Since I’m perpetually having to answer the same questions in regards to Steven Salaita, I thought I would put together a short FAQ. Obviously, there’s no endorsement of this by Dr. Salaita, I don’t mistake this for comprehensive, and this isn’t the last word on anything. But I keep getting the identical questions and life is too short. So here goes. I’ll update as needed.
The issue isn’t Israel but civility. Dr. Salaita’s tweets were uncivil, so he deserved to lose his job regardless of what he was tweeting about.
You are applying a standard that does not exist for the vast majority of professors in similar professional circumstances. There are plenty of professors who engage in profane, uncivil interactions on social media on a daily basis. They do this without fear because the system of advancement and professional reward in the academy is based on one’s publishing record, one’s teaching evaluations, and one’s service to the academy, not on social media conduct. Additionally, we have established norms of academic and political freedom within the academy, where we recognize that the expression of controversial ideas, even inflammatory ideas, is a necessary part of intellectual and political life. Applying a standard of civility to a single professor for engaging on a specific controversial topic directly and unambiguously undermines that freedom. The notion of civility as a universally-applied standard regardless of context or topic cannot withstand scrutiny. Had Salaita’s target been Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, or the government of North Korea, or Iran, or some other nation that is disfavored by the American ruling class, no one would have raised an eyebrow at his incivility.
The only reason that Dr. Salaita’s career has been ruined — the only reason — is that the target of his criticism was Israel.
Dr. Salaita’s tweets demonstrate that he would be a poor teacher and could not work with Jewish students.
Dr. Salaita had a long and successful tenure at Virginia Tech University, where he worked with many Jewish students without issue. His teaching evaluations at Virginia Tech were exemplary. Equating Jewish students with Israel is unproductive and offensive. There are Zionist students who are not Jewish; indeed, given the demographics of America and the way in which support for Israel has become a conservative touchstone, the large majority of Zionist students at any given campus are likely Gentiles. Likewise, there are many Jewish students who are anti-Zionists. Additionally, this standard is not applied remotely equally. No one presumes that Zionist professors are incapable of teaching Palestinian students, and no one is picking through the social media accounts of Zionist professors looking for statements that might give offense to Palestinian students. If we presume that teachers who have expressed passionate political views that could conflict with the views of their students could never fairly or safely teach those students, the entire academy would cease functioning.
Dr. Salaita’s scholarship is unimpressive.
1. I highly doubt most of the people making this claim have read a single page of Dr. Salaita’s scholarship.
2. No one involved in the firing of Dr. Salaita has cited his scholarship record as a reason for his firing.
3. By the typical metrics of academic success in publication, Dr. Salaita has been massively successful.
4. Even if you don’t agree, it’s irrelevant — Dr. Salaita’s credentials were evaluated by a UIUC search committee, and that committee found that his scholarship was of the quality sufficient to earn an invitation to work at UIUC. That’s the process in the university system and at UIUC. Blog commenters do not get a vote.
Dr. Salaita isn’t even an American Indian!
Again, you are inventing a standard that does not exist. Many professors study fields related to ethnic, national, identity, and demographic groups without belong to said groups. Yes, there is a tendency for such professors to be drawn from the ranks of those groups, but that is far from universal, as even minimal research on the question will demonstrate. There are white professors in African American Studies programs and male professors in Women’s Studies programs and so on. What’s more, the decision as to which professor is suitable for hiring is a decision made by a search committee of a given department, and as previously mentioned, the search committee from UIUC’s American Indian studies program found Dr. Salaita to be fully qualified to take on a role as an associate professor in that program.
I have some other weird idiosyncratic justification for why he was fired that avoids the plain reality that he was fired for holding controversial political views.
The very fact that so many people have dug so deeply into their bag of excuses to defend this firing demonstrates that there is no meaningful, single justification for it beyond punishing Salaita for his unpopular politics. So many people have taken a grab bag approach to Salaita and his work, throwing charges up against the wall to see what sticks, that it’s impossible to believe that there is any unified higher principle that justifies this decision. The manic effort to find new justifications for firing Salaita are merely part of a widespread, powerful effort to defend the state of Israel, its government, and its violence against any and all criticism.