The University of Illinois’ last-minute decision not to hire a controversial scholar because of his provocative, anti-Israeli tweets has led to a debate about the limits of academic freedom.
The American Indian Studies Department of the university had approved the tenured appointment of Steven G. Salaita. But that appointment was contingent on approval by the Board of Trustees and Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise decided over the summer not to submit the appointment to the board.
In explaining her action, Wise said that the decision had nothing to do with academic freedom. “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois,” she wrote, “are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”
Salaita’s supporters, however, think a fundamental issue of academic freedom is at stake, arguing that Salaita’s angry tweets should be answered by more speech, not by attempts to cut off his speech.
The university’s Association of American University Professors Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure wrote in support of honoring the tenure offer to Salaita It said: “Reports that the university has voided a job offer, if accurate, due to tweets on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country.”
The former president of AAUP disagreed. Cary Nelson, an English professor who has defended professors with unpopular beliefs, said it is legitimate to consider civility and collegiality at the point of hiring.
“I think the chancellor made the right decision,” Nelson told Inside Higher Education. “I know of no other senior faculty member tweeting such venomous statements — and certainly not in such an obsessively driven way. There are scores of over-the-top Salaita tweets…If Salaita had limited himself to expressing his hostility to Israel in academic publications subjected to peer review, I believe the appointment would have gone through without difficulty.” Nelson noted that strong criticism of Israel is widespread among faculty members. “Salaita’s extremist and uncivil views stand alone. There is nothing ‘unpopular’ on this campus about hostility to Israel.”
Thousands of university professors have signed a petition threatening to boycott the campus unless the university reconsiders its rejection of Salaita. The New York Times reported that several professors have canceled talks on the campus as a result.
A group of free speech and constitutional scholars also sent Wise a letter arguing that the university’s actions violated Salaita’s free speech rights.
The Daily Illini, the student paper at the campus, used the state Freedom of Information law to obtain emails to Wise from donors threatening to withdraw financial support from the university if Salaita were hired. A university spokesperson told the paper that the emails were forwarded to the Board of Trustees but did not affect the decision not to hire the professor.
The Daily Illini also reported this week that Wise said that in retrospect she should have reached out for more advice on how to handle the situation before making the decision. She said she will ask the Faculty Senate for its view on how to handle similar situations.
Examples of Salaita’s over-the-top tweets are:
“You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”
“Zionists: Transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible to something honorable since 1948.”
“At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised?
Link to other tweets: