John Dixon/AP
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students protest the firing of Dr. Steven Salaita on August 26.

Salaita Firing Is ‘Israeli Attack on Palestine Coming to Our Campus’

Gale Courey Toensing

Powerful pro-Israel supporters and university donors, many of whom identified themselves as Jewish, complained in July to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign officials about hiring Palestinian-American Dr. Steven Salaita as a tenured professor in the American Indian Studies Program after he tweeted angry comments criticizing Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza.

But more recently, members of the Jewish community at UIUC, who support Palestinian rights, have written a letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the board of trustees denouncing “in the strongest possible terms” their firing of Salaita just weeks before his classes were to begin.

“The firing of Professor Salaita is the Israeli attack on Palestine coming to our campus,” the group of around 40 students, faculty staff, alumni and parents said in their September 3 letter, which was read out loud at a Student Senate meeting that night as Wise listened.

Salaita is a scholar in Native American studies, who has done groundbreaking work in comparative analysis of the Native American and Palestinian peoples’ experiences. He accepted a job offer at UICU last fall, resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, and was scheduled to begin work August 16. But on August 2, Wise e-mailed that he would not have the job after all. She said that the board of trustees was unlikely to sign off on Salaita’s appointment so she would not forward it to them. She gave no reason for his termination.

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

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise. (Courtesy Unversity of Illinois)In a surprising turn of events, after weeks of denying that Salaita’s criticism of Israel led to his firing, Wise has acknowledged the connection between the two events.

Illinois Public Media (IPM) reported September 5 that Wise, a day earlier, said she sent Salaita’s appointment to the trustees last fall with her recommendation to approve it. But when Salaita’s Twitter comments came out, people starting looking closer at his record, Wise said in a tacit admission that his comments about Israel led to his firing.

It was Salaita’s excellent teaching record and his unique scholarship that led the faculty search committee to select him in an open field search, said Robert Warrior, an Osage Nation citizen, Director of American Indian Studies and professor of American Indian Studies, English and History at UIUC.

“What became compelling about his work is the comparative analysis of the experiences of American Indian people and Palestinian people, which is at the heart of his work,” Warrior said. “Steven was trained primarily as a scholar in Native American Indian studies, specifically in American Indian literature at the University of Oklahoma and it was from that standpoint that he did his comparative work in Palestinian and Palestinian American literature… and, really, any topic he takes on still comes out of that American Indian and indigenous perspective.”

RELATED: Salaita’s Background Is What the College Wanted, Not His Free Speech

But Salaita is a passionate and vocal supporter of Palestinian liberation from Israel’s illegal military occupation and expanding settlements on Palestinian land and last year he supported the American Studies Association’s endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel

RELATED: ‘Redwashing’ Panel Follows Academic Associations’ Boycott of Israel

Wise said members of the board of trustees told her in July that they likely would not approve Salaita’s appointment and a week later, she sent him the letter firing him.

“The judgment I made in writing him was to convey the sentiment of the board of trustees, it was not mine,” she said, according to the IPM report.

The letter from the UIUC’s Jewish community is only one of countless objections that have turned Salaita’s firing into an international controversy. The controversy has snowballed into a public relations nightmare for the world-class university that U.S. News & World Report ranks among the best in the country in its 2014 survey of America's Best Colleges.

A burgeoning boycott movement has led thousands of scholars and students from around the world to sign petitions urging the administration to reinstate Salaita. Several important academic associations have called his firing a violation of free speech, academic integrity and the principle of shared governance. And close to a dozen prominent scholars have declined or withdrawn from invitations to conferences and other UIUC events.

RELATED: Free Speech Firestorm Follows American Indian Studies Professor’s Firing

Since late August, at least nine academic departments have passed votes of no confidence in Wise and the board of trustees, beginning with the American Indian Studies (AIS) Program on August 22.

“In clear disregard of basic principles of shared governance and unit autonomy, and without basic courtesy and respect for collegiality, Chancellor Wise did not consult American Indian Studies nor the college before making her decision,” AIS faculty wrote. “While she has yet to furnish specific reasons, we believe that Chancellor Wise's decision was in fact made in response to external pressures that sought to block Prof. Salaita's hire, coupled with her objection over the content and tone of his personal and political tweets over the subject of Israeli bombing of Palestine.”

However, on September 5, the New-Gazette reported that more than 260 professors at the University of Illinois have signed a letter of support for Wise in response to the recent no-confidence votes over the Salaita controversy.


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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
It's a travesty that a nation that proudly promotes itself as the defender of free speech would do something like this. If it were up to me, I would hold those responsible under criminal charges. Of course most minorities know how hypocritical this country can be - the men who once penned, ". . . hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created," were slave owners and Indian killers.

andre's picture
Submitted by andre on
Yes, Dr. Steven Salaita, got the short end of the stick. Courtesy of the powerful Israeli lobby which is well entrenched in business and academia here in America. Israel receives more than $3.7 billion a year in American foreign aid. This is more than any other country receives and it dwarfs the whole budget for the BIA. Follow the money..

laura's picture
Submitted by laura on
This man Salaitas is a racist & hatemonger. He has no place teaching young impressionable minds. Ever read some of his tweets? I am disgusted to see how easily influenced some people are by a one-sided view of this propaganda.

Ryanbellerose's picture
Submitted by Ryanbellerose on
Gail, do you even do any basic research before writing this excrement? seriously I found several innacuracies before I even made it to the bottom of the first page. Lets begin shall we? 1- Steven Salaita is not in fact a "scholar in native american studies" he has a degree in english. 2- his work in comparing Palestinians to native americans is hardly groundbreaking, its actually based on historical inaccuracy and a slick use of language. There is nothing original let alone factual in his comparisons, he struggles when asked to display anything deeper than superficial similiarities because in fact all of his work is based on the surface rather than the deeper commonalities between actual indigenous peoples. 3-the reason some people defend him is that they do not understand that he has misused his position in order to indoctrinate people who simply wanted to study OUR history with anti Israel hyperbole, actual native people have called him out for this. 4-You write that he was fired for speaking his mind, but he WAS NEVER HIRED, his application simply never got through the hiring process, simply put, after seeing his ridiculous hate speech against Israel, they decided not to hire him, and they have every right. 5- the religion and ethnicity of the donors who stated strongly that they would not support the school is immaterial and irrelevant, in fact I know for a fact that at least one of the largest is not jewish. 6- You might be buddies with this person but using your position at ICTM to constantly whine for him is unbecoming, frankly he is not one of us, he tries to use us and our struggles as a weapon against another indigenous people and some of us are getting sick of you useful idiots allowing people like him to perpetuate false narratives to native people. at this point there is no point in even bothering to try to educate you, your jew hatred is ridiculous, im sure you will tell us all about your "jewish friends" who hate Israel, as though that makes it ok, so I will leave you with one thought, if the palestinians are indigenous, what actually makes them indigenous? Blood quantum? and who came up with blood quantum as a measurment for indigenous status? why?

Martin Edwin Andersen's picture
Martin Edwin An...
Submitted by Martin Edwin An... on
Those interested in a fair and lasting two-state solution, see "Pyrrhic victories and glass houses: the Palestinians, the Jewish State of Israel, and the Wobbly Ceasefire" @ The indigeneity of both peoples currently in conflict is what can make the necessary difference.