On November 12, Professor Steven Salaita settled his case against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). In a victory for free speech, and for the activists both on and off campus who fought for it, the university agreed to pay $875,000, implicitly acknowledging its violation of Salaita’s academic freedom and the employment contract it signed with him. Salaita sued UIUC, along with the university’s Board of Trustees and top administrators, after the university fired him from his tenured position for tweeting comments critical of the Israeli government during its 2014 assault on Gaza. His case quickly became a symbol of both the intensifying crackdown on academic freedom and the suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy—as well as the all-too-frequent overlap between the two. Salaita was represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Loevy and Loevy.
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I have settled my lawsuit with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). This declaration of fact supposedly ends a story with the tidiness to which storytelling in a linear society aspires. The most interesting stories are never tidy, though. And nothing untidy ever ends.
All public controversies involve vocabularies rich with violent but unacknowledged connotation. My case began with the repetition of termination and now concludes with the terminal noun settlement. Both words are legalistic, but have special resonance in the field of American Indian Studies, the location of my hiring and firing. The United States federal government carried out a policy of termination in the mid-20th century intended to dissolve Native nations into the mass of Americana. And termination, of course, speaks coldly but clearly to the horrors of genocide.
Settlement initiated those horrors and describes the conditions of indigenous life in today’s North America, where Canada and the United States continue to occupy native land. It’s also the main caption of the so-called Israel-Palestine conflict. Israeli settlers, of both the past and present, initiate the violence that produced the anguish that begat my angry tweets. We cannot speak of a settlement in my case until the geographies of my termination have been decolonized.
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UIUC eagerly pursues its removal from the ignominy of AAUP censure. Lawyers collect their fees. Courts address different controversies. Neoconservatives invent other bogeymen. Zionists track their next target. The Salaita affair becomes a cautionary tale, the tellers’ politics dictating the nature of their appeals to caution.
It’s settled, then. Only it’s not.
My attitude from the onset has been singular: personal remedy, however it might be defined (and its definition has never been stable), is largely meaningless if the conditions that produced my firing remain intact, at UIUC and elsewhere. We cannot say that academe is now less corporatized or repressive. The imbroglios at Yale and the University of Missouri illustrate that racism and tone-deaf leaders are still a problem on campus.
I can ruminate so easily—almost unconsciously, really—about the business-as-usual pursuit of new academic scandals because repression is a normal feature of higher education, often originating off campus but validated by brand-conscious apparatchiks occupying presidential suites. The months following my termination saw the attempted undoing of numerous professors by the culture warriors of Fox News vintage. Saida Grundy. Zandria Robinson. Deepa Kumar. Divya Nair. All women. All ethnic minorities.