Action against pro-Palestinian professor limits faculty freedom

Mukund Rathi

Editor’s Note: Rathi is a student who has been involved in a campaign of UT students, staff and faculty against the implementation of Shared Services, which is part of the “Business Productivity” plan mentioned in this article.

Over the summer, Steven Salaita resigned from his tenured position at Virginia Tech to take up a faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After Salaita readied himself to move with his family, ordered course books and had even been invited to the faculty welcome luncheon, he was informed by UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise that his appointment would not be submitted for what was supposed to be a symbolic confirmation by the Board of Trustees. Weeks later, Wise finally released a statement explaining the sudden rejection — her objection was to unspecified “personal and disrespectful words” that Salaita allegedly used, which contradict traditions of “civility.”

In August, Inside Higher Ed published its findings from an open records request for communications regarding the Salaita appointment, and they “show that Wise was lobbied on the decision not only by pro-Israel students, parents and alumni, but also by the fund-raising arm of the university.” The emails sent to Wise object to Salaita’s outraged tweets during the recent Israeli military invasion of Gaza — the invasion destroyed much of the occupied territory and killed over 2,000 Palestinians (disproportionately more children than adults). Tweets cited in the emails include: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”

The criterion of “civility” that drove Wise’s decision has never been an accepted scholarly norm, as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has long held that such a criterion is used to “[ensure] homogeneity” and “threaten academic freedom.” The UIUC faculty search committee that hired Salaita, unlike Wise, included legitimate criteria such as peer and student evaluations from his eight years at Virginia Tech. These evaluations consistently (over 90 percent) attest not only to Salaita’s “knowledge of subject,” but also “concern and respect” for students, pre-emptively addressing Wise’s (illegitimate) concerns about “civility.”  In a statement of support for Salaita, AAUP noted that Wise’s overriding decision may also violate the academic freedom of those “Illinois faculty members who recommended hiring him.”

The anti-Salaita campaign was a concerted effort, as “most of the emails [to Wise] … are nearly identical, suggesting the use of talking points or shared drafts.” One email from a longtime donor states, “Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending,” and that “this is doubly unfortunate for the school” as he has “accumulated quite a balance sheet over [his] 35 year career.” The senior director of development for the University of Illinois Foundation, which handles fundraising and donor relations, forwarded to Wise “a letter complaining about the Salaita hire.” Moreover, a cover-up by UIUC is becoming increasingly apparent, as documents about the decision-making process are being withheld. Wise sent an email to the Foundation which noted that during a meeting with a major donor, “he gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling.” The Electronic Intifada, a nonprofit news source on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Palestinian perspective, FOIA’d this document, and was rejected with the dubious reason that “no records responsive to [the] request could be located.”

The rejection of Salaita is part of a wider campaign in academia against Palestinian solidarity. In March 2014, for example, Northeastern University suspended the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for their activism. SJP had been distributing “mock eviction” leaflets to raise awareness about Israeli expansion into the occupied Palestinian territories. Moreover, the administration launched a police investigation and threatened to expel involved students. However, students are fighting back against these anti-Palestinian politics. The SJP chapter was reinstated after, as The Electronic Intifada puts it, “an outpouring of condemnation by Northeastern SJP activists and supporters across the US.” TV news and syndicated radio program “Democracy Now!” reported that “thousands of academics have signed petitions calling for Salaita’s reinstatement, and several lecturers have canceled appearances in protest.” The Texas State Employees Union passed a resolution, submitted by UT communication studies professor Dana Cloud, in support of Salaita. The resolution notes that “all public employees should be able to speak their mind without fear of losing their jobs” and “labor should not abstain from movements for social justice.”

Students, staff and faculty at UT should be particularly concerned about donor-corporatization of the University and its effect on our community’s free expression. President William Powers Jr. has been touting the importance of the recently completed Campaign for Texas, a fundraising program that successfully raised $3 billion from donors. Infographics on the campaign’s website emphasize “the need for philanthropy,” and Powers has stated that this undergirds core academic projects such as “[helping] our faculty change the world through their research and scholarship.” Powers has long pushed for commercializing faculty, having advocated the January 2013 “Business Productivity” report which recommended restricting recruiting and funding to “commercially relevant activity among faculty.” That report was authored by 13 businesspeople, led by Accenture executive Steve Rohleder, who were given $1 million by the University for these recommendations. As Palestine solidarity activism continues on our campus, we must be vigilant of attempts by the increasingly corporatized UT administration to follow in UIUC’s censoring footsteps.

Rathi is a computer science honors junior from Austin.