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Professor Salaita to defiantly speak out on campus
Who is Steven Salaita?
Among the hundreds of emails sent to the University of Illinois in response to
the un-hiring of Steven Salaita was one from a former student at Virginia Tech
The student recounted the terror that followed the 2007 shooting at Virginia
Salaita was the one professor who was able to keep the student on campus and in
school, helping to turn a terrible experience into something he could face,
said UI Professor Robert Warrior, director of the American Indian Studies
`It really spoke about his compassion, his ability to really reach out to (the
student) because he knew (he) was suffering. That`s the Steven Salaita I`ve come
to know now,` said Warrior, who planned to have Salaita teach two courses this
fall before recent events derailed the hire.
The anecdote paints a picture of Salaita as an engaging teacher and scholar.
Contrast that with the writer who blasted Israel and its supporters this summer
with tweets like:
`Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth
the murder of children, just (expletive) own it already`
`If you`re defending #Israel right now, you`re an awful human being`
`(Expletive) you, #Israel. And while I`m at it, (expletive) you, too, PA, Sisi,
Arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS.`
Those tweets caused an uproar among many UI alumni, current students, parents
and donors, some of whom threatened to stop financially supporting the
university if Salaita joined the faculty. Salaita, his critics have said, is
someone who has used his constitutional right to free speech to express hatred,
bigotry and aggression.
Because of his tweets, which have been called everything from `unprofessional`
to `anti-Semitic,` his presence at the UI would polarize campus and exacerbate
tensions, people have said. Students would feel threatened in his classroom,
But the way the university handled the affair — with administrators writing to
Salaita a few weeks before classes were to begin, saying his appointment would
not be forwarded to the Board of Trustees for formal approval — also sparked a
backlash among many faculty on campus and around the country, who see it as a
threat to academic freedom, free speech and unit autonomy.
With the board meeting this week in Urbana, Salaita has yet to speak publicly
about the UI`s actions, and hasn`t tweeted since the job offer was rescinded,
except for a brief message of thanks to his supporters.
The News-Gazette tracked down some of his colleagues and asked them to shed some
light on the Salaita they know — Salaita the teacher, the scholar and the person
behind the tweets. Here`s their side to the story.
According to friends and information posted by Salaita online, he was born in
Bluefield, W.Va., the son of a Jordanian father and Palestinian mother who had
both emigrated to the United States (his mother via Nicaragua). His mother`s
parents were forced out of what is now Israel, said Salaita`s longtime
colleague, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, professor of American Studies and anthropology
at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Salaita earned his undergraduate degree in political science from Radford
University in Virginia, and then a master`s in English, before completing his
doctorate in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma in 2003. It
was there he met Warrior. Salaita`s primary focus was Native American literature
but he also studied Palestinian and Arab-American literature.
He then taught American and ethnic American literature at the University of
Wisconsin-Whitewater until 2006, when he was hired by Virginia Tech`s English
Department. He earned tenure three years later, teaching English and writing
about Arab-Americans, Indigenous peoples, race and ethnicity, and literature.
In an item for the English Department newsletter in 2006, Prof. Virginia Fowler
said Salaita`s writing reflected his parents` immigrant experience, with `themes
of immigration, American-ness, dislocation, cultural multiplicity, xenophobia
Salaita is married, with a young son, and a `half-blind bichon frise` and a
`nutty orange tabby,` according to a bio on his personal website. He`s also an
avid bike rider.
Critics have questioned why an academic who has written so much on Israel and
Arab American literature would be hired by American Indian Studies.
Kauanui and others said those critics are missing a huge aspect of his work.
Salaita is a comparative scholar, Kauanui said, and the field itself is
American Indian Studies wants to broaden its framework, comparing the Native
American experience to that of other indigenous people around the globe, Kauanui
said, The UI program, in fact, has hired scholars who focus on Native issues in
Guam and the Pacific islands, she said.
Salaita has done research on Native North America, she said, and his training is
in Native American studies. His early work focused on comparing colonialism by
settlers in North America to those in Israel and the occupied territories. His
2006 book `The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest of Canaan,` based
on his doctoral dissertation, examines how settlers in the Holy Land and the
Americas used a `theological narrative to justify their occupation of foreign
lands,` she said. `It`s a path-breaking book.`
Salaita has also written extensively in the broader field of American Studies,
including in the public sphere, not just academia, she said.
`Most people when they get tenure have one book. This man has six books,`
Kauanui said. `He`s a standup person, he`s an ethical person, and he`s a
brilliant, prolific scholar,` she said.
Kauanui met Salaita in April 2007 when he spoke at an international conference
on Native American and Indigenous Studies in Norman, Okla. The conference led to
the founding of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association by
Kauanui, Warrior and several others, she said.
Kauanui — an expert on Hawaiian history, sovereignty and nationalism — has
invited Salaita to speak on several panels and her radio show and said he`s a
compelling public speaker.
`He`s very open. He really knows how to draw people in,` she said. `He`s funny.
He`s warm and he`s very humorous. He is somebody I wish I could work with at a
In his cover letter to the UI, Salaita said he has been the subject of six
excellent peer reviews and has finished in the top 10 percent of the department
every semester in his student evaluations, averaging a rating of 3.95 on 4.0
He received high marks on websites that invite students to anonymously rate
their professors. Of the 16 reviews on koofers.com, he was rated at 4.5 stars
out of five.
A Virginia Tech English student last year called him `super friendly, very
`You feel less like you`re in a class and more like you`re at a book club and
having enjoyable, intelligent literary discussion without having to worry about
anyone disagreeing with your views or grading you on what you say,` the student
In 2011, a Virginia Tech student who took his `Renaissance Revenge Tragedy`
class said Salaita is `not afraid to argue his views but he`ll also never make
you feel unwelcome for giving your own. His tangents are amazing, and you`ll
find yourself with so many new ways of looking at the world you might just
explode. Plus ... it was easy as hell.`
Other comments also noted that the class was easy, or that he canceled class or
dismissed early fairly often.
Sarah Schaefer, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Virginia Tech, said
her introductory literary research class with Salaita last fall was certainly
less `stressful` than some of her other graduate courses.
But part of it was that he always helped students whenever he could, she said,
especially if they were serious about the topic.
`I don`t know of anybody who didn`t like him,` she said, adding that he took all
the students out to dinner on the last day of class.
In a testimonial for the supportstevensalaita.com website, Schaefer dismissed
the idea that Salaita would stifle discussion in his classes or make students of
other backgrounds uncomfortable.
`There was never a moment where he was inflicting his opinions about anything in
a way that would have made anyone uncomfortable,` Schaefer told The News-Gazette
He made students feel as though their opinions matter — something that can`t be
said of most professors, she said.
`Dr. Salaita always encouraged us to express our opinions, to share our thoughts
or concerns, and to challenge each other — but never once did he do so in such a
way as to create a `hostile` environment, to use Chancellor (Phyllis) Wise`s
words,` she wrote for the website.
She hasn`t heard from him, other than an email he sent after she submitted her
statement. Schaefer and two other graduate students are now in his old office at
Virginia Tech; the voicemail still has his name on it.
Boycott of Israel
In late 2008, Salaita co-founded the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural
Boycott of Israel, building on a broader Palestinian movement known as BDS —
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — to end `Israeli apartheid.`
Several years later, he worked with Kauanui on an academic boycott resolution
for the American Studies Association, a group of almost 5,000 scholars from
multiple disciplines — literature, history, sociology, culture and politics.
That propelled the boycott issue into the headlines, and Salaita wrote numerous
editorials tracking the reaction against it, raising his public profile on the
issue among supporters of Israel.
Last December, Wise issued a statement saying the university opposes the boycott
of Israeli academic institutions and it values academic freedom as one of its
core principles, stressing `the critical importance of the ability of faculty to
pursue learning, discovery and engagement without regard to political
`Our institution opposes any efforts to limit the ability of our faculty to work
with scholars from other institutions around the world, and we encourage such
connections, as collaboration is one of our core values in the pursuit of
knowledge,` she wrote.
Stanford University professor David Palumbo-Liu has known Salaita for about a
year via their work together on issues related to Israel-Palestine and ethnic
studies. He, too, has supported the BDS movement.
Like many other comparative literature scholars, Palumbo-Liu has closely
followed the UI case and written in support of Salaita. He`s read all of
Salaita`s six books and called him a `brilliant, highly-prolific scholar.`
`There is no doubt that Salaita`s writing is controversial — it would be hard
for any serious scholarship on these topics not to be. But it is by no means
haphazard or ideologically rigid and demagogic,` Palumbo-Liu wrote in a
statement emailed to The News-Gazette. `On the contrary, it is passionately
moral — it wrestles with this topic in a telling way. He is a committed
intellectual, perhaps even more than he is a committed activist. Indeed, one
could rightfully say that his feels activism must first always be intellectually
Kauanui has no problem with Salaita`s tweets, saying they reflect `a Palestinian
responding to Israeli brutality. He was speaking out on a private Twitter
(account) about a very international war that`s happening because of an illegal
`If you look at it from beginning to end, he`s actually writing about the death
of children,` she said.
His tweets were satirical, and that`s hard for a casual reader to see, she said.
If you read the tweets before the Gaza war broke out you can see his `very, very
satirical` sense of humor, she said.
She rejected critics` description of the tweets as anti-Semitic or racist. One
in particular that caused concern read, `Zionists: transforming `antisemitism`
from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.`
His defenders argued that he was pointing out that Zionists equate any criticism
of Israel with anti-Semitism. They note his follow-up tweet that said Zionists
`cheapen` anti-Semitism by `likening it to principled stands against state
`He`s anti-racist. He has called out anti-Semitism repeatedly. ... He`s a
principled, principled person,` Kauanui said.
In another tweet, Salaita wrote, `It`s a beautiful thing to see our Jewish
brothers and sisters around the world deploring #Israel`s brutality in #Gaza.`
And `#ISupportGaza because I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in
the eyes of God.`
`I know him to be a humane person. To characterize him as angry and loathsome is
absurd,` said David Lloyd, an English professor at University of California-
Riverside who has worked alongside Salaita in the boycott movement. He also has
discussed Salaita`s book, `Israel`s Dead Soul,` in his classes.
What sets Salaita apart from other scholars is he knows how to move between all
kinds of popular media, something universities have increasingly encouraged
faculty to do, he said. (Salaita not only has written essays for academic
journals, but also for websites like salon.com.)
But some people in academia have yet to understand what Salaita gets: Twitter is
not for writing final and definitive statements, Lloyd said.
`It`s about generating conversation. That`s the practice he engages in. You know
it works because of the connectivity it generates. It`s dialogical, not
monological. This is an extraordinarily inventive scholar. He`s using the brief
message as a kind of intellectual shock to break through the platitudes about
Israel,` Lloyd said.
Salaita has been no stranger to controversy, especially when writing for general
audiences. While at Virginia Tech, he wrote an essay for Salon about the overuse
of the phrase `support the troops.` It also created quite the backlash and
angered some Tech faculty who didn`t like how university officials appeared to
distance themselves from Salaita after the essay`s publication.
In a follow-up essay in Salon about the piece and the responses he received from
it, Salaita wrote, `The first rule for any serious writer is to agitate the
contentious and embrace the disreputable.`
NAISA Council statement on the case of Steven Salaita
Written by MARK RIFKIN
NAISA Council protests the decision of Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the University
of Illinois at Urbana Champaign to rescind the offer of a tenured faculty
position in American Indian Studies to NAISA member Dr. Steven Salaita.
Dr. Salaita was offered the position in October 2013 following a national search
and evaluation of his scholarship based on its merit and his contributions to
comparative Indigenous studies. Chancellor Wise’s actions in rescinding the
offer in August 2014, after Dr. Salaita had resigned his tenured position at
Virginia Tech and just days before his classes were set to begin at UIUC, set a
dangerous precedent. This last minute, top down decision with no faculty
consultation violates the tenets of faculty governance and is a clear, profound,
and deeply alarming breach of professional ethics. These actions constitute, as
well, a de facto attack against American Indian Studies at UIUC, despite its
carefully earned status as one of the leading programs nationally in our field.
This decision, if not overturned, is sure to erode the confidence of scholars
and students of American Indian and Indigenous Studies that UIUC is an open and
welcoming institution that values their social, cultural, and intellectual
contributions. Additionally, recent statements by both Chancellor Wise and the
UIUC Board of Trustees allude to the character of Dr. Salaita’s comments on
twitter about the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza as the basis for rescinding
his offer, citing his supposed lack of “civility.” This action constitutes an
assault on the rights of faculty members to express controversial political
sentiments in the public sphere and/or to do so in unpopular ways.
We call upon the chancellor and the university to respect faculty governance,
the Program in American Indian Studies, and the faculty peer review process that
evaluates candidates for tenured positions. We call on the UIUC administration
to fulfill the contractual obligation to hire Dr. Steven Salaita as a tenured
associate professor of American Indian Studies at UIUC.
Statement on Case of Steven Salaita
August 7, 2014
For more information, please contact Rudy Fichtenbaum
or Hank Reichman
Washington, DC–Today, Rudy Fichtenbaum, AAUP president, and Hank Reichman, first
vice-president and chair of the AAUP`s Committee A on Academic Freedom and
Tenure issued the statement below.
Statement on the Case of Professor Steven G. Salaita
We have read with concern yesterday`s report on insidehighered.com that the
University of Illinois has apparently withdrawn a job offer to Professor Steven
G. Salaita. It appears that this decision came in response to the tone of his
controversial comments on Twitter about the Israeli military action in Gaza.
Because both Professor Salaita and the university administration have so far
declined public comment, a number of facts concerning this case remain unclear.
In particular, it is not certain whether the job offer had already been made in
writing when Professor Salaita was informed that he would not be hired and hence
whether or not Salaita could be considered to have already acquired the rights
accruing to a faculty member at Illinois.
However, if the information communicated in yesterday`s report is accurate,
there is good reason to fear that Professor Salaita`s academic freedom and
possibly that of the Illinois faculty members who recommended hiring him have
We feel it necessary to comment on this case not only because it involves
principles that AAUP has long defended, but also because Cary Nelson, a former
president of the Association and a current member of our Committee A on Academic
Freedom and Tenure, is quoted as approving the Illinois Chancellor`s action.
Professor Nelson is entitled to his opinions. Indeed, one of AAUP`s great
strengths is our ability to bring together many differing viewpoints and ideas,
including about the meaning of academic freedom. However, we wish to make clear
that Professor Nelson`s comments do not reflect an official position of AAUP or
of its Committee A.
While opinions differ among AAUP members on a wide range of issues, the AAUP is
united in its commitment to defend academic freedom and the free exchange of
ideas more broadly. On the basis of this commitment we have opposed efforts by
some pro-Palestinian groups to endorse an `academic boycott` of Israel. This
commitment has also led us to defend the rights of critics of Israel, including
the right of faculty members such as Professor Salaita, to express their views
without fear of retaliation, even where such views are expressed in a manner
that others might find offensive or repugnant.
Recently we argued in a policy statement on `Academic Freedom and Electronic
Communications,` that faculty comments made on social media, including Twitter,
are largely extramural statements of personal views that should be protected by
academic freedom. While Professor Salaita`s scholarship does appear to deal with
the topic of Palestine, his posts were arguably not intended as scholarly
statements but as expressions of personal viewpoint. Whether one finds these
views attractive or repulsive is irrelevant to the right of a faculty member to
express them. Moreover, the AAUP has long objected to using criteria of civility
and collegiality in faculty evaluation because we view this as a threat to
academic freedom. It stands to reason that this objection should extend as well
to decisions about hiring, especially about hiring to a tenured position.
Rudy Fichtenbaum, President, AAUP
Henry Reichman, First Vice-President and Chair, Committee A on Academic Freedom
and Tenure, AAUP
Rudy Fichtenbaum and Hank Reichman
Thursday, August 7, 2014
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