Offer controversial scholar Steven Salaita a job.
By: Steven Lubet, Chicago Tribune: August 11th, 2015
The University of Illinois should bite the bullet and offer a job to controversial scholar Steven Salaita, who was denied an appointment by the Urbana-Champaign campus last year due to his vile ravings about Israel. Although Salaita’s tweets often crossed the line from criticism of Israel to blatant anti-Semitism, the contretemps is still best resolved by giving him a position in the department of American Indian studies for the following three reasons: the cost of further litigation, the damaging impact of the situation on academic freedom, and the unfortunate lionization of Salaita-the-victim, despite his hate-filled views.
Most immediately, Salaita won a significant victory last week at a crucial stage of his litigation against the university and its trustees. In a 56-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber denied the university’s motion to dismiss and ruled that the case could proceed to the discovery stage, and perhaps to trial. Salaita’s lawyers will now be able to obtain a trove of documents (including newly released emails) and take the depositions of faculty, administrators, alumni and trustees.
Salaita’s chances of winning at trial are still uncertain, however, and even a victory is unlikely to get him a spot on the faculty. In similar circumstances, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill was awarded only $1 after winning a jury verdict, and the court denied him reinstatement. Nonetheless, the continuing cost of defending the case will easily reach seven figures. The expenditure would be justified to establish an essential principle, but the precise opposite is more liable to happen. Nothing good is likely to come from prolonging this confrontation.
More important than the expense is the impact that the Salaita case has had on academic freedom. Notwithstanding the good intentions of Illinois’ then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who revoked Salaita’s job offer, and the trustees who backed her up, their decision was a serious mistake. Despite what many consider Salaita’s dubious qualifications for the department of American Indian studies, Salaita had been vetted by the appropriate faculty committees and approved by the provost. The last-minute cancellation by the chancellor and trustees sent shock waves throughout the scholarly world, raising the threat that no appointment could ever be safe from administrative intervention.
Faculty governance, however, is an essential element of academic freedom, which Wise’s intervention severely undermined. The American Association of University Professors censured the University of Illinois for its treatment of Salaita, which may have played a part in Wise’s recent resignation. Even people like me, who probably would have opposed Salaita on the merits in a faculty vote, were deeply troubled by the chancellor’s actions at a stage that virtually always results in routine approval. (Although I have written very critically of Salaita in the past, I have always noted that his academic freedom was violated.)
Finally, Salaita’s continuing rejection by the Illinois administration has turned him into an undeserving hero, while obscuring the truly vile nature of his tweets about Israel and Jews. Quite understandably, university professors value academic freedom very highly, and tend to rally around any figure whom they perceive to have been abused or mistreated. This is precisely what has happened in the Salaita case. His actual words — which revived ancient anti-Jewish memes — would have been broadly condemned if he had not become the avatar of faculty independence. For example, Salaita accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of ritual child murder, and he compared “Zio-trolls” to scabies.
Ordinarily, no educated person would overlook the historical resonance of these statements — especially the characterization of Jews as vermin — but they have been ignored or excused by Salaita’s defenders, who identify more strongly with his plight as the victim of an intrusive administration.
The great irony is that Salaita himself is no champion of free expression. He has advocated excluding Hillel, the Jewish student organization, from minority group activities on campus, and he supports the boycott of all Israeli academic institutions and the barring of Israeli deans and rectors from scholarly conferences. His lawsuit against the University of Illinois included alumni and donors as defendants, on the spurious ground that they were not entitled to express their anti-Salaita views to Chancellor Wise. (Even when ruling mostly in Salaita’s favor, Judge Leinenweber dismissed this claim as contrary to the First Amendment.)
Had his job offer not been rescinded by Illinois, Salaita would today be regarded as little more than a regional crank, known primarily for his profane extremism on Israel and the Middle East, and bringing scant credit to the field of American Indian studies. Instead, Salaita was able to make a triumphant lecture tour of dozens of campuses, drawing standing ovations in almost every venue. He was recently elected to the council of the American Studies Association, and he will spend the 2015-16 academic year as the Edward W. Said chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. No one is talking about his hateful tweets — other than to discount them — because his status as a sympathetic victim has overshadowed all other considerations.
Ultimately, the protection of free expression comes at a cost. Important principles have been vindicated by defending the pornographer Larry Flynt, and the Islamophobe Pamela Geller. I have no sympathy for Steven Salaita’s poisonous ideas, but the world of academics will be better off if the University of Illinois offers him a job.