An Illinois AAUP committee has protested the firing of (or revocation of an offer to – it’s not yet clear) Steven Salaita. He had been offered a position by the American Indian Studies program at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Salaita has in the last few weeks issued a bunch of angry, ugly, anti-Zionist tweets, in response to the situation in Gaza.

The sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.

For instance, there is this tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” Or this one: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”

Grotesque, yes, but you don’t fire someone because of what he writes. Free speech and all. An American university decided to hire this guy; professors enjoy academic freedom. Remember Ward Churchill? He wrote of the people killed in the Twin Towers:

[T]hey were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance” – a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore” – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.

A professor at the University of Colorado, Churchill provoked national outrage, plus an effort on the part of that school’s administration to toss him out. But they couldn’t because of his free speech rights. They eventually figured out a way to dump him on the basis of his shoddy research.

If UI truly wants this guy out, it will have to try to cobble something like that together. Otherwise, it gets a reputation as a school unable to uphold academic freedom, and that risks making it unpopular to all sorts of job candidates.

UD thanks Wendy.


UPDATE: According to this comment of Cary Nelson’s at Inside Higher Ed, “the [University of Illinois] faculty senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure will be reviewing the Salaita matter.”

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5 Responses to “Mistweetment”

  1. John Says:

    Yes, as despicable as Churchill’s post 9/11 rants were, he’s gone because he was an academic charlatan.
    Whether anyone would have dug up the latter in the absence of the former is an open question, of course, but beside the point.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    John: Agreed.

  3. dmf Says:

    well if the overall point is to try and offer a quality education it seems rather on point…

  4. Mr Punch Says:

    “Grotesque, yes, but you don’t fire someone because of what he writes. Free speech and all.” Not so, if “free speech” means “first amendment rights.” People can be, and often are, fired because of things they say or write. Academic freedom is something else, but it too is generally considered to have some limits in terms of tone and civility. In some cases, of course, issues of due process (involving, e.g., tenure or collective bargaining) raise the bar; but employees, even professors, can be fired for what they say or write.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Mr Punch: Yes – we’re into a gray area here. Here’s what I’d say: In academic settings in particular, academic freedom, and free speech, in terms of things said and written and done, are extremely important, for all sorts of obvious reasons.

    If you’re fond of writing threatening things, or child-pornographic things, or slanderous things; or if you’re fond of missing all of your classes, lying on your cv, or bullying people on campus, you’re not going to be able to claim academic freedom. Here’s an excellent brief account of definitions and limits:

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