Academic freedom under threat

The dismissal of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois because of his tweets denouncing Israel sparked controversy around the world.

In July 2014, Salaita was preparing to begin his job as a newly hired tenured professor in American Indian Studies when his tweets attracted controversy. Phyllis Wise, the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, decided that Salaita should not be hired, and the board of trustees, which had not yet formally approved his contract, voted to rescind the offer to him.

Wise explained why she reversed Salaita’s appointment in an open letter to the campus in August 2014: “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

The board of trustees endorsed Wise’s letter, and wrote that they represented a “university community that values civility as much as scholarship”.

The administration’s reasoning disturbed many people, even those who regarded Salaita’s comments as anti-Semitic, because it seemed to be imposing a code of civility on campus that threatened free-wheeling debates about politics.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education added the University of Illinois to its 2014 list of the “10 worst colleges for free speech" because of the Salaita case.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression gave one of its 'Muzzle Awards' to the University of Illinois for threatening free speech, noting that “whether it was for the content or the tone of his tweets, it is clear that the administration of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign revoked Steven Salaita’s job offer for speech protected by the First Amendment”.


In response to the dismissal, thousands of scholars signed petitions to protest the decision, and many vowed to boycott the university until Salaita was reinstated, with several speakers, including Cornel West, and even some conferences cancelling their events on campus.

Last month, the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, voted to censure the administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for firing Salaita.

The key issues for the AAUP included questions of due process, arguing that Salaita was already hired and deserved a hearing; the danger of civility codes and the punishment of a professor for extramural utterances, that is, speech outside of their academic work, which are given extraordinarily strong protections under AAUP guidelines and the University of Illinois Statutes.

Although the AAUP’s censure puts pressure from academics on the University of Illinois, the most likely chance for Salaita’s reinstatement or a settlement will come from a lawsuit Salaita has filed, alleging violations of both contract law, for taking away his promised job, and constitutional law, for punishing him due to his political views.

On 12 June, a federal judge ordered the University of Illinois to comply with the Freedom of Information Act request filed by Salaita’s lawyers and release emails about his dismissal.

Salaita declared in a statement to the AAUP Annual Meeting that “enough time has passed that the university’s initial rationale for firing me – that I would be unfit to teach, that I would not be tolerant of the views of students, that I threaten the norms of respectable discourse – has lost any remaining shred of plausibility”.

But the University of Illinois stands by its decision. Chancellor Wise remains strongly supported by the board of trustees, who are mostly appointed by Governor Bruce Rauner, who made his support for firing Salaita part of his election campaign last fall. So no change is likely except by a court order.

Wider implications

While he waits for the long legal process to go on, Salaita has announced that he will serve as the Edward W Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut for the 2015-16 academic year. And Salaita’s next book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the limits of academic freedom, will be published by Haymarket Books in October.

As the title of Salaita’s book indicates, this is much larger than one professor and some offensive comments. Salaita is one of many scholars who have faced retaliation for their views about Israel and Palestine. When Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure by DePaul University, his criticism of pro-Israel scholars, such as Alan Dershowitz, was an important part of the decision, which was also framed in terms of civility.

When controversial scholars are targeted for having offensive views, it may not silence them, but it has a chilling effect throughout academia. Students and faculty alike learn that their political views, if freely expressed, can cause them trouble in the future.

The safer course of action is to burrow into safe academic studies and avoid becoming part of a larger public debate. When academics are fearful and avoid the public sphere, our universities suffer for the lack of candour, along with the lost voices in the public discussion of ideas.

John K Wilson is the co-editor of the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP’s AcademeBlog.org and the author of Patriotic Correctness: Academic freedom and its enemies.