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Professor Steven Salaita was to begin his new faculty appointment in Fall 2014 as a tenured Associate Professor in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). His appointment was vetted through the multi-layer levels that are a mainstay of North American universities faculty appointment process. However, on August 1, 2014, the chancellor of UIUC Phyllis Wise informed Salaita that he did not have a faculty job at UIUC. The storm this di-hiring created amongst North American academics was unprecedented.
More than 6000 academics pledged to boycott UIUC unless Salaita was reinstated. Close to 19000 individuals signed a general petition requesting that Salaita be reinstated. It is likely that many others objected to the UIUC decision but opted not to sign the petitions. All this was sufficient evidence that the conduct of UIUC chancellor, the President and the Board of Trustees who supported her created deep concern and anguish amongst many academics that prompted their furious, articulate, and deeply passionate response.
In addition to this massive outcry, 16 academic units at UIUC objected in the strongest possible terms to how the UIUC administration handled the matter by passing votes of no confidence in the chancellor and higher-level administrators. A vote of no confidence by an academic unit registers the strongest objection to how administrators run the university. A luminous example of such exercise was Harvard faculty vote of no confidence in the then president of Harvard Larry Summers that led to his resignation. Major academic and scholarly associations such as the American Associate of University Professors, the Modern Language Association, the American Studies Association, the American Historical Association, the American Comparative Literature Association, the American Anthropological Association, the American Political Science Association, amongst others, issued their own strongly worded statements opposing the decision of the UIUC administration.
There is not a single answer as to why the response of the academic community was so overwhelming. Speculations arise, but it is possible that many in the academic community saw dangerous developments that prompted them to act with such passion and commitment. As expressed by major organizations representing a wide body of academics, many perhaps felt an encroachment on freedom of expression, while others saw reneging on a commitment and promise to hire. Still others saw a university administration that fired a professor without due process or listening to his side of the story.
Those who supported the UIUC Board not to hire believe that profanity-laden tweets of Salaita were sufficient reasons. Others expressed the opinion that Salaita’s tweets were anti-Jews and anti-Israel. Some claimed the tweets were anti-Semitic.
There are multi-facets to this controversy affecting the academe which is a large loosely defined community that prefers to busy itself with discovery, research and teaching instead of controversies.
The question of academic freedom is fluid. There is no consensus of what constitutes academic freedom. Academic Freedom Guidelines established by the Association of American University Professors are adhered to by UIUC; however, these guidelines are not nationally or universally accepted. Here, I am not going to address what constitutes academic freedom nor freedom of expression. I will differ this to US legal experts and to experts in ethics, philosophy and law. What I am interested in is to understand the factual circumstances that lead UIUC to reverse its academic appointment decision that was vetted by all academic and administrative units and administrators, up to the highest academic officers of UIUC, the Chancellor and the Provost, yet to be reversed by the Board and President.
Under the freedom of information act (FOIA), two newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the News-Gazette of Champaign, obtained information that indicated that the Board of Trustees and the chancellor were subjected to what appears to be a small, but highly pointed campaign by individuals who mostly identified themselves as Jewish or supporters of Israel. The chancellor has admitted that she initially approved the appointment. Therefore, it is likely that the chancellor reversed her decision sometime in the weeks of July due to pressure from the anti-Salaita campaigners, pressure from the Board of Trustees, or both.
The central question is what transpired in those weeks between the chancellor, members of the Board and people that the chancellor admitted to having met with in relation to the Salaita hiring that made her reverse her decision? Of course, theories abound, but a reasonable conclusion is that the decision to de/un-hire Salaita was not based on his academic dossier since she approved the hiring much earlier.
After the unraveling of the affair and the national outcry that it generated, the University was silent for good number of days possibly to formulate a strategy to confront the unfolding scandal. UIUC silence was damaging enough to the university reputation, but anything that was said by the chancellor, the President or the Board after breaking the silence proved to be even more damaging.
According to established UIUC procedure, the chancellor was supposed to submit Salaita’s appointment to the Board for final confirmation. Considering that she initially approved the appointment, her stated rational not to forward the appointment of Salaita to the Board for confirmation, as implied by her letter to him, was that she believed the confirmation by the Board was unlikely. The chancellor’s letter to Salaita implied that she either received feedback or consulted with the Board since her letter explicitly reflected the sentiment of the majority of Board members. It remains to be seen whether her refusal to forward the appointment for confirmation by the Board was maneuvering on the part of the Board, which if declined to confirm the appointment would have implied that the Trustees were interfering in academic matters, something they repeatedly said they do not do. Such implication would be damaging to the university as the Trustees are neither academics nor have academic experience but are mostly lawyers and corporate/business people. (Later, it was revealed that the chancellor violated the University statues by preventing other academic personnel [Dean, Provost, etc.] from forwarding the appointment file to the Board for confirmation.) Overall, the equivocation on the part of UIUC administrators and the inconsistent and contradictory statements made by Board members all point to possible cover-up.
The most troubling aspect related to the di-hiring of Salaita was the interference of a wealthy donor. The wealthy donor in question, according to the documents obtained under FOIA, threatened to stop donating to the university and even to encourage others (presumably equally important and wealthy donors) to do the same. The e-mail documents obtained through FOIA also revealed that chancellor Wise met with a donor who is most likely sufficiently wealthy to warrant the chancellor of one of the biggest state universities of the US to not only meet with but also change her schedule to accommodate. The e-mails revealed that the meeting was connected to Salaita’s appointment. According to Inside Higher Ed, one e-mail suggested (or threatened) to stop money flow (donations) to the university. It stated “Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses. This is doubly unfortunate for the school as we have been blessed in our careers and have accumulated quite a balance sheet over my 35 year career”. When confronted with these concerns, the chancellor never denied that such meetings took place and gave distracting answers by insisting that she always meets with donors and specifically she singled out her recent efforts, along with the Provost, to attract sufficient financial donations for the remodeling of Altgeld Hall (an aging iconic building at UIUC).
Many donors have political, social, religious or cultural leanings, which explain why they would most likely position their money and donations to advance their broad interests. Donors have the ultimate freedom where to place their donations. Attaching donor money to influence, swaying hiring decisions or limiting faculty academic freedom has been considered by both academics and administrators as egregious if not outright illegal. Recently, several news articles were published that brows over such practice without the scrutiny it deserves, as if to create an atmosphere of acceptance. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, stated in a recent interview that “donors give money and they expect certain things. There’s nothing wrong with them voicing their opinion.” Giving opinions is their right; “expecting certain things”, however, could imply interference, buying influence or even hiring. In a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward, Nathan Guttman, stated “It is a university’s nightmare scenario, involving almost every possible mess an academic institution could encounter: choosing between free speech and the need to maintain civil discourse; balancing academic faculty hiring prerogatives with donor pressure…” Guttman’s assertion was picked up by the Times in Jake Flanagin’s blog. These articles and others could indicate acceptance of donor “pressure” or attempts at facilitating such acceptance.
The problem arises when donors attempt to influence universities with their donations creating, in the process what is typically referred to as conflict of interest. This type of conflict runs contrary to the university mission of searching for the truth without any strings attached. Another problem of possibly higher severity is when donors attempt to influence state institutions. Had UIUC been a private university, the impression that donors would attempt to influence academic work would have been egregious enough. UIUC is a state institution and thus any attempt to influence a state institution carries more severe implications and warrants additional scrutiny that goes beyond the confines of the academe. Such implications do not only affect the state institution but also the donors.
Chancellor Wise deflected questions about the purpose of her meeting with the wealthy donor. As she explained, she meets with donors all the time. This is commendable, encouraged and expected from the high-level administrators of the modern-day university; however, the question is not her meetings with donors but the precise agenda of those meetings. If the meeting was related to affect academic decisions and to interfere in the operation of the university, then something is seriously amiss. The question arises if such meetings are acceptable under UIUC statues From the perspective of a state institution, were such meetings intended to gain influence in the form of affecting employment decisions? Many important questions are waiting for equally important answers.
The recent UIUC Board meeting that took place on the 11th of September fueled further speculation as to the potential collusion between some of the Board members with an important and wealthy donor to influence hiring decisions and thus state-related operations. When some of the Board members were interviewed after the meeting, they either did not know about or did not show interest in the alleged (yet never denied) meeting that chancellor Wise had with the wealthy donor (the e-mails revealed under the FOIA act indicated that most likely the donor was Steve Miller of Origin Ventures who had established an endowed Chair in the Business school named after him). If the Board represents the highest governing body of the University of Illinois system, then the potential of influence peddling should have been worthy of discussion. If the Board did not believe such development was worthy of investigation, let alone discussion, then the Board itself needs to be investigated for potential violation of state statues. The possibility of wrong doing by the UIUC Board of Trustees is likely as the very recent admission scandal proved.
Another important question is whether donor influence is tacitly accepted by UIUC. The e-mails released under FOIA revealed that the university unit responsible for fund raising was subjected to pressure by donors and this very unit relayed serious donors concerns about Salaita’s hiring to the Chancellor directly. Steve Miller, who established an endowed Chair in the Business school, is a self-declared Zionist and strong supporter of Israel. The connection between Miller and the pro-Israel lobby is likely since he identifies himself as pro and a lover of Israel. A yet equally important question is whether foreign influence should be scrutinized especially in affecting matters related to a state institution. Most recent revelations could suggest a cover up by the office of the Chancellor.
In the aftermath of the scandal, the chancellor suggested changes in the hiring procedure, proposed workshops/seminars to address the concept of academic freedom in the modern world and set out on a campaign of dialogue with different academic units. Conspicuously absent from her enthusiastic initiatives is any discussion or recommendations to prevent donors from influencing academic decisions particularly employment decisions. In fact, a review of the funding for Steve Miller Chair in the Business School might be warranted; particularly, whether funding for the Chair carried any favours or political influence from the funder related to either the Chair position or to general campus-wide academic decisions.
The Modern World and the Modern University
The problem does not lie with wealthy donors. The problem lies with university administrators who assume the status of leadership without providing any substantive leadership (surprisingly, high-level administrators are commonly referred to as “leaders” whereas true university leaders are the faculty who push the envelope of knowledge thus leading societies towards new directions in all aspects of life). Chancellor Wise expressed an interest in encouraging the UIUC campus to explore the question of what she calls academic freedom in the “modern world”. Wise could have implied that academic freedom is a variable. A possible extension to such a notion is that freedom itself might also be a variable. Considering the rich diversity of UIUC faculty, the Chancellor could have consulted with any of them as to whether academic freedom has changed from the time of Socrates to present. Was the phrase used by the Chancellor “modern world” a Freudian slip or was it an attempt to derail the meaning of academic freedom from what is typically and commonly understood by the academic establishment (as represented by umbrella organizations such as the AAUP) and align the meaning with corporate interests. Does the notion of the “modern world” imply a “modern university” with financial structure and core principles different from the “old university”?
Economic models pursued by corporations vary, but many corporations believe in physical and market expansion. But the university is not a corporation. University administrators with corporate thinking will inevitably direct the university towards a corporate frame/model of thinking. Chancellor Wise makes more than 40% of her net income from serving on the corporate boards of Nike and Busey Bank. Nike’s core business is not philanthropy. The compensation that Nike gives to Chancellor Wise ($300,000 per year) is a reward for her serving on a corporate board to provide corporate-aligned ideas and suggestions that cannot be possible without corporate mentality and thinking. Not surprisingly the UIUC Board awards a bonus and “deferred compensation” to the President of the UI system, all reward instruments of North American corporations. It is not clear at this time as to the merits behind such bonuses. Is it related to academic indicators of excellence (cumulative indexes related to faculty research impact, recognition, …etc.) or to the net donations made to the university?
The university faculty body represents a group of highly intelligent people with strong analytical skills. Their participation in the collective or shared governance of the university is common and expected. In the corporate atmosphere that some administrators create (starting with the term “leadership”) the dollar becomes a significant factor in the structural expansion of the university and in faculty and administrator promotions. Those with more money will have more weight. Those with critical thinking but less money will be given less weight.The emerging strong alignment with corporate atmospheres gives rise to the dominance of money. The dollar is important for physical expansion of the university but not for the intellectual expansion. In fact, one might argue that the dollar is inimical to the intellectual expansion of the university. The composition of the UIUC Board of Trustees indicates close to conformity or uniformity in core corporate beliefs amongst its members. Notice, the Board of Trustees are appointed by the governor of the State of Illinois, but the composition of the Board is not stipulated in the Illinois state statues.
The classical outcry of UIUC high-level administrators about diminishing state funding, which typically used to validate their continuous efforts to attract donations, needs to be balanced with prioritizing capital expenditure changes and engaging in effective lobbying to reverse decreased state funding. The alternative is to fall into the arms of corporations or aggressive “venture philanthropies” that ensure any dollar they donate will fulfill the donor’s goals.
Corporate leaders put highest emphasis on the dollar. University visionaries put highest emphasis on the search for the truth while understanding that the dollar has its weighted and rightful place in the entire academic enterprise.
UUIC Reputation, Damage and Boycott Damage
When Chancellor Wise was asked in interviews about her decision regarding Salaita, she kept repeating that her decisions were made in the best interest of the University. Those statements by the chancellor were effectively non-statements. The Chancellor was hired to make decisions in the best interest of the university; an expectation that comes with a yearly paycheck of 500,000 dollars. A non-statement does not assuage the concerns of many faculty members who could not find substance in the chancellor repeated statements that were most likely coached by an army of attorneys paid for by the citizens of Illinois.
A significant damage due to the Chancellor and Trustees’ conduct was the polarization of the UIUC campus. Recent news articles described the level of animosity that the non-consultative decisions of the chancellor and the heavy-handedness of the Board have created. With 16 academic units voicing no confidence in the Chancellor’s leadership, the damage to collegial relationships amongst faculty can be serious and long lasting. The tension amongst faculty can exhibit itself in committee meetings which can lead to diminished likelihood to build consensus.
More than 6000 scholars have vowed to disconnect from UIUC in a variety of capacities in response to the firing of Salaita. This boycott can affect the business of the university as had been stressed by James Montgomery, one of the UIUC trustees. The effect of this massive boycott can be either mitigated or enhanced depending on the evolving attitude of each UIUC faculty towards the chancellor and the Board. The frustrations amongst UIUC faculty who favored the reinstatement of Salaita is very high. If recent memory is any guide, the UIUC faculty have a track record of making their concerns heard up to the highest levels. The pro-chancellor faculty camp, on the other hand, declared support for the leadership of the chancellor and admitted that she has to make difficult decisions at times. This camp did not produce sufficiently persuasive arguments as to why they backed the chancellor aside from showing complete and unwavering faith in her leadership. The problem with this faculty camp is that they overlooked the difference between the Church and the University; faith belongs to the former not the latter.
The AAUP has yet to finalize its decision on the matter. If the AAUP censures UIUC, it can be very damaging to its reputation with unforeseen consequences that can mushroom with time.
If the above damages happen, the students, faculty and citizens of Illinois will bear the consequences. The chancellor is an administrator after all and is not expected to stay in her position for long. In fact, in a recent interview, chancellor Wise admitted explicitly that she is not hurt from the boycott but the faculty. The President is an interim whose successor is expected to start next year. The Board members are very wealthy and immersed in their corporate life that will not be affected in any substantial way. Those who are attached to UIUC for the longest term, the faculty, stand to lose the most. After all, the true “business” of the university is research and teaching; the rest, including highly-paid administrators, are nothing but part of the infrastructure. In fact, to reaffirm Isidore Rabi’s belief expressed during his famous encounter with former President Eisenhower, the university is the faculty.
Faculty recruitment will be affected. Luminaries and visionaries with true scientific (physical and non-physical sciences included) leadership qualities will not be interested to join a university who’s Board of Trustees show contempt for shared governance. Such potential hires will be concerned about joining a university who appears to condone a culture that allows donors to influence hiring decision. Fresh PhDs who are interested in securing a foothold in the academe may never bother about the Salaita affair and grab whatever comes their way. Many potential faculty hires might be turned off by the polarization and damage to collegiality that has become real and tangible at the UIUC campus. The engineering side of UIUC, its biggest claim to fame, will not be affected significantly since engineering has largely been evolving into a highly-advanced vocational school, self-sheltering itself from broader scientific and humanities disciplines with their traditional liberal attitude.
Overall, the short-term effect can be minimal. The long-term effect can be very damaging as most recently and eloquently expressed by Steven Cicala who cancelled an invited talk at UIUC. To quote Cicala: “I urge you to consider the long term damage wrought by gutting the guarantee of inquiry free from outside interference. It far exceeds any short term gain in donations from donors who don’t understand the difference between a university and a political action committee.” The fact that junior, non-tenured faculty such as Cicala are taking a principled position is an indication that the Salaita affair will most likely haunt UIUC for many years go come.
Those who have the most to lose will keep the Salaita controversy in the foreground. The temporality of administrators and permanence of faculty could also be another indicator of whether the issue will “blow off” or continue to be synonymous with the UIUC image.
Profanity and Civility
What is profanity to one is acceptable language to another. Profanity and language in general in all their forms have context. If I use profanity towards an intruder attacking my house in the middle of the night, will it be held against me in any way, let alone will it lead to my firing from my university position or will it deny me a position I was promised just the night before the intruder attempted his robbery? Profanity has context. If I were to use profanity at one of my classroom students, the understanding would be that I am intimidating, belittling, and insulting the student. Still, this understanding is a variable of cultural norms.
The context of Salaita’s profanity laden tweets was the massive Israeli assault on the Palestinians Gaza that led to massacres netting more than 500 children. The tweets were an expression of feelings and opinion about savagery that was characterized by the UN as war crimes. The Israeli assault on Gaza led to displacement of more than 300,000 Palestinians from their bombed out neighborhoods. A relevant historical footnote: those displaced Palestinians were the product of ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948 at the hands of the terrorist organizations that formed what is known today as the Israeli Defense Forces. Impartiality in the face of injustice and criminality is unacademic. Sanitizing crimes in the name of academic impartiality and in civility-laden verbiage should be of higher concern to civility-conscious administrators and academics.
It is easy for academics to write volumes on the triviality of the “civility” argument that Chancellor Wise took refuge under to justify dishonoring her faculty commitment to Salaita. The Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Nicolas, Dirks was taken to task this September for the mere tinkering with a “civility” recommendation to his faculty. The timing of the Dirks civility recommendation to the faculty fuels further speculation as to whether a concerted effort is developing amongst university presidents/chancellors to buttress Chancellor Wise’s argument. This is not improbable considering that 200 university presidents came out openly against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Would chancellor Wise have reacted differently had Salaita used profanity against the savagery of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or used words of incivility at enemies of the US?
Salman Rushdi, in his novel The Satanic Versus, used incivility to defame the religion of 1.3 billion Muslims. His incivility did not net him any rebuke from any university in North America but rather an honorary Professoriate at MIT and honorary Doctorate by Chapman University.
We are told that one notable tweet of Salaita’s that caught the attention of the UIUC Chancellor and the Trustees read, “At this point, if (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” Another tweet claimed that Salaita wished that all settlers (in the occupied West Bank) would disappear. It appears that the anti-Semitism claims against Salaita revolve around those two tweets.
Christopher Kennedy, UIUC Board Chairman, claimed that Salaita’s tweets were anti-Semitic and thus constituted hate speech. While some far right major media outlets such as Fox News considered Salaita’s tweets anti-Semitic, the vast majority who sided with UIUC could not explicitly state that the tweets were anti-Semitic but used creative expressions to imply that they were. For instance, Cary Nelson, an English Professor at UIUC who earlier played an important role in exemplifying the opinion of the chancellor but became much less relevant later on, believed the tweets “toyed” with anti-Semitism. Abraham Foxman of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League believed Salaita’s tweets bordered on anti-Semitism. A rich grey scale of anti-Semitism variety is emerging with a spectrum that is intended to lock the accused to a derogatory label yet without accusing the person directly of the label itself.
Kennedy attempted to pre-empt accusations of donor influence by claiming that the support for Salaita came from Individuals claiming that “rich Jews [are] influencing everybody in society”. Strong indications discussed above point to the pressure from pro-Israel individuals; Jewish money was never used in any argument, letter or complaint in favour of reinstating Salaita. The pro-Salaita campaign (if it qualifies for such a title) never invoked any “Jewish conspiracy” but a pro-Israel conspiracy exposed by FOIA discoveries.
Another luminary amongst the UIUC Board is Patrick Fitzgerald who became famous for high-profile prosecutions including Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, Conrad Black, and Lewis Libby. When asked about his reason to vote down Salaita, Fitzgerald claimed that he would not approve a homophobic or racist to a faculty position. The obvious implication was that Fitzgerald tagged along Kennedy in the belief that Salaita’s tweets were anti-Semitic. It is incredulous that the Board with such impressive legal and analytical skills failed to discern whether Salaita’s tweets were anti-Semitic or not.
Some claim that Salaita’s tweets implied that the actions of Israel fuel anti-Semitism. While this implication might be plausible, it is drastically different from saying that anti-Semitism is justified. Salaita’s tweets are far different from saying that Jews are responsible for anti-Semitism. The barbarism of beheadings, stoning, and crucifixions by ISIS are as savage as the indiscriminate slaughter of the 500 children of Gaza. The ISIS killings and savagery are brutal but direct; Israeli slaughter in Gaza is brutal but indirect, sanitized by rich and creative vocabulary of “collateral damage” and “errant missiles and bombs”. The question of whether Israel’s assault on Gaza fuels anti-Semitism is similar to the question whether ISIS war crimes and barbarism fuel anti-Islamism. The two Abrahamic religions Judaism and Islam are innocent of the blood that is shed in their names. Netanyahu does not speak or represent world Jewry. His actions in Gaza and his continuous occupation of Palestinian land are condemned by many Jews around the world. Many Jews and Jewish students on the UIUC campus supported Salaita using not only eloquence but arguments based on justice and right.
To condemn the barbarity of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, the concentration camps in Libya by Fascist Italy or the savagery of Melosovich in Bosnia that included the rape of 12000-50000 Muslim women does not mean the condemnation of the German race, the Italians or the Orthodox Christians. For chancellor Wise and the UIUC Board of Trustees to overlook simple facts and inferences like these reflect diminished perception of reality and the absence of reasoning. The context of notions of academic freedom would then seem far distant of an objective to be concerned with.
Many Jews throughout the centuries suffered from the scourge of hatred by primarily Christians who blamed the Jews for the blood of Christ. The persecution of Jews was real and just like any suffering of any race or people has to be treated with deep respect in honor of those who were persecuted for no other reason but their faith. Toying with the anti-Semitism label to silence criticism of Israel’s savagery dishonors Jewish victims of anti-Semitism. The assault on Gaza was brutal and savage. Using the strongest terms to condemn Israel’s savagery including its perpetrators is purely academic and should be commendable. When academic administrators in the guise of leaders police our raw feelings (be they profane, civil or else) towards injustice, the innermost core of our civilization is in peril.
Let us not forget that what drives academic thirst for truth and knowledge is their humanness. Robots cannot be a substitute for faculty. It is inevitable that biases be brought into the classroom. In fact, most scientists of the physical and non-physical disciplines do. In fact, I would argue that the classroom should not be void of biases. Biases serve as initial points for our inquiry. If we do not have the initial point, i.e. a hypothesis, question, disposition, or inclination, then there will be no impetus for inquiry, research, or debate. Supressing reason and the process of reasoning in the classroom is a different matter altogether. Biases based on faith should have much less, if any, priority in the classroom than biases based on empirical or scientific evidence. Students are neither information trash bags nor pawns in the classrooms unless the faculty condition them to be so.
Was it profanity, incivility, anti-Semitism, or hate speech that lead to a highly effective, top-down pointed campaign by individuals with high influence to reject or de-hire Steven Salaita from a tenured academic post at a major American university? Or is it something else?
Salaita received his letter of appointment on October 3, 2013. The letter indicated that he was to start on January of 2014. The documents attached to the letter that Salaita received stated that “The University of Illinois Statutes (Article IX, Section 3.a.) provides that only the Board of Trustees has the authority to make formal appointments to the academic staff. New academic staff members will receive a formal Notification of Appointment from the Board once the hiring unit has received back from the candidate all required documents, so the appointment can be processed.” Salaita later requested and was granted a differed starting date of August 2014 to allow him to finish work at Virginia Tech where he was employed then. Since the appointment letter was sent to Salaita, the UIUC Board met a total of 9 times but never brought his appointment to any of those meetings for discussion or approval. The alleged “hang-up” in human resources is mysterious, but the delay in forwarding Salaita’s dossier to the Board for approval is deeply disturbing. Assuming that Salaita started in January 2014, it would be difficult to believe that it would needed 9 months for the Board to approve his appointment, especially considering that Salaita would have been on the UIUC payroll for those 9 months!
Salaita is considered a strong force behind the BDS movement that has caused serious consternation amongst the pro-Israel camps movement. Was Salaita’s outspokenness and candid involvement in the BDS movement the real cause that drove the pro-Israel camp to dislodge him from an academic position that could have lent higher credibility to the BDS movement and its supporters? Widely anticipated litigation could help answer this question through the discovery phase of the proceedings unless the presiding judge chooses to keep all discoveries secret.
Those who lobbied the UIUC administration and Chancellor Wise were pro-Israel. The e-mails obtained under FOIA showed that the lobbyists were not primarily concerned with Salaita’s profanity, but rather with his attacks on Israel. The interviews with some UIUC Board members further support this theory. The pro-Israel lobbyists were inimical of Salaita because he was against Israel and were concerned that if such a voice is given tenure at a prominent university such as UIUC, especially to being part of an academic program that will not “coerce” him to uniformity and conformity. The American Indian Studies program focuses on material and issues that deeply resonate with the dispossession of Palestinians. It is expected that the scholarship of Salaita, when teamed up with others in the same academic unit, would have produced knowledge that could shed light on the roots of colonization and indigeneity in all forms, with implications that identify common threads between occupations in general including Palestinian or non-Palestinian lands.
Omar M. Ramahi is Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo.