The Modern Language Association (MLA) is obsessive over Steven Salaita’s firing at the University of Illinois, demonstrated by a panel session entitled, “Salaita, Academic Freedom, and the Question of Palestine: Where Do We Go from Here?” at their annual convention held this year in Austin, Texas.
Warrior, a Native American director of American Indian Studies at Illinois-Urbana, said, “I still don’t find myself in the position with the enduring truths that have resulted from the debacle” at Illinois-Champaign. He hoped that “when the truths do emerge…due to the notoriety” of Salaita’s dismissal, then he could be in that position to know the truth. He believed that academics “will be speaking on those for a long time.” He gave a long-winded background of his experience in the Salaita controversy, in which he and Chancellor Phyllis Wise engaged a Native American tribe Peoria (now residing in Oklahoma) over bringing back the university’s old mascot, Chief Illiniwek. But, Warrior’s involvement with Salaita overlapped the mascot issue (which he termed a “microaggression”) because his interactions with Chancellor Wise gave context to how the Salaita dismissal went.
Wise initially trusted him, considering him a faculty senate “insider,” but over time, she distanced herself from him. Warrior pointed out that this search for a new professor “had garnered the biggest and strongest search of candidates that I’ve ever seen, nearly 100 candidates, [which is] very big for an Indian Studies search.” Unintentionally, Warrior revealed that Salaita was not an expert on Israel-Palestine, but Native American studies. Yet, Salaita was fired because of his vitriolic and controversial tweets that were staunchly anti-Israel, “What was very much on Wise’s mind was Twitter.” Warrior criticized Wise for not looking at his other tweets on other subjects. “Her culpability,” Warrior remarked, “[was] based on reading a couple of tweets…a couple of different ways.” He claimed that she told him that Salaita’s tweets were “unacceptable comments for a faculty at [Illnois] to make” and “did not specify” the particulars. Another comment of hers was that “a public comment makes students uncomfortable that demonstrated the clear quality of Steven’s classroom teaching.” Wise also noted that “comments like Steven’s violates the collegiatey of the community” and “free exchange of ideas,” Warrior recounted. He mocked Wise and the board, believing that the perceptions of “her local and business supporters” and “country club pals” she runs into at the local big box stores had a strong influence in the decision. Warrior mentioned that this conversation “wasn’t for enlightenment,” but was a way for Warrior to tell her what she needed to hear to present to the university’s board of trustees in a meeting the following day.
The board assigned him to be the intermediary with Salaita. He felt that it was odd that the board would assign him to be an intermediary when they planned on firing Salaita. Salaita, in a phone call with Warrior, “offered to tone down and slow down the public media work.” But, the board decided to fire Salaita that weekend.
Warrior spared no criticism of Wise, accusing her of “violating the university’s ethical [standards]” by being too cozy with the faculty senate. Also, he said that Wise’s actions tried to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and he thought that the professors “had to take the ethics training for her” as a result. He also blamed the university administrators, “Every single administrator…’I can’t do that, Robert, I will be fired.’ None of these administrators haven’t been fired because they were brave, they were fired because they were stupid.”
Matthew Abraham, an associate professor of English at Arizona, also sided with Salaita in the panel. He said, “These adjectives seek to normalize violence against Palestinians by Israelis” and accused opponents of Salaita of encouraging “erasure” of Palestinians. He quickly turned to academic freedom, “Academics could very well face work-related repercussions” if they speak out, in addition to such remarks “[becoming] a part of one’s professional profile.”
Abraham went on to criticize Cary Nelson, who was sitting in the audience, and went point-by-point criticizing Nelson’s pro-Israel bias. Nelson outlined reasons why Illinois could have terminated Salaita because no formal offer was given nor signed. Abraham contended that an informal offer “is pretty much considered a formality” in academic circles and therefore, Nelson’s point that “Salaita had not officially been appointed to the faculty” was null and void. Regarding academic freedom, if Salaita was a formal faculty member, then “Salaita’s tweets…would be protected under academic freedom.” Nelson also made the point, which Abraham bristled at, that “Salaita should not have been hired at all” because of his lack of expertise. Abraham accused Nelson of impugning “the integrity of the search committee” by looking for someone who was not an expert in Middle East subjects.
David Lloyd, a professor from Cal-Berkeley who was pushing heavily for a boycott of Israel in Chicago two years ago, was also in the audience.
Photo by jeffrey_putney
Photo by jeffrey_putney