Open Letter to Chancellor Wise of UIUC re firing of Steven Salaita
CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM
August 8, 2014
Chancellor Phyllis Wise
Office of the Chancellor
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Swanlund Administration Building
601 E. John Street
Champaign, IL 61820
Dear Chancellor Wise,
California Scholars for Academic Freedom* is an organization devoted to defending academic freedom and representing more than one hundred fifty faculty at universities and colleges throughout California. The group formed as a response to various violations of academic freedom that were arising from both the post-9/11/2001 climate of civil rights violations and the increasing attacks on progressive educators by neo-conservatives. Many attacks have been aimed at scholars of Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern descent or at scholars researching and teaching about the Middle East, Arab and Muslim communities.
We are therefore extremely disturbed by the account published in Inside Higher Education, which states that your institution, having publicly confirmed the hiring of Professor Steven Salaita as Associate Professor (with tenure) of American Indian Studies after the customary full review, subsequently withdrew the offer. This action on your part has reportedly been taken on account of tweets and other public statements made by Professor Salaita regarding the recent Israeli offensive on Gaza.
We are both concerned and perplexed by this action, which would be tantamount to firing a tenured faculty member without review or stated grounds. In particular, we are disturbed that Professor Salaita’s constitutionally protected expression of his views, not disseminated in the name of the university or at its expense, may have served as the pretext for his dismissal. We have been unable to discover anything in the cited tweets that exceeds the limits of strongly expressed and sometimes satirical modes of speech and found nothing that a reasonable and impartial reviewer could consider to be injurious or racist speech. Indeed, if there were questions about Prof. Salaita’s “civility” or “collegiality” that would have impacted his work as a teacher or scholar, it is hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have been discovered and addressed far earlier in the hiring process by the committee that vetted his scholarly work, which has made no secret of his opinions, or his teaching record. But neither “decorum” nor “civility”, highly subjective judgments in any case, have any bearing on the essential right to freedom of expression. Censure or censorship of such political rhetoric would seriously infringe on the range and manner of allowable expression and subject any professor who participates in the public sphere to an alarming degree for precarity, merely for practicing the kind of public critical exchange that we hopefully still encourage our students to engage in as citizens.
Yet more alarming is the strong evidence in the current climate that Professor Salaita’s dismissal comes in response to the pressure of interested lobbying by individuals or organizations who are opposed to his political views. Increasingly, such groups are intervening in campus matters across the nation, and they do so with the intent of chilling freedom of expression. Usually, however, their claims are made in the name of protecting the ethnic or religious sensitivities of students, usually by intemperate and exaggerated characterizations of the statements or scholarly work of those they target. While both federal and state law as well as university policy protect students from discrimination or antagonism based on their religious, ethnic, gender and other identities, no law could possibly protect students or faculty from hearing challenges to their political, religious or cultural beliefs simply on the grounds of their identification with them, so long as such discourse is conducted in a non-coercive and non-violent manner.
To assert the existence of such protections constitutes a profound infringement of the freedom of intellectual inquiry and deliberation on which the university is based. Any organization, internal or external, that seeks to limit the free and full deliberation of any viewpoint, or the representation of perspectives inimical to it, trespasses on a principle of academic life so fundamental that the university would be unimaginable without it. It is a principle which cannot and must not promise that in all situations students or faculty will feel intellectual comfort: indeed, mental and moral discomfort are often essential conditions for serious learning and thoughtful consideration of views that challenge our preconceptions.
If, as there is strong reason to suppose, your dismissal of Professor Salaita is based on such pressures, you have failed to defend crucial principles of academic freedom on grounds that have no place in the university. If your dismissal was based on the fact or content of Professor Salaita’s expression of his views in the public sphere, you have infringed both on his rights as a member of the university community and on his first amendment rights. We urge you to reverse this peremptory decision without delay and to apologize publicly for the pain and anxiety that you have caused Professor Salaita and his family.
California Scholars for Academic Freedom
Jess Ghannam, Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Global Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Levine, Department of History, U.C. Irvine, email@example.com
David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English, U.C. Riverside, firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Slyomovics, Professor of Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles, email@example.com
*CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM is a group of over 150 professors at universities and colleges throughout California. The group formed as a response to various violations of academic freedom that were arising from both the post-9/11/2001 climate of civil rights violations and the increasing attacks on progressive educators by neo-conservatives. Many attacks have been aimed at scholars of Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern descent or at scholars researching and teaching about the Middle East, Arab and Muslim communities. Our goal of protecting California Scholars based mainly in institutions of higher education has grown broader in scope to include threats to academic freedom across the United States, and where relevant, globally as well. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere.
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