This essay is adapted from a talk delivered in March at the American Association of University Professors’ centennial conference, held at California State University, East Bay.
In August 2014, Steven Salaita was scheduled to take up a position as a tenured associate professor in the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Salaita had resigned his job at Virginia Tech, where he had tenure, and ordered books and submitted syllabuses for his new courses at UIUC. He had every reason to believe his future was secure. Although his appointment was contingent on a final approval by the board of trustees, which would meet two weeks after the school year began, Salaita had been assured that this was merely a formality. It wasn’t: The board refused to ratify his appointment.
The reason was the uproar over his comments on Twitter, where Salaita had condemned—often using fierce invective—Israel’s violence during its 2014 military attack on Gaza. Well-organized supporters of Israel alerted the university to his tweets, accused him of anti-Semitism, and questioned his scholarship as well as his political judgment. Salaita’s scholarship, on colonial settler occupations, has been critical of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Protesters deluged the chancellor’s office with e-mails warning that if Salaita were hired, they would withdraw their support of the university. After meeting with the university president and the board of trustees in late July, the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, informed Salaita that she could not recommend him to the board. Wise stated that the impassioned rhetoric of his tweets was a sure sign of his behavior as a teacher; he would be intolerant in the classroom, threatening the comfort, safety, and security of his students. There was no evidence for this inference from tweets to classroom: Salaita’s record at Virginia Tech indicated he was a respected teacher, tolerant of a wide range of ideas. But for Wise, that evidence was beside the point.
In her letter, the chancellor drew attention to civility, emphasizing it as a requirement for the exercise of academic freedom: “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” In Wise’s thinking, “viewpoints” have protected status. If that’s the case, will anyone who demeans Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, homophobia, or creationism be subject to punishment on her campus? Or are certain selective instances of “disrespect”—in this case, for the current Israeli government—the real issue here?