U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Representative Event

Chris Kennedy (left) and Phyllis Wise (second from right) in happier times.

This month has brought a flurry of events in the ongoing case of Steven Salaita’s hire-firing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. First, on August 6, Federal Judge Harry D. Leinenweber, allowed Salaita’s civil suit against UIUC to go forward, effectively ruling that Salaita had, indeed, been hired by UIUC. To the satisfaction of most of us who had been following the case, Leinenweber correctly noted that ” [i]f the Court accepted the University’s argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist.” That very day, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who had publicly initiated the attempt to fire Salaita, abruptly resigned. The next day, the University of Illinois shed light on Wise’s decision to step down when it announced that a series of e-mails to and from Wise that should have been produced in response to a 2014 FOIA request had been withheld.   Those e-mails revealed a number of interesting aspects of the behind-the-scenes decision-making regarding Salaita, including the possibility that the case had been influenced by a fight between Wise and then Board of Trustees Chair Chris Kennedy over Wise’s plans for a new, engineering-based College of Medicine at UIUC. A few days later, the Board rejected Wise’s resignation, hoping to instead fire her and deprive her of a $400,000 payment that her contract had provided for her when she left the Chancellorship. Wise then resubmitted her resignation, as lawyers unconnected with the case began to suggest that Wise might want to sue for breach of contract if the Trustees tried to withhold the money. Finally, on August 14, the Board accepted Wise’s resignation. And that’s more or less where things stand today.

The Salaita case has attracted so much attention in part because it touches on issues of enormous political import, especially for academics. Much of the early discussion of the case centered around Salaita’s statements regarding Israel’s war on Gaza and a lot of the attention it generated last summer was connected with the politics of Israel / Palestine. But since last summer, issues of academic freedom and university governance have dominated the news around the Salaita case. Already, many people have drawn a wide variety of larger conclusions about its significance. Recent interesting examples include Timothy Burke’s concern that, in their justified criticism of the UIUC administration’s actions, academics are prone to throw out the administrative baby with the bathwater and Chris Newfield’s argument that Wise’s downfall is one of a number of encouraging signs that a bad era of university governance is coming to an end. (Newfield’s piece is interesting, but, I fear, a bit starry-eyed, at least judging from where other university administrations I know seem headed).

Of course, the Salaita case is far from over. Salaita is still suing the university. The academic boycott of UIUC continues, pending a final settlement in that case. The e-mails may contain further revelations. And obviously nobody knows the administrative future at UIUC. (Kennedy, son of RFK, was a Democratic appointment. In January, Republican Bruce Rauner became Governor of Illinois, amid promises of dramatic cuts to the University.) Until a lot more dust settles, any broad, general conclusions drawn from it are almost certainly premature.

But the desire to draw such conclusions from the Salaita case is, I think, related to the fact that it feels in so many ways like a representative event, its dramas involving American views of Israel / Palestine, academic freedom, and university governance all feel like heightened examples of broader phenomena. And the fact that, as its been unfolding, it has felt this way to academics suggest to me that the Salaita case has broader significance, even if we cannot yet be sure exactly what that significance is.

When future scholars get around to writing the intellectual and cultural history of the U.S. in the second decade of the 21st century, the Salaita affair will offer itself as an ideal case study in the story of American higher education in our day.  Let’s hope that, by the time that historical monographs about it get written, this already dramatic story will have had a truly happy ending.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is an excellent piece, and very usefully brings the story up to the present moment.

    I think that several things are clearer now than last summer: 1) the “”big donors pressure” story is likely correct, to a certain extent, although it seems to me that the “conspiracy” itself was utterly bungled and terribly thought out; 2) Salaita has emerged as a pretty heroic character, carrying himself with grace and humor through a genuine ordeal, and offering an inspiring example to all of us–the fracas has also had a “Streisand effect” of drawing attention to his excellent research; 3) the middle finger to the department that hired Salaita seems to have received the least attention–in hindsight, it is the most astonishing and distressing element of the whole story; 4) the private emails reveal that UIUC power elites initially agreed with many mainstream liberals who closely read the tweets after the scandal broke: in context, nothing that Salaita tweeted exceeded the bounds of protected political speech, and neither was any of it anti-Semitic.

    The bad news: according to sources who know about such things, the domestic pro-Israel coalition will spend a few more weeks on Iran, (with most involved well aware that they will not succeed in scuttling the deal) and then turn their attentions to BDS (Netanyahu is eager to take on BDS). No doubt, in the US context, the “BDS” to be targeted will be “academic BDS.”

    One possibility is that the Right will burn up all their credibility opposing the Iran deal and thus neuter themselves in advance of the anti-BDS push. But, if they maintain minimal credibility, we should prepare for something along the lines of McCarthyite countersubversion (including, but not limited to, Congressional subpoenas of academics and intellectuals, with, I would guess, special attention granted to scholars of color who work in the Palestine solidarity movement), timed to coincide with the heating-up of the election cycle. In this fight, the actions of liberal intellectuals will be particularly decisive–history suggests that they will not rise to the occasion. I hope I am wrong.

    As the old cartoon has it: “worry.”

  2. The elephant in the room of “campus politics” is the influence of corporate power and big donors. We need a light to shine on this at all times.

  3. Ben: I love and agree with your thesis about the Salaita case being a representative event, like and unlike the Edward Ross case at Stanford in 1900. In addition to the issues you mentioned, one could use this to discuss: (a) the academic hiring process (and the decline of tenure-track lines, intellectual labor, etc.), (b) state funding for higher ed (decline, vicissitudes), (c) new social media, (d) public intellectualism (there it is again!), and (e) the trajectory/prominence of Native American studies.

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