Jim Dey: Nelson caught in debate's crossfire

Jim Dey: Nelson caught in debate's crossfire

Prof takes heat for stand on nonhiring

As he crossed Washington, D.C., in a cab to his next appointment, Cary Nelson was remarkably circumspect about being caught in the crossfire of an academic food fight that he didn't start.

"I wasn't expecting to become the center of attention, but I understand why it happened," said Nelson, a longtime University of Illinois professor.

With top UI officials hiding under their desks rather than respond to inquiries about the hiring/nonhiring of controversial professor Steven Salaita, Nelson became a top target of Salaita supporters by joining the debate.

"Because the university has been silent, (Salaita supporters) don't have anything to respond to. So they respond to me since I spoke out," he said.

The world of academe is noted for the ferocity of its internecine battles; some joke the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small. But the Salaita controversy has become a big deal in some academic quarters. UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise is being bombarded by pro-Salaita petitions, threats of a boycott by enraged academics and denunciations of her as a very bad, not very nice person for squelching the rights (free speech, academic freedom) Salaita's supporters claim he has.

Salaita, who comes from Palestinian descent, was scheduled to join the UI faculty as a tenured professor in the American Indian Studies Department on Saturday. But his reputation preceded him — specifically, his predilection for obscenity-laden tweets in which he expresses his virulently anti-Israel views.

One day, he was on track to join the faculty. Then, on Aug. 1, he was informed by Wise that she would not submit his contract for approval by UI trustees.

Salaita taught in the English Department at Virginia Tech during the 2013-14 academic year and is a "former member of our faculty," said Mark Owczarski, the school's assistant vice president for news and information.

The turn of events appears to leave Salaita temporarily out of a job, but not without options. He could pursue a legal challenge, the UI's argument being that he was nothing more than a prospective employee unless and until the responsible authorities, UI trustees, approved his contract.

He also has plenty of friends trying to pressure UI officials into reversing the reversal of the decision to hire Salaita.

"Thank you, everybody, for your support. I have received many messages and am deeply grateful," Salaita said in an Aug. 11 tweet notable for its lack of obscenities.

That's about all Salaita has said publicly on the issue. But others have prominently taken up his cause.

Salaita received support from former UI professor Michael Berube, now at Penn State; the Center for Constitutional Rights; the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the Committee for the Open Discussion of Zionism.

Twenty academics from across the country, including the UI's Antoinette Burton and Zohreh Sullivan, wrote to complain to UI President Robert Easter about a letter to Easter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center complaining about Salaita.

"It is a matter of public record that the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for example, had direct communication with President Easter about Salaita's appointment," the letter stated.

In addition, Columbia University scholar Bruce Robbins announced that he's rejecting an invitation to show his movie "Some of My Best Friends are Zionists" on campus.

"... Chancellor Wise has inscribed her name in a shameful list that includes Joseph McCarthy. ... I'm confident that history will deal with (Wise) much as it has dealt with McCarthy," Robbins wrote.

Nelson, however, is unmoved by the apocalyptic rhetoric, suggesting in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary that Salaita is a marginal scholar whose tweets were "loathsome," "sophomoric," "bombastic," "anti-Semitic" and "irresponsible." He said Salaita's "national profile — and the basis of his aspirations of being a public intellectual — is entirely based on his polemical interventions in debates over the Arab/Israel conflict."

"It is remarkable that a senior faculty member chooses to present himself in public this way. Meanwhile, the mix of deadly seriousness, vehemence and low comedy in this appeal to students is genuinely unsettling," wrote Nelson, concluding that "I see no good reason to offer a permanent faculty position to someone whose discourse crosses the line into anti-Semitism."

A self-described "tenured radical," Nelson has subsequently been described in pro-Salaita articles as a 'self-described 'Zionist.'"

An opponent of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel that is moving through academic circles, Nelson has been described as having a "blind spot" for Israel.

A defender of the UI's actions, Nelson's character has been impugned for his "base hypocrisy" by Stanford professor David Palumbo-Liu.

Suffice it to say, it has gotten very nasty, very quick.

"I seem to have noticed that," said Nelson, not sounding particularly distressed about the kerfuffle.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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