News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Did controversial tweets cost Steven Salaita his U. of I. professorship?

The AAUP steps into a #controversy sparked by an author and pro-Palestinian activist.



Do professors have freedom of tweet?

Is it the same thing as freedom of speech?

If they tweet "Fuck you #Israel," should they have to worry about losing their jobs?

Last week, the American Association of University Professors did something very unusual: it stepped into a situation that was still largely hypothetical, issuing a statement of support for a professor who's said to have lost a job he hadn't yet started, apparently because some people didn't like his tweets.

The professor is Steven Salaita, who had given up his post as associate professor of English at Virginia Tech to take a tenured position as a professor in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was to have started this week.

The allegedly offending tweets were comments on the current bloodshed in Gaza. Like this one, posted July 20: "Fuck you #Israel. And while I'm at it, fuck you, too, PA, Sisi, Arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS."

The statement from the national office of the AAUP came on the heels of a similar stand taken a day earlier by the Illinois AAUP's committee on academic freedom and tenure. The chair of that committee, Saint Xavier University professor Peter Kirstein, said in an interview last week that if reports about what happened to Salaita are correct, it would be "a clear violation of his academic freedom" and "a travesty."

Neither the university nor Salaita (who didn't respond to interview requests for this story) is talking about the situation. Most of what's known about it surfaced in academic trade papers last week, in articles citing unnamed sources.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Salaita got a letter last October from the interim dean of the U. of I.'s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offering him the job, pending approval by the board of trustees. Nearly ten months later, as he was preparing to make the move, he got a drastically different letter from the university. Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise and vice president for academic affairs Christophe Pierre wrote to inform him that his appointment would not be presented to the board after all, since, as the Chronicle put it, approval was "unlikely."

In effect, job offer rescinded.

What happened? According to an August 6 article posted on Inside Higher Ed, "sources familiar with the university's decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel's policies in Gaza."

Salaita, whose scholarship focuses on colonialism, indigenous peoples, and Palestine (he's been a leader in the BDS movement, which calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel), had been tweeting his anger over the damage Israel was inflicting on Gaza. Those tweets drew the attention of Daily Caller education editor Eric Owens, who on July 21 published a post on the conservative website under the headline "America 2014: University of Illinois Professor Blames Jews for Anti-Semitism."

Owens characterized Salaita as a "disgusting scumbag" and "world-class Israel hater," and posted a selection of his tweets as evidence, including this one, posted by Salaita on July 19: "Zionists: transforming 'anti-Semitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948."

The Daily Caller piece, in turn, was cited in an article published in the Champaign-Urbana-based News-Gazette on July 22. It noted that Salaita was scheduled to start work at the U. of I. on August 16 at a salary of $81,000. It also mentioned controversy over an essay he'd published on Salon last fall about the ubiquitous call to "support our troops," and quoted a few more tweets like this one from July 21: "While Israel bombs children in #Gaza, Zionists are busy trying to get #BDS activists fired."

When the News-Gazette contacted the university for comment for that story, spokesperson Robin Kaler confirmed that Salaita would be on board as an associate professor, adding "Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all our employees."

By last week, when I called Kaler, the university had clammed up. Her e-mailed response: "As a matter of university policy and practice, we do not comment publicly upon nor discuss generally any personnel matters, including matters involving employment or tenure."

In its statement, the Illinois AAUP committee wrote that it stands by Professor Salaita's appointment.

"AAUP has a firm position that electronic communication and social networking are protected speech," Kirstein told me last week. "You're speaking as a citizen on public issues." And then there's the matter of due process, he added: as far as we know, "This man has not been able to defend himself."

Kirstein added that this is a pattern we've seen here in Illinois, "where professors are persecuted and destroyed or have a course taken away or are denied tenure because they take positions which some don't like with regard to Israel and Palestine."

At the end of last week, an online petition addressed to Wise in support of Salaita's appointment was closing in on 11,000 signatures.

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