A Palestinian American professor’s withering tweets against Israel’s offensive in Gaza cost him his job. If his freedom of speech isn’t protected, it could be me or you next.
By Shachar Pinsker
In 2013, the American-Indian Studies Program at The University of Illinois decided to hire Steven Salaita, who then held a tenured position at Virginia Tech University. The university’s administration approved the appointment via a standard procedure that seemed to go smoothly. So in 2014, Salaita resigned from Virginia Tech, sold his house and moved with his family to Urbana-Champagne. But then, something very unlikely happened.
On August 1, Salaita received an email from Phyllis Wise, the U of I chancellor, informing him that his job offer had been rescinded. Wise wrote that the position was subject to approval by the university’s Board of Trustees, but in his case, the appointment would not even be submitted to the Board. “We believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely,” Wise wrote. “We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty.”
This was a very unusual decision, because Board approval is typically no more than a formality. However, that changed when Salaita, an American citizen of Palestinian decent, expressed his rage against Israel in a series of tweets about the war in Gaza in July, which he posted on his Twitter account. (The New York Times published a report with a selection of those tweets so you get an idea). Until the summer of 2014, nobody at U of I questioned Salaita’s scholarship on Native American and Palestinian issues (his scholarship and publications are strongly tied to his political activism).
However, after an exposé on Salaita in The Daily Caller, an extreme right-wing electronic newspaper, as well as a charge of anti-Semitism from The Simon Wiesenthal Center Campus Outreach program, there was major concern about his tweets and political positions. There seems also to be a trove of documents showing that the university administration turned against Salaita due to pressure from rich donors, whose interest is apparently well represented by the Board. “Having been a multiple six figure donor to Illinois over the years, I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses,” wrote one U of I business school graduate, for example.
Wise’s decision attracted much attention and...Read More