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Issue #1659      October 8, 2014

Working to reclaim University of Illinois

Students and faculty are determined to keep challenging University of Illinois administrators’ decision to fire Steven Salaita. This is the testimony given by Professor Vincente M Diaz before the University of Illinois Faculty Senate on September 22, 2014. Diaz spoke about the matter of Steven Salaita, whose hiring by the American Indian Studies program was formally rejected by the university’s board of trustees earlier this month after a sustained smear campaign by pro-Israel donors, organisations, faculty and students:

My name is Vicente M Diaz. I am an Associate Professor in American Indian Studies and Anthropology. I am also an affiliate faculty member in History and Asian American Studies. I represent American Indian Studies; in fact, I co-chaired the search committee that recommended the hire of Steven Salaita.

Steven Salaita.

I’m here to express moral indignation and outrage at the University of Illinois Board of Trustees’ denial of Professor Salaita’s hiring.

Far from over, and even further from correct, our leadership’s decision is a wrongheaded and misguided action that has tarnished our university’s reputation among academics who know and understand how academia is supposed to work.

“Harm’s way”

It has also put us in actual harm’s way, some of us more than others. Above all, this administration has willingly placed political expediency and possibly money over academic matters. Indeed, academics is the biggest casualty of our leadership’s dereliction of its duties.

This casualty is most clearly visible and palpably experienced when viewed from our vantage point in American Indian Studies, the originating unit, where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

I begin by addressing a particularly insidious rumour of the sort that can come only from the kind of toxic environment that Chancellor Phyllis Wise has created and maintained.

It is a rumour that I’ve already had to lay to rest twice in private emails, namely, that our unit director, Professor Robert Warrior used his influence and power to hire Salaita, who was a student of his years ago at another university. Warrior did not ask me to do this and is not even aware that I’m doing so.

In fact, Warrior maintained his distance from Salaita’s candidacy, and shame on those of you who are spreading this rumour in order to delegitimise him and my unit.

The fact that I even have to state in public that we did our due diligence, that our process and findings were affirmed at the college, provostial level and even by the chancellor’s own vice chancellors, is itself a shameful testimony into just what kind of environment our leadership has plunged us.

Simply put, this case was a routine academic hire, properly vetted all the way up to where substance matters, and because it concerned tenure, it received additional vetting at the national and international levels.

Contrary to the accolades about her courage and bravado, the only courage that Chancellor Wise needed was to simply tell those donors and lobbyists that the case had been properly vetted and that she stands by the academic process. Period.

For it was actually she and President Robert Easter and the board of trustees who opened the floodgates by, in effect, capitulating to external pressure to block Salaita’s hire, whether or not she based her decision on their interests.

The simple fact is that she involved herself on non-academic grounds and made a decision on the most unscholarly of approaches and in the most clandestine of ways, with the blessings of the board and the president – or was it at their behest? – to indeed block Salaita’s hire on decidedly non-academic terms.

Of course, it is precisely the contention of the thousands of scholars and dozens of academic organisations, departments and disciplines, that the real casualty is academic excellence itself.

Chilling effects

The chilling effects are now upon us. And this is on the chancellor, not on Salaita.

Three weeks ago, I received an email from an individual, unknown to me, inviting me to “discuss” the Salaita case at some undisclosed venue in Danville (25 miles east of Urbana).

Even a cursory read of the letter reveals it to be something other than a genuine interest in civil dialogue, as for instance, when its author addresses me – addresses me – as “foaming in the mouth” in support of a “rabid” Salaita, who is further described as “anti-Jewish” in a sentence that also conflates Palestine with Hamas.

Contrary to a well-orchestrated and financed smear campaign aimed at stopping his hire, it is in fact reductive to equate Salaita’s anti-Zionist stance with anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic ideology, or to equate Palestine with Hamas.

Apparently, he has also been charged with siding with ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] even if he had condemned that group in the same period in which he decried Israel’s military assault on Palestinians.

Had Salaita only tweeted about ISIS, I dare say that I would not be standing here today, that he would not have been mistreated so.

There was something especially disturbing in that letter’s urging me to bring to the meeting (way over there in Danville), “some of the Palestinian students” from UIUC. The targeting of this particular group of students should not be trivialised given how the author equates Palestine with terrorism. Nobody can read this letter and conclude that it intends anything other than something sinister passing as an invitation to dialogue.

I received this letter for no other reason than my public defence of Salaita and my disagreement with the university on academic terms. Precisely because the university musters all of its authority and resources so, we have now arrived at the point wherein to publicly disagree with the university is to be virtually cast as a supporter of terrorism, if not a terrorist.

It is bewildering that I have to explain to some that neither I nor Professor Salaita are rabid dogs who hate Jewish people. As for his fitness in the classroom, the preponderance of the evidence show him to be not only a stellar, but also a beloved teacher, one fully capable of subordinating or bracketing his politics in favour of student learning and real critical thinking. Passion, of course, is a prerequisite for compassion, and when combined with the demands and rigors of dispassionate analyses, they become ingredients for cutting-edge scholarship.

My claims here are best grasped on academic grounds, and in view of the negative consequences when academic regulations and sensibilities aren’t adhered to. Also, and quite tellingly, the chancellor has yet to look us in the eye and explain her actions to us in particular.

I seriously doubt that she would ever have taken such an action were this a case of a hire in one of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), or even in one of the traditional disciplinary departments, rather than American Indian Studies. I do believe she’d have done it to a partner Ethnic Studies unit.

I also think she saw us as collateral damage, but underestimated just how damaging her actions would be for the Humanities and the Social Sciences, which probably accounts for her expressions of regret. But these expressions are way too little and way too late.

In closing, like the heads of the 16 departments [who voted no confidence in Chancellor Wise], I still don’t have confidence in her words, much less on her abilities to safeguard academic integrity.

And sure as the saying goes, that “an attack on one is an attack on all,” the other side of the coin rings even more true here: that what is good for American Indian Studies as an academic unit is also good for the entire institution.

This principle of unit autonomy is the bedrock of shared governance, which is key to proper academic governance, whose ultimate objective is to safeguard academic integrity and excellence. All other concerns must serve this mission because that is what we do and who we are.

Reclaiming the university

And so, when the chancellor and her supporters on campus urge us to pick up the pieces and move on, their words ring as vacuous, as hypocritical, and therefore as outrageous as the administration’s reasons for targeting and pre-empting Salaita’s academic hire in the first place, and then doubling down by using civility or teaching unfitness as the excuse.

Thus I call upon the Senate to rise and express moral and, if I may coin a term here, academic outrage at the administration’s decision to place political and other considerations above academics.

And if, under this new regime, civility be the condition for expressing academic freedom and excellence, then let the appropriate expression be that of civil disobedience.

Move on? No. Colleagues, the work of reclaiming this university from those who would sell it to the highest bidder under the suspect mantra of civility has only just begun.

Stand up, stand up like Trustee James D Montgomery, who had the audacity to look at the evidence, and admit he was wrong in initially supporting the chancellor. Stand up for academic integrity and the academic excellence that is staked on it.

The Electronic Intifada

Next article – Culture & Life – Scotland, Ukraine and the unemployed

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