The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened

On October 3, 2013, the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) (UIUC) offered Professor Steven Salaita a tenured position originally scheduled to begin in January 2014 at the rank of Associate Professor as part of the American Indian Studies Program. However, on August 1, 2014, after Salaita had resigned from his previous job and moved to Illinois, the university chancellor purported to rescind this employment, apparently as a result of pressure brought on her by pro-Israel donors who objected to Professor Salaita’s then recently expressed views on Israel’s then recent attack on Gaza. There were many consequences including a lawsuit by Salaita seeking reinstatement and other relief.

OPEN LETTER

To Edward L. McMillan, Chair of the Board of Trustees, and Acting Chancellor Barbara J. Wilson, at UIUC:

Dear President Killeen and Acting Chancellor Wilson,

The firing of Professor Steven Salaita was a scandal that should never have happened. Unfortunate as it was, however, it opens a valuable opportunity for UIUC and for education more generally.

The Tip of an Iceberg

I think that by now everyone views the matter that way (that is, as a scandal), except—I suppose—the ethically “challenged” folks who sought to induce the termination of Salaita’s appointment by applying economic pressure to the university and the even more ethically “challenged” people at UIUC who caved in to that pressure.

Of course, the pressure was applied for an impermissible purpose: to limit Professor Salaita’s Constitutionally protected political speech, which had nothing to do with his previous teaching and would have nothing to do with his then up-coming duties in the UIUC American Indian Studies program.

His dismissal was a scandal to the Jewish community because it is by now well known that wealthy (and presumably Jewish) donors and potential donors to the university who are active defenders of impunity and immunity for Israel and for its leaders with regard to their (alleged) war-crimes and other human rights violations of Palestinians sought to influence UIUC to destroy this professor’s career in order to suppress his political “speech” (regarding Israel and Palestine) and by implication to suppress other professors’ political “speech” on the same topic.

In my opinion, most Americans, including most American Jews, treasure “free speech” and other American Constitutional protections and abhor heavy-handed attempts to suppress free speech by big-money folks, be they Jewish or otherwise.

The Submerged Part of the Iceberg

The scandal—or potential scandal—is far broader than the question of the dismissal and reinstatement of Professor Steven Salaita.

The rest of the “iceberg” is the question of how, if at all, the university does or will respond to pressure from other (potential) donors to limit or shape the university’s teaching, research, and publication.

Will UIUC cave in to pressure from tobacco interests to avoid research, teaching, or publication that describes tobacco use as harmful?

Will UIUC cave in to oil, coal, and/or gas (or “fracking”) interests to avoid research, teaching, or publication that finds these things harmful, or which finds “global warming” or “climate change” as harmful consequences of the oxidation of oil, coal, or natural gas?

Will UIUC cave in to the blandishments of other polluters by limiting research, teaching, or publication into the harmfulness of these pollutants?

What Should be Done

Of course, Professor Salaita should be reinstated and “made whole” after this debacle. That should go without saying.

And then UIUC should persuasively describe its policies for the future which will assure its departments, its present and potential professors, and its present and potential students that it will welcome and promote all valid points of view on all topics, even if unpopular in some quarters.

In this way it can “role-model” what should be the position of all universities in these troubled times when “big-money” is constantly being offered or spent to influence what is publicly known or believed (and what is hidden or suppressed) on scientific, political, and human rights matters.

If the university cannot do so without risk of financial collapse, then it must publicly describe that problem so well and so thoroughly that the state legislature and also its other donors and potential donors will understand and be able to respond.

What UIUC must not do is hide or camouflage the attempts by donors and potential donors to shape the research, teaching, and publication policies and practices of the university, its departments and professors.

It must, in all matters, avoid making itself the willing arm of any propaganda machine—whether that be a government’s or a corporation’s or an interest group’s.

Education and the development of knowledge is too important to be submerged in the interest of any propaganda.

Peter Belmont lives in Brooklyn. He can be reached at: pabelmont2007@verizon.net.

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