University of Illinois fires professor for expressing views critical of Israel’s war crimes in Gaza

University of Illinois fires professor for expressing views critical of Israel’s war crimes in Gaza
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University of Illinois fires professor for expressing views critical of Israel’s war crimes in Gaza

McCarthyism on the rise in America against American Arabs and Muslims

By Ray Hanania

Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita

Dr. Steven G. Salaita, a well-known and highly regarded writer and author in the American Arab community, was fired from his teaching job at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana after receiving complaints that Salaita had criticized Israel, a foreign country, in his Twitter posts over Israel’s conduct in the the war in the Gaza Strip.

The Salaita firing is another example of the growing racist paranoia sweeping through American educational institutions and that is driven by pro-Israel activists who have engaged in a campaign to silence anyone critical of the foreign country, Israel.

Salaita is well known in the American Arab literary community. He served as the executive director of RAWI (The Radius of Arab Writers Inc) and was an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech who authored several books including Anti-Arab Racism in the USAThe Holy Land in Transit,  Arab American Literary FictionsCultures, and Politics, Israel’s Dead Soul and The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought.

Salaita had just left Virginia Tech and moved with his family to take a position as an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in the University’s American Indian Studies program when the discriminatory action against him was taken.

Salaita was also a prominent campaigner in support of the American Studies Association’s decision to join the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Supporters of academic freedom and solidarity with Palestine have moved into action to protest this appalling violation of free speech and academic freedom. A committee of Illinois members of the American Association of University Professors released the following statement protesting Salaita’s firing and demanding his position be reinstated.

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The AAUP released the following statement on Salaita’s firing:

The following is a statement by the Illinois AAUP Committee A on the case of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

The Illinois Conference Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors supports the honoring of the appointment of Steven G. Salaita in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Reports that the university has voided a job offer, if accurate, due to tweets on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country.

Professor Salaita resigned his position at Virginia Tech and was about to assume his  new appointment at the University of Illinois. We stand by the appointment and by Professor Salaita and defend his right to engage in extramural utterances.

The AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states in reference to extramural utterances: “When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” It affirms that “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” While Professor’s Salaita’s tweets are construed as controversial, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure affirms the virtue of controversial speech. While the Statement refers to classroom teaching, the virtual classroom today has no limits. In 1970 the 1940 Statementwas revised with new “Interpretive Comments.”  The second Interpretive Comment would encompass Professor Salaita’s right to be controversial: “The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is “controversial.” Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster.”

Professor Salaita’s words while strident and vulgar were an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East. Issues of life and death during bombardment educes significant emotions and expressions of concern that reflect the tragedy that armed conflict confers on its victims. Speech that is deemed controversial should be challenged with further speech that may abhor and challenge a statement. Yet the University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America.

The AAUP 1940 Statement does require a professor to be “accurate, to exercise appropriate restraint, to show respect for the opinions of others….” However in the AAUPCommittee A Statement on Extramural Utterances it states in reference to the 1940 Statement:

[An] administration may file charges in accordance with procedures outlined in the Statement if it feels that a faculty member has failed to observe the above admonitions and believes that the professor’s extramural utterances raise grave doubts concerning the professor’s fitness for continuing service.

We are unaware that the university has afforded Professor Salaita any due process. In the absence of due process, particularly if a contract was signed, any institutional action to reverse an offer of appointment would be a grave violation of academic due process. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach. These statements were not made in front of students, are not related to a course that is being taught, and do not reflect in any manner his quality of teaching. What one says out of class rarely, in the absence of peer review of teaching, confirms how one teaches. Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment.

One must not conjecture about a link between extramural statements and the quality of classroom teaching, absent an unmistakable link that would raise issues of competence. None exist here. Indeed, we affirm that fitness to teach can be enhanced with conviction, commitment and an engagement with the outside world. As a professor who was proffered an appointment in American Indian Studies, we are particularly concerned if a university would void a contract of a professor exercising a right of citizenship in protesting actions of another country that much of the global community including the U.N. Secretary General and even the U.S. State Department have found “disgraceful.”

Peter N. Kirstein, Chair of Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, Saint Xavier University

Iymen Chehade, Columbia College

Loretta Capeheart, Northeastern Illinois University

J. Walter Kendall III, John Marshall School of Law

John Wilson, Illinois State University

Phyllis Wise, Chancellor of the University of Illinois. Public demands her ouster from the university.

Phyllis Wise, Chancellor of the University of Illinois. Public demands her ouster from the university.

The Illinois Chapter of the AAUP on recently successfully battled Columbia College in Chicago after it cancelled a class being taught by Iymen Chehade in November 2013 when a pro-Israel student complained that he was “biased” when he showed a film ironically celebrated by Palestinians and Israelis called “5 Broken Cameras.” Chehade’s class was reinstated after the AAUP filed a formal complaint against Columbia College. Click here for past articles and interviews.

Chehade received the support of the Illinois Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and its Illinois Vice President Peter Kirstein, who is also a history professor at St. Xavier University in Chicago. Chehade was later appointed to the AAUP’s “Committee A on Academic Freedom & Tenure.” He is one of the signators on the protest letter defending Salaita.

Salaita’s firing was reportedly ordered by Dr. Phyllis M. Wise, the University of Illinois Chancellor. Prior to her appointment, Wise served as interim President of the University of Washington in 2010-2011. Before that appointment, she served as Provost and Executive Vice President at the University of Washington, a position she held for five years. She was the dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of California-Davis for three years. Prior to that, she was professor and chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington from 1993 to 2001. Wise also was a faculty member at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, from 1976 to 1993, promoted through the ranks to full professor of physiology in 1987.

Ironically, as universities like the University of Illinois take actions to discriminate against critics of Israel, our elected officials, such as Congressman Dan Lipinski, are supporting the retribution. Lipinski recently co-sponsored a bill that would deny federal funding to any organization that supports an academic boycott of an Israeli college or university. Click here to read the story.

The Arab Daily News is demanding that Salaita be immediately reinstated and that Dr. Wise be immediately fired from her position as chancellor. The dismissal of Dr. Salaita is a clear act of racial discrimination that should not be tolerated in any American educational institution. America is founded ont he basis of free speech and academic freedom is critical to that right.

Many of the educational institutions in Illinois have become havens for racist actions against American Arabs, provoked by pro-Israel activists who have used their influence to bully schools into silencing critics of Israel, a foreign country.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and political columnist, and University of Illinois alumni. He is managing editor of The Arab Daily News online at www.TheArabDailyNews.com.)

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