a brief FAQ on Steven Salaita

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.

7 Comments

  1. “Dr. Salaita isn’t even an American Indian!”

    Maybe you’re tussling with different commenters than I am, but I find they more typically point out that Dr. Salaita’s area is Middle East Studies and English Lit — so how does this qualify him for a position in an American Indian Studies program?

    And there are good answers to this question. One, some of Salaita’s work directly compares indigenous American with indigenous Palestinian experiences of modern colonialism. Two, the American Indian Studies program may have been following an intellectually sound strategy to evolve into an “Indigenous Studies” department, rather than a program focused on native Americans alone.

    To their limited credit, some critics of Salaita have also managed to find a sentence or two here or there in his published record that very loosely appeal to some antisemitic tropes. I think this is the front on which the anti-Salaita case becomes most compelling. However, this is really just a sentence or two — out of all his books and articles, that’s all the critics could find. I hate to think what forms of “soft prejudice” could be parsed from my publications, if I had millions of online enemies like Salaita does.

    1. Two, the American Indian Studies program may have been following an intellectually sound strategy to evolve into an “Indigenous Studies” department, rather than a program focused on native Americans alone.

      Sounds about right. Their program is a comparative one and Salaita knows a lot about colonialism and Palestine.
      From the NA Studies director’s statement website:

      Welcome to American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois. Our academic program offers important research, courses, and programs focused on the lives and histories of American Indian and other indigenous peoples in their communities. Our purpose is to give everyone on campus opportunities to learn more about the realities of the American Indian and Indigenous world.
      – Robert Warrior (Osage), Director

      http://www.ais.illinois.edu/about/director/

      To their limited credit, some critics of Salaita have also managed to find a sentence or two here or there in his published record that very loosely appeal to some antisemitic tropes.

      Lol. I’ve read those snippets. They’re taken out of context and always leave out the part in which he states that he’s describing the respective ethno-nationalist narratives.

  2. “You are applying a standard that does not exist for the vast majority of professors in similar professional circumstances.”

    This is strange, I would have not expected this to be true of academia, especially modern academia. However, I am on the Dark Side of STEM, is it different for particularly “political” intellectual areas?

  3. Mr deBoer,

    I’ve followed this controversy with the fascination of an outsider with no dog in the fight and, obviously, no useful opinion at least on the merits. Over time, largely thanks to your clear and patient articulation, I’ve come to understand the importance of the issues as you describe and support them when my initial know-nothing impulse was the opposite, for whatever that’s worth.

    That being said, I have to admit that a major takeaway has also been an image of the most appalling stereotypes of the academic left: not just righteously committed but incontestable in their moral and intellectual superiority, not just passionately uncivil in speaking truth to power but presumptively entitled to personal invective. Never mind how the “enemy” was addressed, what people seemed willing to publicly say to and about those they would describe as friends or colleagues who disagreed with them seemed recklessly self-destructive, whatever victory may have been achieved.

    I would stand by this as not merely a know-nothing emotional response but of simply reading what people write, though of course I’m open to correction. But as a gay man utterly exasperated by the self-immolating effects of the constant reflexive outrage and invective employed by the equally righteous and committed LGBQT online and media community, I’d say I do have a dog in that part of the fight, as it were, and would be interested in your perspective if you’re so inclined.

    In any event, thank you again and keep up the great work.

    1. PS: Please insert a grammatically workable version of “present company excepted”, for the sake of accuracy not civility…

  4. I am an anti-Zionist jew (ethnic/cultural, not religious). However, I have WWII-era jewish grandparents who, I’m sad to say, pass around all manner of pro-Israel, anti-muslim emails among their friends and family.

    The infamous (if you’re a particular type of old jew) 2006 letter from Prof. Wichman to the Muslim Association of Michigan State University has been making the rounds again in these emails recently. And though they never make explicit mention of the Salaita affair, I can’t imagine this is a coincidence. The people who pass around these emails (and their requisite Snopes links, which I will post below) appear to express genuine shock and surprise when it is revealed that Prof. Wichman did not receive any reprimand from the University for the expression of his view that the Muslim students should “Please return to your ancestral homelands and build them up yourselves instead of troubling Americans.” They are so convinced that university and college administrators will reflexively protect anti-semitic speech and disavow pro-Israel speech that they unfailingly thank the university admins in these emails for “doing the right thing”, “standing up to the PC police” and “protecting free speech”.

    After years of enduring these emails, and others that are much worse, I no longer have the energy to explain to them that the world in which anti-Israel, anti-semitic, “politically correct” views are given implicit sanction by US university administrators, no longer exists, if it ever existed at all.

    http://www.snopes.com/politics/soapbox/wichman.asp

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