Jim Dey: Anti-Israel professor back in hot water
Local friends and supporters of Steven Salaita might want to book emergency air passage to Beirut — the polemical professor is in trouble again and needs their help.
News reports emanating from the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, report that university President Fadli Khuri has pulled the plug on a search process aimed at making Salaita the permanent director of the Center for American Studies and Research there.
"Another Lost Job for Salaita," read a headline from Inside Higher Education.
"Has Steven Salaita, once again on the verge of obtaining a permanent position, again been blocked by administrators?" the article asks. "His supporters at the American University of Beirut and in the United States say that's what is going on at AUB."
UI ties to petition
Salaita drew notoriety in Champaign-Urbana in the summer of 2014, when he was expected to move here and begin teaching in the University of Illinois' American Indian Studies department.
However, a series of obscene tweets attacking Israel drew the attention of UI higher-ups. Then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise subsequently withdrew Salaita's job offer, a decision later upheld by an 8-1 trustee vote.
The controversy led to lengthy discord on campus, featuring protests by some faculty members and students. Salaita sued and ultimately won an $875,000 settlement with the UI, but his effort to force the university to hire him failed, and he subsequently accepted a one-year appointment at AU.
Just as it did at the UI, the suspension of the job search at AU has prompted some students and academics to charge that Salaita is a victim of a politicized process.
Khuri, however, flatly rejects any such assertions, saying he suspended the search process that had recommended Salaita after improprieties were brought to his attention.
"Violations included the presence of visiting faculty with selection and voting rights on the search committee, as well as the presence of lower-ranked faculty members voting for a higher-ranked position," he said. "Additionally, there was a conflict implied by the current incumbent chairing a committee to find their own successor."
Khuri said there is "no truth" to claims the search was "stopped in order to prevent Dr. Salaita from being selected." He said AU is committed to the "principles of academic freedom, freedom of speech and the fair, transparent selection of academic positions based on merit alone and free of any hidden political agenda."
Among those who signed a petition supporting Salaita was Robert Warrior, a member of the UI's Indian Studies faculty who was also on Salaita's doctoral dissertation committee at the University of Oklahoma.
Others from the UI who signed included Tyler Camp, Alex Nelson, Stephanie Skora and Debojoy Chanda.
War of the words
As was the case during the UI controversy, pro- and anti-Salaita partisans have launched predictable attacks.
Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College professor and ideological comrade of Salaita, said: "During the Cold War, leftist scholars purged from American academe at least had the opportunity, sometimes, to start again outside the country. But now it seems as if even that escape route is being denied to Steven Salaita."
At the same time, anti-Salaita outlets had fun at the professor's expense.
Liel Liebowitz at The Tablet magazine wrote: "You have to savor the thought of Salaita, who fashioned himself into a martyr wronged by a shady Zionist cabal for criticizing Israel, being now slammed a second time by a university few can accuse of abundant love for the Jewish state."
Before accepting a position as a tenured UI faculty member, Salaita had tenure in the English Department at Virginia Tech. His writings, however, have consisted almost exclusively of attacks on Israel.
A Palestinian-American, he is a prominent supporter of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement that seeks to ban, among other things, supporters of Israel from positions of influence on American campuses.
He blamed Jewish individuals and organizations for pressuring UI officials to withdraw his job offers. Among other things, he asserted his right to free speech and academic freedom were being violated.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 217-351-5369.