Free Speech Firestorm Follows American Indian Studies Professor’s Firing
The firing of Dr. Steven Salaita before ever teaching one class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has provoked a backlash of opposition from thousands of scholars over free speech and academic freedom and promises to boycott the university.
Around 70 faculty in Chicana/o and Latino/a departments across the country expressed “outrage” at Salaita’s firing, calling it “a flagrant violation of academic freedom and an affront to our colleagues in American Indian Studies.”
Faculty members of international sociology departments warned the firing would have a “chilling effect… on the free expression of dissident ideas by academics… Diverse and discordant voices, voices that some find ‘difficult,’ are key to the survival of our schools as living institutions.”
Similar statements were being prepared and circulated by scholars of composition and rhetoric; political science; English; philosophy; and women’s studies, gender studies, communications; feminist studies, and part-time academic workers.
RELATED: Salaita’s Background Is What the College Wanted, Not His Free Speech
The Executive Committee of the American Studies Association, which represents more than 5,000 scholars of American Studies around the world, wrote a fierce letter calling on UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise “to begin to rebuild the UIUC’s reputation as an institution of academic excellence” by reinstating Salaita. The firing “sets a dangerous precedent,” the ASA wrote, and is “a de facto assault against the Program in American Indian Studies at UIUC despite its carefully earned status as one of the leading intellectual programs nationally in its field…” If Salaita was fired based on tweets opposing the Israeli invasion of Gaza, ‘’the university’s actions constitute a clear violation of the principles of academic freedom, contravene the University’s self-proclaimed valuing of diversity, and suggest an intolerable anti-Arab bias.”
A group of free speech and constitutional law scholars from law schools at Columbia, Cornell, Berkeley, Georgetown, and other universities also wrote a strong letter expressing “alarm” at the decision to revoke Salaita’s tenured appointment “on account of his statements on social media criticizing Israel’s conduct of military operations in Gaza.” The termination “raises serious concerns under established principles of academic freedom. Those principles are enshrined in Illinois law, in the U.S. Constitution, and in the written principles of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP),” the law scholars said.
The Modern Language Association, which has more than 30,000 members, “strongly urge[d]” Wise to reconsider her decision to revoke Salaita’s appointment. “[Y]our decision seems to abrogate long-established principles of academic due process and to violate the principles of academic freedom of expression to which your university expressly adheres to… We urge you to submit Professor Salaita’s appointment to the board for confirmation or to allow your university’s Faculty Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure to review your decision.
The AAUP also weighed in with a defense of Salaita’s speech. The organization referred to its recent policy statement on “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications, which said that faculty comments made on social media, including Twitter, are largely extramural statements of personal views that should be protected by academic freedom. Salaita’s tweets “were arguably not intended as scholarly statements but as expressions of personal viewpoint. Whether one finds these views attractive or repulsive is irrelevant to the right of a faculty member to express them. Moreover, the AAUP has long objected to using criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty evaluation because we view this as a threat to academic freedom.”
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