Jim Dey: No end in sight for UI's Salaita controversy

Jim Dey: No end in sight for UI's Salaita controversy

Anyone who was hoping the Steven Salaita controversy at the University of Illinois might go away sometime soon got a rude awakening when a faculty committee recently released a report that examined the issue.

The committee punted, passed and kicked the can down the road, ensuring that the controversy will continue on a dual track.

In addition to the impending lawsuit threatened by the former Virginia Tech English professor, the committee laid the groundwork for further campus debate.

The committee punted on the central issue of whether Salaita has a contractual right to the protections of the tenured position he was expected to fill in mid-August, the start of the fall 2014 semester. His job offer was withdrawn by Chancellor Phyllis Wise in early August after a series of angry, obscenity-laden, anti-Israel tweets, some of which were characterized as anti-Semitic, were brought to her attention.

"This committee is not a court" authorized to decide questions of contract law, wrote the UI's seven-member Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. But then it essentially declared that Salaita, as a prospective employee, was entitled to the same protections of an actual faculty member because he was "more than an applicant and less than an employee."

After appearing to include Salaita in, the committee then passed on the responsibility for calling for his hiring by suggesting further study.

"... Chancellor (Wise) has raised legitimate questions about Dr. Salaita's professional fitness that must be addressed," the committee concluded, suggesting qualified academic experts from the UI's College of Liberal Arts & Sciences take a second look at his scholarship.

To its limited credit, the committee actually did dispose of one controversy, a finding certain to enrage the Salaita supporters who have charged that major donors, particularly Jews, pressured Wise into withdrawing the job offer.

"This investigation found no evidence that they did," the report states.

Despite that assertion, don't expect the committee's conclusion to slow Salaita supporters down in their continued invocation of a Jewish cabal as the explanation for Salaita's job woes.

It should be no surprise that all this hemming and hawing had the effect of irritating people on both sides of the issue.

How Salaita's job status is interpreted is the crux of the issue. He was informed in his offer letter that his UI contract had to be formally approved by UI trustees before it would be effective. (Incoming UI President Timothy Killeen was told the same thing.) The contract offer was withdrawn, not approved. But the committee said he's entitled to protections that assume it was.

On the other side of the issue, the committee enraged Salaita supporters by suggesting there is less to his purported scholarship than meets the eye, that he's a polemicist masquerading as a professor, that his well-known antipathy toward Israel guides his work.

An English professor at Virginia Tech, Salaita was scheduled to teach Indigenous Studies in American Indian Studies at the UI. The committee report quoted him as saying that his academic work is guided by his "opposition to ... socially and economically unjust policies" that oppress indigenous peoples.

"This tenet — almost indistinguishable from a political purpose — is taken by Dr. Salaita to be an intrinsic part of his work," said the committee, concluding that "his professional mission does not absolve him of meeting the academy's standards of professional care."

Salaita is a Palestinian-American who makes no secret of his desire to see Israel destroyed and Palestinians return to the land they lost to Israel's creation in 1948. That view, in itself, is hardly surprising. Indeed, it's conventional wisdom in pro-Palestinian circles.

But Xavier University Professor Peter Kirstein, chairman of the Illinois American Association of University Professors, said it's outrageous to conduct an examination of Salaita's professional credentials as they relate to "protected political and professional speech."

"The (committee) introduces a 'professional fitness' standard to determine whether Salaita's tweets ... demonstrate a lack of fitness," Kirstein wrote in an analysis that described as Salaita as a "persecuted professor" being subjected to scrutiny that "confounds logic and vitiates the basic elements of justice."

As is obvious from the overheated rhetoric, the hand-wringing of the professoriate has just begun, and it will get worse before it gets better. In the sandbox politics of a major university, hyperbole is the weapon of choice and there will be no peace until the last incendiary adjective has been fired.

Salaita declined to comment on the committee report, but he fired off another of what the committee characterized as his "fiery" tweets about the controversy.

"Justifications for UIUC's behavior are deeply insulting to Indigenous Studies. They exemplify the persistence of colonial logic in academe," he said.

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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spangwurfelt wrote on January 04, 2015 at 7:01 am

Oh, dear - Salaita turns out not to be such a remarkably stellar genius scholar after all, despite the paroxysms of praise his political supporters poured out, but had the right politics to get a job for which he was a best tangentially qualified. 

CZI wrote on January 04, 2015 at 9:01 pm

" [D]on't expect the committee's conclusion to slow Salaita supporters down in their continued invocation of a Jewish cabal as the explanation for Salaita's job woes."  I doubt Jim Dey can find a single case of Salaita's supporters invoking "a Jewish cabal."  Hyberbole?  The pot seems to be calling the kettle black.

annabellissimo wrote on January 05, 2015 at 11:01 am

In response to your comment in which you said, "I doubt Jim Dey can find a single case of Salaita's supporters invoking "a Jewish cabal." Hyberbole? The pot seems to be calling the kettle black.": Whether or not the "Salaita supporters" used the exact words "Jewish cabal", does not mean that was not exactly what they meant. Salaita - and those who are like-minded with him - use the term "Zionist" and most people know what is meant; its contemporary meaning having taken on a new connotation different from its original meaning. When the "Salaita supporters" and Salaita refer to the "rich and powerful donors" and supporters of Israel and these words are coming from the mouths or pens or keyboards of anti-Semites, to whom do you imagine they/he are referring? It is unlikely that even an obvious anti-Semite would use the term "Jewish cabal" in public discourse, but in coded language, code-breaking is not often very difficult. The problems in Israel are horrendous and solving them is extremely difficult. Even so, the University of Illinois does not need Salaita or his hate-filled views. He is not a scholar. He brings nothing to academe and certainly nothing to the University of Illinois and absolutely less than nothing to international diplomacy or peace-making efforts! If HE were a student in one of the classes of his "supporters" and he were spouting his bilge - and certainly if this were occurring at Virginia Tech - would professors be so lovingly embracing him and his speech?