Jim Dey: Self-pity and moral posturing over Salaita

Jim Dey: Self-pity and moral posturing over Salaita

There's a reason people engage in moral posturing and wallow in self-pity — it's just so much darn fun.

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Considered in that context, University of Illinois critics ought to be throwing rose petals in the paths of Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Professor Cary Nelson, the villainous co-stars of the campus contretemps over the withdrawn job offer to professor and serial tweeter Steven Salaita.

Wise recently informed Salaita that she was withdrawing an offer to join the UI's American Indian Studies Department because trustees would not approve his contract. Nelson, who was not a party to the dispute, continues to draw fire over his public defense of Wise's decision.

Since then, both have been subjected to a broad range of verbal attacks, threatened boycotts and demands to reverse the Salaita decision.

One critic, Columbia University's Bruce Robbins, suggested Wise is so reprehensible that she is a modern-day Joe McCarthy.

And a UI faculty member, Indian Studies Professor Vicente Diaz, charged that Nelson's position is "predicated on racist, calloused and morally reprehensible views toward Palestinians and other indigenous people" and suggested that he "may end up a paid consultant (to the UI), if he hasn't already been advising the university on how to build an academic case against Salaita."

Indeed, Diaz charged that Nelson is such a sorry character that the professoriate should "set aside, once and for all, anything (he) has to say on this, or any other case, involving academic freedom and faculty governance."

Whew. They sure hit hard. But that's academic freedom.

For those in the real world who are not up to snuff on this soap opera, here's some background.

Salaita, a former English professor at Virginia Tech, was scheduled to join the UI for the fall semester. But his reputation for sending obscenity-laden tweets denouncing Israel, celebrating the murders of three kidnapped Israeli teens and harshly criticizing the recent Israel attack on Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip drew public attention.

That's when the job offer was withdrawn, and the fur started flying. Salaita has said nothing publicly about what happened, leading to suggestions that he and the UI are negotiating a financial settlement that would avoid a lawsuit. But Salaita supporters have bombarded the UI with messages demanding the decision by reversed.

The head of the UI's English Department, Michael Rothberg, has warned Wise that it will be difficult to fill faculty positions if Salaita is not brought on board. That's a remarkable charge considering how scarce faculty jobs are and the hundreds of out-of-work academics who want them.

The UI's Campus Faculty Association has used the controversy to try to persuade faculty members to join a union.

"This is an extremely dangerous moment for the future of shared governance and academic freedom" at the UI, said the association's executive committee in a recent "Dear Colleagues" letter.

In addition, more than 1,200 faculty members from around the globe have signed a petition supporting an open-ended boycott of the UI unless Salaita is hired.

"We ... will not give guest lectures or provide public speeches" at the UI, the petition states.

The 1,250 names on the petition as of Wednesday included 24 members of the UI's Urbana-Champaign, Springfield and Chicago campuses. Local signatories included American Indian Studies faculty members Robert Warrior and LeAnn Howe, as well as Moon-Kie Jung of the Asian Studies Department.

A religion professor from Florida State who is scheduled to speak at the UI in the upcoming academic year wrote that he is still willing to visit, but "I can only do so under two conditions."

Professor Martin Kavka said he wants "control over the content of my remarks" and "some control over the publicity surrounding my talk."

He demanded that posters about his lecture contain the phrase "In solidarity with Dr. Steven Salaita, Prof. Kavka will donate his honorarium to War Child, in support of its work in Gaza."

So far, the UI provost's office reports that it has received no letters of resignation from faculty members protesting Salaita's non-hiring. But the opinions of some UI faculty are reflected in a satirical offer letter to a faculty candidate posted on the Campus Faculty Association's website.

The "Dear Dr. ..." is advised that the UI is "provisionally offering you a possible job ... contingent upon your background check and thought-process clearance."

The applicant is advised that the offer is "not enforceable in any way" and asks the applicant to resign his current position and move to Champaign-Urbana "on the off chance that when you arrive, we might still hire you."

The applicant is advised that "we are free to fire you at the local newspaper's request" and informed that the UI "will install surveillance cameras in front of your house and current office" and "all faculty and prospective faculty are now subject to random autonomy testing."

This description of faculty oppression is so vast as to defy the minds of man. Who knew? But it's also a golden example of the endless delights stemming from feeling good about feeling bad.

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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Font of Wisdom wrote on August 21, 2014 at 8:08 am

Another sad Jim Dey scrawl.  It's quite clear, given his fanboy treatment of white supremacist Matt Hale in these pages, that Mr. Dey isn't nearly that upset about people who are accused of racism, violent acts, or accountability as long as they aren't affiliated with campus.  What other reason could there be?

So I guess we can only assume that sometime in the past a girl (maybe a boy, not judging) from the U of I broke little Jimmy's heart pretty bad and he's made it his business to "show them all someday".  So from his cubicle at the local fishwrapper he's made it his business to (poorly) author work-for-hire hit pieces against anyone he can.

And that's the saddest part of the story, really.  Jimmy just needs a hug.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on August 22, 2014 at 6:08 am
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The line that Jim should & probably will most regret is this one:

  • For those in the real world who are not up to snuff on this soap opera, here's some background.

Jim implies that academics live in a fantasy world.  That's not a persuasive argument in this town. At Sarah Palin meet-n-greets, it would be a different story. But "them int-uh-leck-cheels" is not a good rallying cry here. 

If anything. U of I employees are the best attuned to corporate policy. The mandatory "ethics" training & reporting —  to say nothing of departmental politics, to say nothing of  tenured versus "academic professional" employment versus "academic hourly"  employment — is enough to demonstrate the "realness" of working at the U.


Jaybriel wrote on August 21, 2014 at 8:08 am

Oh, I get it!  Man, I read this thinking it was serious, and was totally irritated, and then I realized it was satire, and it's HI-FREAKING-LARIOUS!!  I mean, it's a send-up of the willfully obtuse piece by Burbules and Tolliver the other day, right?!?  Oh, man, do I feel like a dope for reading this straight the first time.  "Moral posturing and wallowing in self-pity"!  Ha, that is so smart!  

I especially love the part near the end where you act like you're unable to recognize or understand satire--the painfully literalistic reading of that sort-of broad political satire piece about the hypothetical job offer letter.  It's deep because you're satirizing people's inability to recognize satire--layers upon layers.  Brilliant!

Oh, and the best bit is that weird detail where you say "sending...tweets."  As though you don't know how the internets work, right?!?  Like "I just posted an email."  It's kind of mean, I guess, to make it look like the sort of ideologue who would put "academic freedom" in scare quotes would also be out of touch and not really connected with what social media platforms even are and how you use them.  But, hey, it's funny because it's true, amirite?!? 

I tip my hat to you--well done, sir!

slimkidtrey wrote on August 23, 2014 at 2:08 pm

Thanks so much for pointing out the satirical nature of this column!  Until I read your comment, I also originally thought that Dey was being sincere. 

Cause, at first, I thought this column was enormously hypocritical and amazingly self-unaware. How could Jim Dey miss out on the irony of bemoaning the joy Salaita defenders take in "moral posturing" while writing a column that gleefully mocks professors as out-of-touch windbags with victim complexes? And initially, I was angered by his smug comment that the backstory needed to be explained to those "in the real world who are not up to snuff on this soap opera."  Yeah, whoever is spending their time following and writing about this controversy must really be navel-gazing in some ivory tower.   Some nerve for an author writing his fifth Steven Salaita column in the last two weeks! 

But that was before I realized the double game that Jim Dey was playing.  What a brilliant self-examination in which he provides thoughtful introspection about his own struggle with the "endless delights stemming from feeling good about feeling bad."  Bravo!

Fretboy wrote on August 21, 2014 at 1:08 pm

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offered Salaita an $85,000-a-year job in the department of American Indian Studies. “This appointment will carry indefinite tenure,”...

Why isn't this in the discussion mix? It was like hitting the lottery.

Also, please connect Professor Steven G. Salaita's qualitfications to the American Indian studies program curriculum.

thinks wrote on August 21, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Like Cary Nelson, with whom I worked professionally for some years and continue to esteem, I support the University administration's having declined to approve Prof. Salaita's hire. However, it's apparent to me that he is qualified for this level of faculty position and in the fields in which he was hired to teach. Whether he is a good hire is not dependent on these fundamentals and raising questions about this (or the value of tenure itself, etc.) is really a distraction from more important questions of shared faculty governance and limitations placed on academic freedom.

Jaybriel wrote on August 21, 2014 at 5:08 pm

It is absolutely standard across the Higher Ed sector to pay Associate Professors in the high five- to low six-figures. More in Science/Tech/Business/Law and some other fields. It's what it takes to recruit the best in the business, whcih is important because they are the people who can keep the university strong, and thus keep it functioning as a driver of the economy in the region and the state at large.  I don't really see why that's controversial.  Do you have any sense what other professionals (psychologists, lawyers, nurse practitioners, etc.) earn?  

All Associate Professor jobs at the U of I and everywhere else in every single college/university in America are held with indefinite tenure.  You may or may not think that's good, but it's not really relevant to this case.  Chancellor Wise holds indefinite tenure, too, since she's a professor at the U of I, and she is paid considerably more than $85K.

As for Salaita's qualifications to teach in AIS, you should know that he was reviewed extensively (as part of a competitive search with at least three serious interview candidates) by the department (which is clearly the body most qualified to determine if someone has the capacity to teach the subject, right?) but also by the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and by the campus.  Wise didn't actually sign any papers at the end of that process, but her proxy, the provost did.  For what it's worth, no one here--including the Board of Trustees and the Chancelor--is objecting to his qualifications, because there really is no objection.  It's not hard to find out his actual qualifications, should you wish to.  Google will turn up his degrees, publication record, and so forth.

But I have a question: do you check on the qualifications of everyone the university hires?  Have you taken classes or had other experiences that would make you a better judge of whether a person is qualified to teach in this or any other discipline at the university level than, say, the professors, deans, and provost who all scrutinized this appointment over the course of months last year?  Just curious.

Fretboy wrote on August 22, 2014 at 3:08 pm

I am afraid I am just a lowly, long-time resident in Champaign that likes to question the processes. The search conducted by the department will, by necessity of being part of the university, adhere to the very strict policies. As a person outside the university universe, I thought my perspective might appreciated for its civil discourse.

It appears that challenges to how the Uof I operates is not welcome. Be that as it may, my townie observation about this tempest in a teapot controversy might be taken as voice outside the university vaccuum.

I do agree with the decision regarding Professor Salaita, solely on the grounds of his uncivil rants. As for the tenure and pay scale, my support is equal to that of Hollywood stars and professional athletes, take what the market bears. But remember, pay and security does not measure worth nor entitlement.

In a world of work where most have to 'prove' their worth to their employers every day, where swearing can get you fired in the at-will state, and pay scales are a bit less rigid seeing a well-paying, tenured position evokes some envy and a little disgust. The digust doesn't come from seeing faculty enjoyed earned positions, but in comparing relative worth to society of university faculty jobs to other professions.

We can all make cases for our high level of education, experience, and impact. Faculty worked hard for their positions. In 30 years working with universities across the country, I have found this to be true.  It is just my humble opinion that the pay scale and tenure structure could stand a harsher review and comparison to the outside world knowing full well that those benefiting from the system will uniformally be against my opinion. But, I suppose that is the magic of civil discourse.

Not that it should matter, but, yes, I earned advanced degrees, put a child through a top 25 private university, been recruited and downsized, run my own business, and asked to consult. I am sure your response and rhetorical questions were not meant to convey the superior attitude that some might take, but haughty attitudes like that are what leave a bad taste in the mouths of the tax-payers and parents that make the university system possible.

A little gratitude or humility and self-awareness of the very rare blessings of the university system would go a long way.

thinks wrote on August 21, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Like Cary Nelson, with whom I worked professionally for some years and continue to esteem, I support the University administration's having declined to approve Prof. Salaita's hire. However, it's apparent to me that he is qualified for this level of faculty position and in the fields in which he was hired to teach. Whether he is a good hire is not dependent on these fundamentals and raising questions about this (or the value of tenure itself, etc.) is really a distraction from more important questions of shared faculty governance and limitations placed on academic freedom.

Fretboy wrote on August 22, 2014 at 4:08 pm

The many years of Chief Illiniwek controversy taught many townies, like me, the importance of properly recognizing and respecting American Indian culture. The media attention of Professor Salaita's case focused almost exclusively on his rants about the Mid-East conflict and his credentials for that discussion. This sparked my legitmate question about his background to teach in this department that needs  some sensitivity from years this community endured the U of I American Indian controversy.

People with the best intentions can still make poor decisions. Yes, my question was off the topic of appropriate language and free speech, but still was relevent to concerns from the recent past.