earth creationist as much as an astrophysicist.[7]

And we should bear in mind that we still do not know why UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise chose not to pass on Salaita’s paperwork.[8] As I have followed UIUC’s PR campaign, and the erratic way that the seeds of “plausible deniability” have been sown, this way and that, the impression that lingers is the shoddy and partial character of the official narrative. We should demand, at a minimum, a thorough timeline of the process whereby Salaita was un-hired. Was the decision unilateral? Did it involve “due diligence”? Did it follow “best practices”? What the hell is going in Urbana-Champaign?

It is time to refuse the blindfold. Salaita’s fate is our fate.

Please sign this petition here

To learn more about the UIUC boycott, please go here

To stay informed about breaking developments, check Corey Robin’s blog frequently

Notes

[1] Berger, Arthur Asa. The Genius of the Jewish Joke. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1997.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/16/opinion/egan-the-commencement-bigots.html?_r=0

[3] http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/05/13/commencement_speaker_protests_elite_college_students_reject_christine_lagarde.html

[4] For an excellent critique of the form, see http://clrjames.blogspot.com/2014/05/dad-rule-hatred-of-students.html

[5] https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1_oGbCNTx7lcvYzQP_kDEZbfclDdu5-GU_HIfCUKfIGQ/viewform

[6] http://www.dorfonlaw.org/2014/08/firing-versus-not-hiring.html

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-leiter/university-of-illinois-re_1_b_5703038.html

[8] http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-08-23/updated-wise-explains-salaita-decision-gets-support-trustees.html

24 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There is also a non-discipline-specific statement of support here.

    We have to insist that everyone is entitled, as a civil right, to a full expressive life outside the workplace, a life that includes engaging in whatever politics towards which one feels drawn, and using social media in whatever ways one sees fit.

    This has to be said, loudly and clearly, yes.

  2. After a 30-year career in higher educaton I can tell you with a reasonable amount of certainty that this has nothing to do with academic freedom, the first amendment, employment at will, etc. Instead this has everything to do with fear that donations to the university from jewish individuals, businesses, organizations, etc, will dry up. I don’t know that amount but imagine it;s sizeable.

    it’s always about money.

    I’m sure Wise was given the word in a closed session of the board concerning a personnel matter or a dinner/meeting in which a quorum of trustees wasn’t present (not a formal meeting of the board by definition). Sunshine doesn’t apply in such situations.

    It’s a dirty business.

    • There are other substantial communities which take anti-Palestinian, anti-Hamas, and pro-Israeli positions very seriously. I very much doubt that we need “secret meetings with rich Jews” to postulate some concern on the part of the administration that alumni and community relations could be hurt by association with Salaita.

      That said, this is a classic case of the “Streisand Effect” in action: had they allowed the hire to go through, Salaita’s tweets would have been a minor story in the midst of a summer of intemperate language regarding atrocities near and far. By actively trying to sever his connection with the university, they brought much greater attention to it than it would have had previously.

  3. Thanks, Kurt, these are powerful, necessary words that need to reverberate inside higher education and outside it, with the that same mixture of passion and clarity. I signed on when Corey Robin started drawing attention to this lamentable ordeal, specially to Cary Nelson’s saddening defense of the university administration at Urbana Champaign. I will say this though: at the same time that this is not an issue about Zionism per se, it clearly has much to do with the normative perception in the US on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the repression of any strong critique of the Israeli state.

  4. Helpfully providing me with an opportunity to prove that I am fully capable of finding a comment anti-Semitic, Harry Briscoe suggests, without evidence, that we follow the “jewish” money. Please clarify–thus far, we seem to be in the terrain of classical anti-Semitism.

    I may have far less experience than you do with higher education, but I think people are capable of behaving badly for all sorts of reasons. Administrators, for example, are fully capable of trying to take short cuts for all manner of reasons, including, even–from their own perspectives–“trying to do the right thing.”

    For the sake of demonstrating this blog’s commitments to open discourse and intellectual freedom–I would be grateful if you would reconsider your comment, and I offer you this public space to do so.

    • I respectfullly decline on the grounds that nothing I wrote was remotely anti-semitic –classic or otherwise.

      I do not respond well to threats and simply cannot allow myself to be strong armed in such a fashion. Where is the freedom in this?

      Such things as I suggest do happen in the real world as this article about withholding donations at Brandeis shows:

      http://muzzlewatch.com/2007/02/15/brandeis-donors-exact-revenge-for-carter-visit/

      I respect the right of everyone to free expression and recognize that there can be consequences for exercising those rights. I feel a deep empathy for Prof. Salaita.

      Don’t worry, I won’t be back. It’s a little too stifling in here.

      P.S. You might want to listen to Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages

  5. Great post. Troubling news. In reference too:

    –“I know that smug commenters love to laugh at coddled academics, unused to the “real world” of business, wherein employers have normalized ideas of “culture” and “fit” as ruses of discrimination…”–

    And unfortunately, as you suggested, comments and commentators like this distort the real issues. Outside of the information and links you provided, I have heard very little of the situation. However, because of your post, I will be following the goings on at University of Illinois, how its reported, and findings. Again, thanks for the post.

  6. I expect this will be an unpopular comment, but I feel compelled to share a slightly different perspective.

    While I’m always disappointed to see academic freedom curtailed, I have a difficult time getting worked up about a single incident in which a tenured professor gets a raw deal when this is the daily lived reality of the growing number of adjunct faculty the nation over. Even without contentious tweets and the like, adjunct faculty (on many campuses a growing majority) face sudden employment reversals All The Time. But because they are systematic, unfold in the thousands, and happen to the least visible and most vulnerable of our colleagues, these incidents rarely get called out for their “Kafkaesque evilness.”

    I am saddened for Professor Salaita and his family. This is a terrible way for anyone to be treated and my sympathy is with them. But I feel confident that as “a well-regarded and professionally accomplished scholar” he will land on his feet.

    I fear, though, that each time we rally around tenured (or tenure track) professors to defend their academic freedom while simultaneously ignoring the constant undermining of the academic freedom (not to mention basic livelihood) of adjunct professors each term, we reinforce the notion of our critics that academic freedom is simply an elite privilege rather than a foundational principle of education.

    • I hear this, and I hope that by calling attention to Salaita’s situation I have not suggested that the many difficulties faced by adjuncts are any less Kafkasesque or evil. I’m writing about something bad that happened to one of the lucky ones. If I am to be dinged for not having also written about the unlucky, fair enough. I will take the hit.

      As a finishing dissertator, I am, myself, an occupant of the rung *below* that of the adjunct precariate, professionally speaking, if such a position is imaginable.

      Having said that: I strongly reject your argument, and wish to push back against its logic, in no uncertain terms. The neoliberal university will win to the degree we affirm that the tenured are our enemies, rather than partners in struggle. The tenured may not all know that we are in this together (some of my fellow grad students don’t know it either). The political imperative follows an old and basic formula: mutualism, common struggle or struggle in common, solidarity. It’s all we’ve ever had.

      Divide and conquer is the oldest game in the book. Tenured, adjunct, unemployed, whatever: an injury to one is an injury to all. That’s where I am with this stuff, anyways.

      • In fairness, I think much of our disagreement has to do with differing perspectives on the context(s). From my perspective, this is the latest in a long line of such posts at various sites focused (to my mind too narrowly) on the plight of a single “lucky one.” That’s really not a fair criticism of your individual post, since you are not responsible for this larger context.

        I do think, though, that your post is a reflection of my larger criticism. How is it that your extensive post about the need to protect academic freedom in this particular instance doesn’t have a single reference to the larger context of adjuctification and related issues of academic freedom? How, in the midst of references to un-hiring and the need for a clear time of work/time of life separation, did the example of adjuncts not come up? Such references would only have strengthened your call for action by highlighting how widespread and normalized this deterioration of academic freedom has become, and yet they were absent. To me, that absence was conspicuous.

        So while I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about the dangers of divide and conquer, I reject your suggestion that by calling attention to the plight of adjuncts I am the one responsible for contributing to a division between tenure-track and adjunct faculty. When adjuncts continue to be un-referenced in this larger discussion, the existing divisions are reinforced.

    • I don’t think anyone here is “simultaneously ignoring” the issues of contingent faculty; in fact, I’ve commented elsewhere on how much this situation — expecting work from incompletely hired instructors, and callously throwing around euphemisms like ‘unhired’ or ‘not renewed’ — reminds me of the issues I’ve been hearing from adjunct faculty since I started being aware of them around the turn of the century.

      I have done what I can, institutionally, to try to make things better, and I have supported, and still support, movements to improve the working and living conditions of all members of academic faculties.

      And I’m quite sure that I’m not alone in this.

  7. I am a proud alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and, as a member of the divestiture movement there in the 1980, I can state the administration will be truculent, defiant, and unreasonable. It took over a decade for UIUC to divest itself from South Africa. The university took God knows how long to see the light concerning the Chief Illiniwek symbol, and unless the Salaita decision is quickly changed, this controversy will degenerate into trench warfare until the lengthy legal proceedings are exhausted. They are not going to be reasonable in this matter.

    This is a political battle now. The U of I faculty has to be overwhelming onboard quickly. The battle for public opinion has to be won. The Champaign media will be no help. The narrative has to be over the stupidity of being fired over a 140 character tweet, and not whether the comment was or was not anti-Semitic. The battle needs to be made personal. I recommend comparing Chancellor Wise to the Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis who utilized the police department to arrest the owner of a parody twitter account.

    Committees and petitions are fine, but academics within the state of Illinois are going to have to take a stand, and that means engaging in civil disobedience. A letter to the editor of your local paper and the Chronicle are fine, but a story about why a group of professors made a road trip to Champaign and got arrested are more effective. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but it may.

    We are all Steven Salaita.

  8. I think Harry Briscoe’s comment was not phrased in the most cogent manner–it is not only about the capital of pro-Israel Jewish peoples and communities, but about the capital, both symbolic and economic, of supporters of the Israeli state. Not spelling this out could lead to the comment being read as anti-semitic. And it is not an either/or question: it is about academic freedom and about politics.

    In regards to this case, it appears now that there’s actual evidence of what Briscoe suggested:

    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/25/u-illinois-officials-defend-decision-deny-job-scholar-documents-show-lobbying

  9. sorry folks, i usually try to honor promises and not gloat but in this case i’ll make an exception, and thanks kahlil for the cogency. as far as the semantic (i said semantic and not semitic) mumbo jumbo goes, you must remember that briscoe lives in a world where the “d” word (deconstruction) and the “p” word (post-modern) and other such constructs along with hip hop nation have been banned.

    they used to call this place america, maybe some of you remember it. if you don’t then go talk to some old timers about it. they won’t bite.

    anyway, take things and people on their own merit and remember if you can’t always be right then be fair. say good luck to diogenes.

    so long a second and last time. I sincerely hope everyone in this drama gets what they deserve, particularly salaita, who is due more than just apologies.

    • I can’t make head or tail of this, I confess.

      There is work to be done in the battle for justice for Salaita, and I don’t have time for whatever it is you are trying to make happen here. I have no idea what you mean by “hip hop nation” is, but I don’t like the work it is doing here.

      Barring some miracle or disaster, this will be my last comment-stream engagement with you, Dr. Briscoe. Comment as you like. This fish will not bite.

    • Respectfully, Mr. Briscoe, but this is plain old trolling. Kurt’s reaction is completely justified, and now I am sorry I tried to give to understand you before. Adiós.

  10. Thank you very much for this thoughtful post. I agree that we should stick to questions of form and refuse to get into content and the distraction of whether these tweets are anti-Semitic or not, not because anti-Semitism isn’t an important subject, but because this entire fiasco has nothing to do with anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism is much too important a phenomena to let it become the centerpiece of what is a fight about whether there is any remaining part of our lives left as academics that is not owned by the well-heeled and well-organized in administration, on boards of trustees/regents and in our legislatures. This is an emergency, and we have to stop it in its tracks.

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