Dr. Steven Salaita is a Palestinian American scholar in Native American studies fired for free speech.

An Academic Reservation in the Making

Jacki Thompson Rand

The Internet has recently exploded with news that University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise notified Professor Steven Salaita, a leading scholar in comparative ethnic, Arab American studies, indigenous, and American studies, that he was fired, days before he was slated to start his job. In the days that followed, in the midst of full-on radio silence from University of Illinois administration, many have speculated that Chancellor Wise came under pressure from powerful and politically influential outside interest groups who objected to Salaita’s views on Israeli policy and Israeli Defense Forces' “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, as expressed in social media. In the meantime, observers, allies, Salaita critics, and critics of Salaita’s termination, have debated what rests at the center of this event, the (ir)relevance of political commentary to a faculty hire.

RELATED: Dr. Steven Salaita Fired for Speaking His Mind on Israel and Gaza

Consider this. In the fall of 2013, the University of Illinois American Indian Studies Program, ran a search for a new faculty hire. The process, likely similar to the majority of university hiring practices, included a rigorous review of each applicant’s publications, teaching, and service record by a faculty committee. As to publications, the committee read each candidate’s scholarship, considered the reputation of the presses and journals in which the work was published, and read available reviews of the work. Written letters of recommendation from scholars in the field would have included assessments of a candidate’s scholarship and standing in the field. Finalists visited the campus, gave talks and perhaps lectures in class, met with individual faculty members, met with the Dean’s office, and sat through lunches and dinners, which are also opportunities to gauge candidates.

Parenthetically, I have participated in numerous searches. Never have we examined a candidate’s comments, political or otherwise, in social media; we are only concerned with the rigor of a candidate’s scholarship and teaching history. After that, and only after all that, the AIS faculty met to share their views, debate, consider, and come to a consensus about the best candidate for the position. They forwarded that recommendation to the Dean’s office, who then sent it forward to the Chancellor with approval. In October 2013, Professor Salaita received an appointment (with tenure) offer from the University of Illinois.

The faculty of one of the country’s most highly regarded American Indian Studies Programs, each from an American Indian tribe, are internationally recognized for exemplary scholarship, leadership in the field, distinguished graduate education, and national service. The director is one of the founders of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), which six short years after being formally established, claims some 800 members. By this action, Chancellor Wise has cast aspersions on the AIS faculty and sullied the program’s carefully crafted international reputation for cutting edge scholarship, graduate education, and leadership in American Indian Studies, an at-risk academic field.

Colleagues are grieved to see the University of Illinois AIS faculty undermined in such a disrespectful manner, one that is painfully reminiscent of colonial practices. In short, the University of Illinois administration has put our colleagues on a reservation where they must ask for permission to step outside its boundaries in matters of program administration, expression of opinion, and affiliation. I fear that this will have a chilling effect on their ability to hire in the future because whether the University of Illinois administration recognizes a reservation when they see one or not, the rest of Native America and the American Indian Studies community has no trouble distinguishing one.

In the meantime, these fine Native scholars apparently exist to represent diversity, but not to exercise agency, the hallmark characteristic of today’s neoliberal, neocolonial academy. As for Professor Salaita, he might as well be in Gaza, his family’s homeland, deprived of the ability to work, of access to housing, of freedom of expression, the direct result of actions taken by the University of Illinois, a publicly funded institution, which has apparently caved to an outside interest group to its everlasting shame.

Jacki Thompson Rand, is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa, who is currently writing a book on violence against Native women in the 20th century.

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