Academic Freedom and the Dangers of Donor Pressure

Professor Steven Salaita Speaks at CSI on Silencing Dissent

By Elizabeth Higgins

Professor Salaita has been speaking on college campuses around the country after his tenured position as a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was revoked.

Listeners at the CSI’s 1P building on November 18 were shocked.

After a nearly two-year long application process, Salaita says he was dismissed on the spot when a student representative read a few of his tweets that condemned the actions of the state of Israel at a board of trustees meeting.

He discussed the danger of trustees, who are mainly lawyers and business people, interfering with academic hiring based on “the whims and desires of wealthy donors.” To illustrate this growing problem, he mentioned the Koch brothers, who donated to Florida State University on the condition that the institution would hire professors who promote free-market, libertarian economics.

Salaita said that he was told that he was fired because his tweets were “disturbing” and “uncivil,” but he does not believe this to be true. He stated that many of his other tweets included profanity and harsh language, such as those criticizing republicans, American politics, and the Kingdom of Jordan, of which he is a citizen. He said that his tweets only became a problem when they involved Israel.

More specifically, he believes he was fired due to the desires of affluent donors who threatened to withhold future contributions.

He also discussed the problem of academic freedom and the “demands of civility” on campuses, which cause minority communities to be held to a higher standard.

Salaita said that minority groups are often punished for “articulating viewpoints that those who identify with the elite find disquieting.” He later mentioned that discussing topics such as economic injustice and structural racism in the United States often attract unwelcome scrutiny.

He also discussed the apparent concern over how certain students would fare in his classes. He called this argument anti-academic and anti-intellectual, since he would never assign grades based on political points of view. He stated that such claims and concerns are completely baseless, since he has not received any student complaints throughout his career as a professor.

“I never presume to know what ethnic background my students are unless they tell me,” said Salaita, in response to the concern that he would somehow treat students differently based on ethnicity or religion. He added that nobody ever asks about the comfort of students of color. He said that this is a product of institutional racism, which places white Americans as the “normative standard for discourse.”

Salaita then expanded upon the problem of the notion of civility and how it is applied to ways of speaking and acting. The modern definition from civility comes out of centuries of European colonization and genocide, and can be seen in the way that colonists called Native Americans “savages” and continue to attempt to control Native imagery today.  Salaita said that this is used as another tool to silence particular viewpoints.

After his lecture, Salaita then fielded questions from the audience, which was made up of professors, members of SJP, and supporters.

When discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Salaita said that he is no fan of Hamas, nor of the Israeli government, nor the government of any nation state. He said that Hamas has been a below average governing body, but believes it has not been helped by continuous economic and military sieges. He says that there is no evidence that the government of Israel would be willing to make any concessions, and that “it is not the job of the colonized to accept the permanence of the colonizer.”

He also addressed the concerns of both faculty members and students about knowing when to speak out and facing the potential consequences. He says that people should only remain silent if that is what they are comfortable doing. If people feel passionate about an issue, they should not remain silent if they are worried they will upset someone. However, situations differ, and certain people are in a better position to voice their opinions than others due to matters such as job security.

He continued to discuss the problems of the privatization of universities. Public universities once served as a way for low-income communities to gain access to college educations. However, Salaita said that private universities are only looking to generate revenue. Although no one has determined if the relationship is causal, privatization is increasing at a time when minority communities have finally developed access to admission.

Even though professor Salaita may have been blacklisted from the world of academia, he does not intend to stop speaking out. He said that no one will get him to stop talking about Palestine. In order to stop other people from losing their jobs for similar reasons, he says that it is important to be in conversation with supportive, like-minded people and communities that can produce backlash in order to bring about change.

“When their only counter-argument is to silence people by intimidating them or punishing them, then they have already lost the argument,” said Salaita. “It’s just a matter of standing together, banding together and overcoming it, just like people are doing with my case.”

Despite the hardships he has faced, he has received a great deal of help throughout this experience. “The kindness of people has been extraordinary,” he said. “The kindness, and the support, and the love, and the concern…it’s given me a remarkable appreciation for humankind in general.”

The evening was hosted by the Students for Justice in Palestine.


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