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paths of Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Professor Cary Nelson, the villainous co-stars of the campus contretemps over the withdrawn job offer to professor and serial tweeter Steven Salaita.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That's when the job offer was withdrawn, and the fur started flying.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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at 217-351-5369.