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University of Illinois Urged to Reinstate Professor Steven Salaita, Critic of Israeli War in Gaza

September 09, 2014
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Guests

Katherine Franke

professor of law at Columbia University and the director of the Open University Project.

Kristofer Petersen-Overton

adjunct lecturer of political science at Lehman College. He is a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center. In 2011, Brooklyn College reversed an earlier decision not to hire Petersen-Overton as an adjunct professor to teach a seminar on Middle East politics, a decision that the professor and others had called politically motivated.

As the fall school term begins, an Illinois college campus is embroiled in one of the nation’s biggest academic freedom controversies in recent memory. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has sparked an outcry over its withdrawal of a job offer to a professor critical of the Israeli government. Steven Salaita was due to start work at the university as a tenured professor in the American Indian Studies Program. But after posting a series of tweets harshly critical of this summer’s Israeli assault on Gaza, Salaita was told the offer was withdrawn. The school had come under pressure from donors, students, parents and alumni critical of Salaita’s views, with some threatening to withdraw financial support. Thousands of academics have signed petitions calling for Salaita’s reinstatement, and several lecturers have canceled appearances in protest. The American Association of University Professors has called the school’s actions "inimical to academic freedom and due process." A number of Urbana-Champaign departments have passed votes of no-confidence in the chancellor, Phyllis Wise. And today, Urbana-Champaign students will be holding a campus walkout and day of silence in support of Salaita. We are joined by two guests: Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke, who has canceled a lecture series at Urbana-Champaign in protest of Salaita’s unhiring; and Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a scholar who went through a similar incident in 2011 when Brooklyn College reversed a job offer after complaints about his Middle East views, only to reinstate it following a public outcry.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: As the fall school term begins, an Illinois college campus is embroiled in one of the nation’s biggest academic freedom controversies in recent memory. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has sparked an outcry over its withdrawal of a job offer to a professor critical of the Israeli government. Steven Salaita was due to start work at Urbana-Champaign as a tenured professor in the American Indian Studies Program. But after posting a series of tweets harshly critical of the summer’s assault on Gaza, Salaita was told the offer was withdrawn. Urbana-Champaign has come under pressure from donors, students, parents and alumni critical of Salaita’s views, with some threatening to withdraw financial support.

The move has been criticized both in and outside of the school, with administrators accused of political censorship. Thousands of academics have signed petitions calling for Salaita’s reinstatement, and several lecturers have canceled appearances in protest. The American Association of University Professors has called the school’s actions "inimical to academic freedom and due process." A number of school departments have passed votes of no-confidence in the chancellor, Phyllis Wise. And today, students will be holding a campus walkout and a day of silence in support of Salaita. A news conference is being held, where Salaita is expected to make his first public comments since his unhiring last month.

AMY GOODMAN: In a public statement, Chancellor Phyllis Wise said her decision to unhire Salaita "was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel." She goes on to write, quote, "What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them," unquote. The school has now reportedly offered Salaita a financial settlement for his troubles. The school’s Board of Trustees is expected to take up the controversy at a meeting on Thursday.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Kristofer Petersen-Overton is an adjunct lecturer of political science at Lehman College. In 2011, Brooklyn College initially decided not to hire Petersen-Overton as an adjunct professor for a seminar on Middle East politics. But the school reversed its decision after criticism that the decision was politically motivated. And Katherine Franke joins us. She’s a professor of law at Columbia University and the director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. She recently canceled a lecture series at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in protest of Steven Salaita’s unhiring.

Professor Franke, let’s begin with you. Talk about the facts of this case and how you got involved.

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, Professor Salaita was previously a professor at Virginia Tech University, and he had a well-known dossier of books and articles thinking critically about the relationship between indigeneity, meaning native people, and the political environments in which they live—hard questions about dispossession, belonging, state violence and identity. And because of that important scholarly record, the University of Illinois went after him—in a friendly way, unlike what they’re doing now. And he was hired by an overwhelming vote by the American Indian Studies Program there in the normal way that we hire faculty in universities. An offer letter was issued to him. He accepted it. They paid for his moving expenses. He quit his job, a tenured position in Virginia. And he has a small child and a family and a wife, and was ready to move. His course books had been ordered. He had been invited by the university to the faculty welcome luncheon.

And then, on August 1st, he got a letter from the chancellor saying, "We’re sorry, we’re not going to be able to employ you here, because I haven’t taken the last step, which I had not informed you about before, of taking your candidacy to the Board of Trustees." He had assumed he had an accepted job offer. He had relied on that offer—and at his peril. He now doesn’t have a home, doesn’t have a job and doesn’t have an income.

So what we now have learned, through a FOIA request and the disclosure of emails at the university, is that there was enormous pressure put on the chancellor and the Board of Trustees by large donors of the university, who said, "I’ll take my six-figure donations away if you hire this guy." And this is as a result of some tweets that Professor Salaita made over the summer during the heat of the Gaza—the Israeli assault on Gaza. He was very upset about it. He himself is Palestinian. He was watching children die and the destruction of Gazan villages that we all watched. And like many of us, he was quite impassioned and used colorful language on Twitter to express his views, and that those tweets somehow made their way to donors at the University of Illinois. And so, the job, as been described even here in the setup, is either withdrawn or somehow not—well, what has happened is he’s just been fired. And so he’s now organizing, along with the rest of us, a response to what is a deliberate campaign by a number of political operatives who put pressure on universities like the University of Illinois to censor critical scholarship, critical comments, critical research about Israeli state policy.

AARON MATÉ: And just to say some of those tweets, after the three teens in the West Bank went missing and were kidnapped and later killed, he said, "I wish all the [bleeping] West Bank settlers would go missing." He also said, "Zionists: transforming 'anti-Semitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948." He was saying that it’s Israel itself that conflates Judaism with Zionism, hence they’re the ones that are perverting anti-Semitism—a nuance that can’t be captured quite in a tweet. But so, what did you do after this controversy broke out?

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, I’d been working on this issue in my own scholarship on the politics of the region and on the complex legal questions at stake in Israel-Palestine. I’m a human rights lawyer myself, and I also have done some work having to do with what we call "pinkwashing" in that area, of how the Israeli government has touted, as a sort of rebranding campaign, its pro-gay laws as a way to tarnish the Palestinians for being anti-gay, which I think is a questionable proposition itself, but more importantly, to distract attention from what the Israelis have been doing in terms of human rights violations. So, I’ve been working in this region for some time in my own scholarship, and then recently received funding from the Sabah Foundation to think hard about how we might generate complicated questions on campuses, in an academic context, around the issues that are trying to be censored by various political outsiders to the university. There’s a kind of political correctness and almost a witch hunt that’s going on on universities to stop these hard conversations, for which there are not obvious right answers. There are complex answers. And if we can’t talk about them in the university setting, where can we talk about them? So that’s why I’m interested in this issue, not because I have a particular ideology that I think I want to impose, in place of whatever these outside operatives are interested in, but because I’m interested in the region and the ideas and the complexity of rights and belonging and dispossession in Israel-Palestine, which if we can’t do it, as I said, in the university, where can we?

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what you decided to do, your invitation to the University of Illinois and what you’re doing about it.

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, as soon as we all learned in early August of the termination of Professor Salaita from his employment at the University of Illinois, there was a call that went out from the faculty there and from those who supported Professor Salaita that we not agree to visit the University of Illinois outside faculty to give talks or lectures until this problem was resolved. I had just coincidentally been invited in June to go to Urbana-Champaign later this semester and give a series of lectures, which I was happy to do. I’m from Illinois, it’s nice to return to the state, and I have wonderful colleagues there who I really look forward to working with. Incidentally, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a world-class university, wonderful faculty there, so we’re missing something by not being able to participate and work with them and think about these hard problems.

So what I decided is I wouldn’t go, I certainly wouldn’t go on the University of Illinois’s nickel, that I would honor the call for a boycott of participation in lectures and speaking at the University of Illinois, but I would do more. And I think all of us who think about boycotting injustice in the world need to think about doing boycotts, but more. How will you engage affirmatively the injustice that generated the boycott in the first place? So I’m going next week to the university, to Urbana-Champaign, on my own nickel, at my own expense, to hold a teach-in—although students now are saying that "teach-in" is a term that’s from the '60s and we should find a better one, so if you can help me generate a more with-it term for these sorts of events, that would be great. But I'm going next week to meet with students, faculty and other members of the community to think about and talk about the academic freedom issues that are at stake here, but also the underlying issues that these tweets gestured at, although in a very colorful and blunt way. But instead of talking about the hard issues of Palestinian rights, Palestinian sovereignty and the violence of the Gaza war, we’re talking about these tweets. And they are such an inartful way to really say anything.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the university’s response to how you’ve chosen to come back to Illinois and to the university?

KATHERINE FRANKE: The university has not responded to any of us who have said—sent many, many letters. It’s not just a few of us who have said we will boycott the university; it’s hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of us. So, I have not heard anything from the university, but the faculty is thrilled, I hope, and they’re co-sponsoring this event off campus.

AARON MATÉ: We’re also joined here by Kristofer Petersen-Overton. You’ve spoken out on the Middle East. You’re a scholar yourself. You went through something similar at Brooklyn College. Can you tell us your story?

KRISTOFER PETERSEN-OVERTON: Yeah, well, I mean, I think there are important points of contact between my experience at Brooklyn College and Professor Salaita’s case. I mean, I was hired back in 2011 as an adjunct lecturer, so that’s a significant difference. I’m not a tenured professor. I’m a doctoral student, actually, at the CUNY Graduate Center. But many of us also teach courses in order to support our education. So I was hired to teach a one-semester course on Middle East politics. But before I was able to actually arrive in the classroom, a student complained to the department that she had googled me online and found some of my views apparently she took issue with and complained that I would be slanted and unfair towards Israel. The department asked her to hold off, and she turned around instead and went to a New York state assemblyperson, who then issued a press release calling me a, quote, "overt supporter of terrorism." And this turned into an enormous controversy, which I didn’t expect, not knowing the political culture of Brooklyn College, not knowing the politics and background of this issue there. And unfortunately, the political science department, while supporting me, was routed by the administration, who intervened and canceled my appointment. And were it not for a large mobilization of students, faculty, activists and all sorts of independent organizations around the country and world, I wouldn’t have gotten my job back five days later.

AARON MATÉ: What did they do, this mobilization for your reinstatement?

KRISTOFER PETERSEN-OVERTON: They put a spotlight on the injustice of canceling my appointment, not only because of the controversy of, you know, the taboo, the general taboo placed on criticizing Israel’s occupation, but also issues that are related to really adjunct labor rights and the sort of two-tier system that you have at universities across the country, which is a major point of contact I see between my case and Professor Salaita’s.

AARON MATÉ: Were there protests? They wrote letters? There was a campaign?

KRISTOFER PETERSEN-OVERTON: Yeah, there were letters. A number of very well-known scholars wrote letters on my behalf, similar to what we’ve seen here, although, of course, Professor Salaita is much higher-profile than I am. I’m just a lowly graduate student.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read an excerpt from the letter by the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Phyllis Wise, explaining the university’s position on Steven Salaita. After saying that the decision, quote, "was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel," Chancellor Wise goes on to write, quote, "What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. ... As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner." Professor Franke, your response?

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, what we see in that letter is basically a page from the playbook of the David Project. The David Project is a Boston-based pro-Zionist, pro-Israeli project dedicated to shaping the way in which Israel and Israeli state policy is discussed—are discussed on college campuses, in a way that is friendly towards Israel and Israeli state policy. They’ve recently issued a report where they said, "Our technique now will be in approaching the critics of Israel on campus to describe what they say as uncivil." And if you read the chancellor’s letter and you read this strategy memo, you see that her letter—I don’t know if it’s actually been informed by that memo, but it certainly reflects it and was influenced by it.

Civility is not an academic norm. It actually runs contrary to what we do in an academic setting. In my teaching, in my writing, I try to unsettle people’s comfortable—my students’ comfortable notions about what rights can do, what law can do. Sometimes law is part of the problem as much as it’s part of the solution. Other parts of my work make us think hard about sexual identity and sexual orientation-based identity. I’m one of the biggest critics in the country of the gay rights movement’s investment in the marriage campaign, the marriage equality campaign. That doesn’t make me very popular with some parts of the gay rights movement, and it unsettles the ideas of many of my students. Some might say what I do is uncivil. So, a civility norm isn’t really the right norm to appeal to in the academic context, because it really undermines what it is we do as academics, which is think hard and often think in uncomfortable ways about our settled ideas and our settled senses of what we know in the world.

AARON MATÉ: In you letter to Chancellor Wise, you talk about how Israel-Palestine is addressed on campus, and you mention that you were once told not to use the word "Palestine" in one of your courses.

KATHERINE FRANKE: It wasn’t that I shouldn’t use the word "Palestine" in my courses. I’ve done work in Ramallah and in Palestine with women lawyers there. I’ve been working to try to build a bar, a legal community, within Palestine. Any society needs a strong civil society as it’s rebuilding itself. And so, I’ve been working with women lawyers to be important parts of the Palestinian bar. And so, I came back from one of my trips there, and I wanted to do a talk at Columbia about Palestinian women lawyers. And we have this little administrative thing we have to do at Columbia, is put our posters through the dean’s office for approval. And I was told I couldn’t have an event where the word "Palestine" appeared in the title of the event, because there is no such thing as Palestine. Well, I ignored them; I went ahead and did it anyway. But we can think about a lot of places in the world, Tibet, for instance, where you could say, "There’s no such place as Tibet." So, to censor the idea of even the conjuring the idea of Palestine in an academic setting is something that’s happening across campuses all over the country. What’s happened to me is so mild compared to what’s happening to Professor Salaita or that happened to Kris, but they’re all part of an organized campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you’ve called the "corporate university" and how you think that ties in.

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, Kris made comments about this in his experience, as well. And what we’re seeing in this incident—and I’ll call it a catastrophe, really, at the University of Illinois—is evidence of the corporatization of the university, where the executive—in this case, the chancellor—sees herself as responsible to investors or donors more than she does to the constituency on campus, the academics and students. A university is not just a business, where you have to have a bottom line that satisfies your board of directors every year like other businesses. We have a particular mission in the university, perhaps to do things that are unpopular, that challenge what your donors think is the right way in which you should be thinking about particular problems. If we’re not doing that, then we’re not running a university, we’re running some other kind of ideological machine. Columbia has the same problem. I’m not going to single out the University of Illinois, but it’s a really bare example of an executive of a university seeing herself as accountable to her donors, not to an intellectual and scholarly mission.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to follow this issue. Katherine Franke, we want to thank you for being with us, a professor of law at Columbia Law School and director of the Open University Project. Kristofer Petersen-Overton, thank you for joining us, adjunct lecturer on political science at Lehman College, doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.


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