A year after he was fired by the University of Illinois over concerns about the “civility” of his criticism of supporters of Israel, Steven Salaita says that, despite the emotional trauma he suffered as a result of his ordeal, he hopes to find a way to return to a teaching position at the school.
“The response to my firing has really emboldened a lot of people there, and I’ve gotten almost unanimous support from faculty at the school,” Salaita said in an interview. “On some level, to be honest, it would be a little weird coming to work at a campus where I’ve been the source of so much controversy. But ultimately, I’d see it as a victorious moment, not just personally, but for the principle of free speech in American academia.”
There is a legal effort underway to bring Salaita to that moment. In August, an amended complaint was filed against the school by lawyers from the law firm Loevy & Loevy and the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group focused on civil liberties and human rights. The complaint amends a lawsuit first filed in January 2015 on Salaita’s behalf seeking his reinstatement plus financial damages. In the new complaint, Salaita’s lawyers argue that school administrators hid or deleted emails that constituted evidence related to his termination. The lawyers are also anticipating the disclosure of more information about the impact of donor pressure on his termination during the forthcoming discovery phase of the case.
In the meantime, Salaita has returned to academia after nearly a year out of work, accepting this past July a visiting position as the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut for the 2015-2016 academic year. This month, he also released a new book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and Limits of Academic Freedom, which attempts to contextualize his own case within the broader struggle for academic freedom of speech in the United States.
Despite these positive developments, Salaita is still shaken by his ordeal with the University of Illinois. In August 2014, just weeks before he was scheduled to begin a tenured role as associate professor of American Indian Studies, Salaita received a letter stating that his appointment was being terminated. Salaita, who had already resigned from his job at Virginia Tech to take the professorship, suddenly and inexplicably found himself cut adrift.
While the letter did not specify the reason for his termination, it surfaced shortly thereafter that Salaita had drawn the ire of influential donors and advocacy groups, who complained to university officials over a series of social media posts Salaita had made criticizing supporters of Israel during Israel’s 2014 bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Salaita, who had already rented out his Virginia home and made preparations to move his young family to Illinois, suddenly found himself unemployed, ostensibly on grounds of “personal and disrespectful words” in his public statements on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“In my mind, I felt that my academic career was finished. This was going to be a lifetime punishment that would follow me even if I tried to get another job,” Salaita told The Intercept recently. “I had uprooted my family and had just gotten a contract to buy a condo. Instead, we suddenly found that we had nowhere to live, no income and no health insurance.”
For Salaita himself, the case has been both a trying emotional experience as well as an eye-opening firsthand encounter with the unspoken limits on acceptable discourse in the United States, particularly with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Graduate students and young scholars are fearful of speaking out on this issue because of the potential career implications of being perceived as a critic of Israel,” Salaita says. “It’s an example of the compromises to our freedoms that an unthinking commitment to a foreign country can produce. Even if we disagree with people politically, its a bad idea to voluntarily confer more power to a hierarchy that can silence people just because we don’t like what they say.”
Salaita, 40, is a Palestinian-American Christian who was born and raised in the United States. His interest in American Indian studies was inspired in large part by his own Palestinian heritage, and his desire to “study what colonization looked like all over the world.” Before Salaita’s termination from the University of Illinois, he had experienced pressure for his political opinions, including a 2013 controversy triggered by an article he had written criticizing what he perceived to be uncritical public support of the U.S. military.
“There’s unfortunately a widespread perception in academia that scholars from minority backgrounds can’t be ‘objective,’ and I’ve experienced this myself to varying degrees throughout my career,” Salaita says. “People working in fields that are committed by their very nature to challenging power dynamics, particularly women’s studies, native studies, African-American studies, are often seen by universities as both superfluous and threatening. Anything that can’t be measured through corporate algorithms is often viewed as suspicious at best.”
Shortly after Salaita’s termination, emails made public through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that financial donors to the University of Illinois had been privately waging a campaign to pressure the university into rescinding his professorship. This June, a judge ordered the release of more emails between university administrators and donors that may shed further light on the circumstances of his firing.
Omar Shakir, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, says that the organization decided to take up Salaita’s case in part due to the potentially dire First Amendment issues his firing raises. “This is a line-in-the-sand type case that really goes to the heart of hiring in academia and academic freedom,” Shakir says. “The fact that a tenured professor can be fired for criticisms of the policies of a foreign government should raise concerns for anyone who cares about freedom of speech, as well as the historic role of universities as bastions of free thought and debate.”