Letter to the Trustees of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, re: Steven Salaita

by Ed Kazarian

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees
Hannah Cave, Trustee
Ricardo Estrada, Trustee
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee
Lucas N. Frye, Trustee
Karen Hasara, Trustee
Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee
Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee
Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee
Edward L. McMillan, Trustee
James D. Montgomery, Trustee
Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee
Robert A. Easter, President
Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel
Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University
Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees

Dear Trustees and Other Officers,

I write to express my dismay at the conduct of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the case of Steven Salaita, who by all common standards and past practices at your institution (and throughout the U.S. academy) was hired as an Associate Professor of American Indian and Indigenous Studies at your institution, only to see his appointment revoked weeks before he was due to take up the position.

This action was taken in violation of established procedures of shared governance, which give faculty in individual departments and the academic authorities of their colleges control over the decision of who to hire. Salaita’s candidacy was thoroughly reviewed by his prospective colleagues, who found him acceptable, as did other university authorities. He was offered a contract and signed it. For Chancellor Wise, apparently on the basis of trustees’ expected refusal to give final approval to his appointment (heretofore an entirely pro forma step in the process), to terminate his appointment at this stage without any due process is a gross violation of the well established norms of shared governance, and in particular of the principle—set forward by your own accrediting body—that “the governing board delegates day-to-day management of the institution to the administration and expects the faculty to oversee academic matters” (see Section 2c4 of http://www.ncahlc.org/Criteria-Eligibility-and-Candidacy/criteria-and-core-components.html).

Further, the basis for all of this, namely the fact that some people were upset by some of Salaita’s public statements regarding events this summer in Israel/Palestine and lobbied the administration and the trustees, is a gross violation of established norms of academic freedom. Salaita’s statements have no bearing whatsoever on his professional duties at the university—regardless of the specious and deeply disingenuous arguments that have been constructed in order to make it appear that they might. Again, there is an ample body of evidence regarding Salaita’s conduct in the classroom, which was duly considered by his hiring department during his candidacy. By all reports, he is an exemplary teacher—one who is held in the kind of nearly universal esteem by his students that most of us could only dream of. To prefer the baseless insinuations of parties who have never encountered the man in a classroom to the reports of his colleagues and students in order to manufacture a pretense for removing him is absurd.

There is, in other words, no justification for removing him. More, to do so in the manner in which your institution has conducted itself is to violate core principles of due process, shared governance, and academic freedom—bedrock principles of university life. The degree to which this is true is evidenced by the extraordinary number of academics—including myself—who have agreed to boycott your institution until this decision is reversed.

Before closing this message, I also want to ask you to consider another aspect of this case which has been less frequently remarked upon, namely that what is happening to Salaita—the invocation of a standard of civility as grounds for excluding a scholar from a university community—fits an old and ugly pattern. Salaita, as I am sure you know, is Palestinian-American. Those of his statements which some have contested are not simply the speech of any generic individual, but the speech of someone whose own community was profoundly and directly affected by the events that he was discussing. This speech expresses a grievance. But this has been obscured in much of the discussion, which has simply painted him as generically ‘uncivil.’ And precisely this operation of obscuring the speaker’s position in order to facilitate labeling him or her as ‘uncivil’ has all too frequently been used to shut down aggrieved speech by members of marginalized groups against the systems (or the agents thereof) that marginalize them. In the American academy, this tactic has been all too common, having been used against generations of non-white scholars, non-male scholars, queer scholars, scholars demanding equitable treatment for those affected by disability, and so forth. (If you think about it for a moment, you should be able to recognize the stereotypes of the ‘angry black man or woman’, the ‘angry feminist,’ etc., and see how they work here.) Labeling the claims of those folks (and their conduct) as uncivil and unprofessional serves simply to divert attention from the substance of those claims and the necessity of acknowledging or answering them. It also prevents us from recognizing or acknowledging the position—and the anguish—of the speakers. That it frequently leads to the exclusion of the folks so labeled from the academic world as such is, of course, part of the point of such labeling. And to the extent that you have accepted that label as it has been applied to Salaita, you are reiterating this pattern once again.

What, then, are the stakes here? This tactic, the degree to which it is all too often successful, is a crucial part of why the U.S. academy remains, for all of its nominal or rhetorical interest in ‘diversity,’ a space that is dominated by logics of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, etc. We are very far from really achieving the diversity that we supposedly seek—and which the same document setting out the Criteria for Accreditation under which your institution operates articulates as one of the values that it is bound to foster. The choice which faces you is thus not merely a choice regarding principles of shared governance and academic freedom, but it is also a choice about whether you will make the substantive commitment to applying those principles to all members of the academic community, and will actively seek to foster a community that is genuinely inclusive instead of reiterating once again an old, tired pattern of exclusion.

For all of these reasons, I encourage you in the strongest possible terms to approve Steven Salaita’s appointment. Doing so is the only possible path toward resorting the position of your fine institution within the international academic community.

Yours,

Edward Kazarian, PhD
Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies
Rowan University*

*I list my institutional and departmental affiliations only for the purposes of identification. I do not speak for the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies or Rowan University.

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