Gaza, Steven Salaita and the Threat to Academic Freedom at the University of Illinois
I have just heard of the decision you have made to rescind a contract with professor Steven Salaita for the views he has expressed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am deeply troubled by your decision, which, by all standards, based on the information I have been able to gather so far, is a flagrant violation of academic freedom.
I take the liberty of writing this message even though I am not a US but an Italian academic. As a professor of American literature at the Sapienza University of Rome, who holds a PhD from Rutgers University and who has lived for more than twelve years in the US, enjoying the vibrant atmosphere of its academic life, I am not only worried, but outright shocked by such decision, which is contrary to everything the best American liberal thinkers, from Ralph Waldo Emerson onwards, have always stood for.
I am also compelled to write due to the fact that over the last five years I have visited your university as part of an agreement between our two universities. Professors from UIUC have visited and taught at my University, and I have been a fellow at the International Forum for US Studies on three separate occasions. I have always been proud to be the promoter of a collaboration between our two institutions. Until now your university has stood out as a beacon ofexcellence and free academic debate. Because of your unfortunate decision, your institution is now at risk of becoming a symbol of the ever-growing intolerance of the powers that be against any serious criticism of the status quo.
Criticism may at times be expressed in harsh words, and in the case at hand one does not have to agree with every single word uttered by Prof. Salaita to defend his right to express freely his views. Indeed, one may well disagree with what he says and, as Voltaire famously argued, be a staunch defender of his right to speak his mind.
I live in a country where the freedom of teaching is enshrined in the constitution. The last time Italian authorities directly intervened to curb academic freedom was during the Fascist regime. Since the days of Mussolini, not one single Italian academic has been fired or refused tenure because of his or her political views, no matter how extreme.
What is also in my view disconcerting is that, in the case of professor Salaita, his views have not been expressed ex-cathedra. I read that your decision is motivated by his “uncivil” views. I am afraid, however, that “uncivil” views were likewise expressed at some point or another in their careers, by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Denise Levertov and many, many other outstanding Americans. If the standards now applied to professor Salaita were the same for these and other American intellectuals, they would all be prevented from teaching at any university.
I feel obliged to write this message also because I have been serving for the last three years as president of the International American Studies Association. A threat to academic freedom anywhere is a threat to academic freedom everywhere. The termination of Professor Salaita’s contract would not only be a dishonor to your institution but an offense to the liberty your country claims to have at heart.
I sincerely hope you will reconsider your course of action. You would prove yourself wise, magnanimous, and far-sighted.
Giorgio Mariani is a Professor of American Literature at Sapienza University of Rome.