Salaita case calls for honest debate

Salaita case calls for honest debate

By Joyce Tolliver and Nick Burbules

The sides are lining up over the University of Illinois' decision not to seek board of trustees approval for Dr. Steven Salaita's tenured faculty position. Since neither the university nor Salaita has spoken publicly about the issue, there is much we do not know. The national American Association of University Professors has rightly decided not to take a final position until all the facts are known.

However, the Illinois branch of the AAUP did weigh in, releasing a statement asserting that Salaita's recent comments, "while strident and vulgar," were protected by academic freedom and hence that it was not defensible for the university to withhold Salaita's appointment. The Campus Faculty Association was quick to attack the campus administration's decision. The faculty union up at UI Chicago has also jumped into the fray, criticizing our campus and calling for a national investigation.

There are two aspects of this public debate that are based on questionable assumptions. The first is the frequent assertion that Salaita's position offer was terminated because of his stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There is, at this point, no evidence that this is the case: Many faculty hold similar views on the Middle East, and no one has suggested that they are not entitled to engage in open debate over this controversy.

The real issue is with the form and substance of Salaita's comments. He has made numerous public statements over the summer that are not just "strident and vulgar," but are, in the view of many people, incendiary and anti-Semitic.

Of greatest concern to an academic community is that many of his comments preclude any possibility of dialogue, disagreement or reasoned examination. This is not what one would expect from a thoughtful, reflective teacher and scholar.

The question is not whether Salaita has a First Amendment right to make such comments — of course he does. It is whether, in light of this new information, the university has the right to choose not to proceed with hiring someone who speaks and writes that way in public.

There is a serious policy question here of how to manage a situation in which new and damaging information comes to light about a prospective hire after an initial letter of offer is sent, but before the beginning of the appointment period and before final board approval.

At Virginia Tech, his previous institution, the university chose to publicly disavow some of his extreme comments, in order to protect its own reputation. And apparently they have made no effort to retain Salaita after he received word that board approval would not be sought for his appointment at Illinois.

The other questionable assumption of the current debate is that the university's action violates Salaita's academic freedom. But the principle of academic freedom is not an absolute, open-ended license; the AAUP's own statement on principles of academic freedom emphasizes that faculty are also bound by the standards of professional ethics: "As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, (and) should show respect for the opinions of others ...." Salaita's comments raise legitimate questions about the limits of academic freedom.

An honest debate about this case would engage these serious and difficult questions, instead of invoking the familiar frame of faculty victims being silenced by evil administrators. That framing might serve other political agendas, but it does not serve the campus or the wider academic profession well — and it does not fit the facts of this case as we know them, so far.

Nick Burbules and Joyce Tolliver, current members of the UI faculty, are past leaders of the campus academic senate.

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rsp wrote on August 17, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Doesn't fit what facts? Nobody has any facts! Everyone is just guessing! I do have some facts as a taxpayer.

The University of Illinois hired a man using a resume that included "earning" credit under a fake name which can get you kicked out of the University of Illinois. As part of the p.r. campaign after that they said they would do background checks.

Just an internet search brings up the things everyone is blaming, so clearly a background check wasn't done.

That tells me that nobody at the University of Illinois knows if anyone is qualified to work there. So who are they to judge.

Voice of Reazon wrote on August 17, 2014 at 5:08 pm

THANK YOU to the authors for this piece.  Everyone gets it that there are different opinions on Israel / Palestine.  Salaita needs to understand that this fanciful "academic freedom" is not a license to spew sophmoric invective without consequence.  If THIS is the kind of faculty the Big U almost hired, one wonders about the quality of THAT proccess.

Skeptical111 wrote on August 18, 2014 at 2:08 am

"Zionists: transforming 'anti-semitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948."

Change this "wonderful" tweet from Salaita to: "NAACP: transforming racism from something horrible into something honorable since ....." Would the school even consider settling with such an abominable, greedy, fake "professor"? Let him get his begging bowl out in the street if that is the only honest work he can do. Let the other racist haters feed him, not the Illinois taxpayer.

His alleged scholarship is nothing but Jew-hatred in barely disguised "anti-Zionist" language.... still devolving frequently in Jew-demonizing language Julius Streicher of Nurnberg fame would have been proud about. I would say that University of Illinois has to answer as to why this "scholar" - a pure ambassador of hatred with nothing to teach - was even considered for the job!

Sid Saltfork wrote on August 18, 2014 at 11:08 am

One can be anti-Israel without being anti-semitic.  Comparing an individual to Julius Streicher over anti-Israel remarks appears to be a gross analogy.  Israel is a country, not a religion.  Denouncements of "Jew-demonizing" over anti-Israeli comments has the echoes of another era when remarks against a country were propagandized as against a nationality.

spangwurfelt wrote on August 18, 2014 at 5:08 pm

"One can be anti-Israel without being anti-semitic."

And one can be both at the same time.

"the echoes of another era when remarks against a country were propagandized as against a nationality"

And yet Salaita makes it clear that he doesn't think there's any useful moral distinction to be made between the Israeli government and the Israeli people. He condemns the former unreservedly and the latter unreservedly with an asterisk.

wayward wrote on August 19, 2014 at 2:08 am

Nah, the infamous Revilo Oliver (who was a tenured full professor here) sounded more like Streicher than Salaita does. Salaita just seems really pissed off and occasionally lacking in judgment.

spangwurfelt wrote on August 18, 2014 at 6:08 am

It's ridiculous to claim that being anti-Israel kept this guy from landing a job here, considering how many anti-Israel people are on the faculty. This guy's not a martyr, he shot himself in the foot. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on August 18, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Or the U of I has shot itself in the foot in order to be politically correct...

spangwurfelt wrote on August 18, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Or both. Or maybe there are just limits to the number of times you can say "f--- this! f--- that! f--- you, motherf-----!" the way Salaita tweeted before the University starts to have second thoughts about hiring you.

wayward wrote on August 19, 2014 at 2:08 am

Out of genuine curiosity, if Salaita's tweets were completely taken out of the equation, would his publications, teaching, and service record be enough to get him awarded tenure at UI or a peer institution?

Rene21 wrote on August 19, 2014 at 10:08 am

The tragedy of this case is that Salaita is being branded an anti-Semite. For an analysis of his tweets, including his many tweets calling out anti-Semitism, see:


Citizen_100 wrote on August 20, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Academic freedom is crucial to a university's and society's well-being.  Faculty should not be fired for expressing politically unpopular views.  But when people trot out the label "academic freedom" even for cases it is clearly not relevant (for example, a faculty member's criminal past as a member of a terrorist organization, or sending hateful and ignorant tweets that have nothing to do with advancing knowledge, or making sexually provocative and inappropriate statements in front of a class), then it only serves to weaken the banner of academic freedom.  I suspect that many of those trotting out this principle would not be so quick to do so if this guy's hateful tweets had been targeted at gays or minorities, or if the terrorist group that Kilgore was associated with had bombed abortion clinics.