‘Unhiring’ Steven Salaita

‘Unhiring’ Steven Salaita

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In early August, the website Inside Higher Ed reported that at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), an official offer of a tenured professorial appointment had been rescinded by a top administrative officer. That alone would have been unusual, but concerns grew after sources close to the decision-making process reported that Chancellor Phyllis Wise was responding to calls and e-mails about Professor Steven Salaita’s acerbic and emphatic anti-Israel tweets.

Once scholars heard of this, protests erupted: 17,000 signatures have been gathered criticizing the decision, and 3,000 professors are boycotting UIUC. The American Association of University Professors issued a statement declaring that social media expression is private and protected speech, and that the use of “civility” as a litmus test—which the university now admits in rescinding the hire of Salaita—is unacceptable.

The University of Illinois board of trustees insists that “speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship.” However, the US Department of Education has determined that students’ “comfort” is not as important as free debate.

There are three important issues here. First, universities are increasingly being asked to shut down criticism of Israel. Second, a review of Salaita’s teaching evaluations at his former college, Virginia Tech, shows enthusiastic appreciation of his teaching and interactions with students. Hence, the trustees’ decision is based entirely on a hypothetical potential harm to students caused by his allegedly offensive tweets. Third, the chancellor and trustees at UIUC have broken a covenant with their faculty. Faculty governance is the mainstay of the educational process. Many trustees, on the other hand, have no background in higher education; they are there primarily to safeguard and grow the endowment. What is startling about the Salaita case is that the board let its protection of the bottom line completely overshadow the university’s educational mission and hid these financial motives behind the notion of “civility.”

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