Kirstein Remarks at Steven Salaita Columbia College Appearance

Academic Freedom Panel

Carolina Sánchez – Columbia College Chronicle: Steven Salaita speaking, Iymen Chehade and Peter N. Kirstein

Steven Salaita Panel, Sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine: October 8, 2014 Columbia College Chicago. This is a link to a post on the event on the American Association of University Professor Academe blog.

Academic Freedom is defined by the landmark American Association of University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Academic freedom gives professors the right to pursue research and publish its results. Academicians have “freedom in the classroom” to determine their pedagogy. They have the right to “speak and write as citizens…[and] should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”

Several years ago I was suspended and reprimanded by President Richard Yanikoski of Saint Xavier University for sending an irate e-mail in response to an Air Force Academy cadet’s solicitation that I recruit students to attend a conference on that campus. Instead, I denounced American imperialism including the mistreatment of the Palestinians and the 1991 General Barry McCaffrey’s mass murder of retreating Iraqi soldiers at Basra during the Persian Gulf War.

The cadet was not a student of mine nor associated in any manner with St Xavier University. I refused the cadet’s invitation to recruit my students for a conference there and denounced violence, and the academic emphasis on killing that debases and demeans our purpose on this planet. The Wall Street Journal in two editorials supported my removal from the classroom three weeks before final examinations. The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times covered the story as did WGN radio and many television stations. The Weekly Standard, Frontpage Mag.com, and conservative talk radio piled on and celebrated my suspension or demanded my dismissal. I could have been more polite and I apologised for the tone but here is the email that found its way to US military forces stationed throughout the empire who then sent thousands of e-mails to President Yanikoski seeking my firing:

“You are a disgrace to this country and I am furious you would even think I would support you and your aggressive baby killing tactics of collateral damage. Help you recruit? Who, top guns to rain death and destruction upon nonwhite peoples throughout the world? Are you serious sir?…No war, no air force cowards who bomb countries without AAA, without possibility of retaliation…You are imperialists who are turning the whole damn world against us. September 11 can be blamed in part for what you and your cohorts have done to the Palestinians, the VC, the Serbs, a retreating army at Basra. You are unworthy of my support.”

The public clamored that I could not teach effectively due to left-wing bias that was anti-American and anti-military. Mr. Yanikoski stated my e-mail was not protected by academic freedom because it was uncivil and did not respect others’ opinions. He did not respect mine and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise did not respect Professor Salaita’s opinions. Both should have simply said: “We do not agree with the statements made. They do not speak for the university. We disavow them and find them objectionable and inappropriate.” That is all that was needed. Case closed, move on!

I was tenured and was able to hang on to my job. Steven Salaita was tenured too but was caught in the web of bureaucratic technicalities when Dr. Wise and Christopher G. Kennedy, chair of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, violated his First Amendment guarantees of free speech and AAUP guidelines,  by claiming they could vacate a written contract offer some ten months earlier.

I did not suffer job loss; I did not suffer health insurance loss; I did not lose income; I was able to use the incident to advance my career both within AAUP and in lecturing and writing. Yet there are enough similarities between the Salaita case and my own to know what persecution is, what viewpoint discrimination is, what censorship is, what lying is when administrators and governing boards assert that someone whom they don’t agree with, must be an intolerant professor who discriminates against dissenting students.

Tonight and as long as it takes, I will stand by Professor Salaita and work to end this terrible injustice and vindictive treatment of a professor who displayed emotion while denouncing Israel’s violation of non-combatant immunity in response to Hamas’s rocket fire. Palestinian health officials say 2,139 people, most of them civilians, including more than 490 children, were killed in Gaza during the fifty-day war after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8, 2014. Israel’s death toll was sixty-four soldiers and six civilians, including a four-year-old boy who died after a Hamas rocket hit a house in Eshkol.

I condemn Hamas’s attacks on Israel and the indiscriminate firing of rocketry. There is no place for violence and we need to denounce it regardless of the ends that are sought. We must abide by a higher moral law but Israel is a nuclear power with the keys to the US treasury and due to its strength, size and power should initiate concessions and confidence-building measures. It would reduce violence from both sides if Palestinians had a nation without an illegal concentration camp wall penetrating its West Bank, without the Israeli navy blockading the Gaza coastline and without illegal settlements annexing much of occupied Palestine.

Not much of academic freedom is left in this country particularly if one wishes to engage in a critical manner the founding of the State of Israel and its conduct since its establishment in 1948. We have the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The latter saved my job in threatening legal action and aggressive media coverage on WGN and elsewhere. While AAUP is improving, FIRE has a quicker response time and embraces direct-action tactics. AAUP, until recently, seemed uncomfortable in protecting speech that was critical of the prescribed narrative on the Middle East. The DePaul University Norman Finkelstein tenure-travesty case was tepidly addressed by the AAUP. The Salaita case, however, has induced a more vibrant and energised AAUP defence of its own values.

AAUP exercises soft law that emerged over decades in documents and reports in the Redbook that serves as the common law for higher education. Illinois AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued the first formal academic statement on the Salaita case within hours of the Inside Higher Ed article on August 6 and played a key role along with P-Fac in the Iymen Chehade controversy that many here are familiar with. The Salaita firing, the Chehade Israeli/Palestinian course-section cancellation, which was restored, and my suspension represent an assault on academic freedom both inside and outside the classroom. The three of us challenged the ruling elites of universities and colleges that wish to suppress a narrative that challenges the prevailing orthodoxy on the Middle East or American imperialism and its thirst for perpetual war and racist empire.

Academic freedom generally exists for those who don’t need it and is abandoned and marginalised for those who do. Professor Salaita had the First Amendment constitutional right as a professor at a public university to express those views as he did. He was a passionate defender of the defenceless as bombs were blasting over and among a poor and terrified population in Gaza. He expressed antiwar outrage with children being bombed, families destroyed, electric-power stations and homes leveled by American-manufactured fighter jets. While Dr. Salaita’s language was described in the Illinois Committee A report as “strident and vulgar,” the University of Illinois chose to decontextualise it from other tweets that stressed reconciliation between Muslim and Jew and that denounced anti-semitism. I have yet to hear Chancellor Wise denounce anti-Arab racialism. I doubt if Professor Salaita had aimed his tweets against Hamas instead of Israel, whether we would even be here tonight.

What is so disturbing about the Salaita dismissal case is that the University of Illinois bypassed the American Indian Studies hiring process and cavalierly made egregious assumptions about his teaching objectivity based on 140-character tweets. Neither my email to the Air Force Academy or Steven’s tweets, which are extramural utterances, have any bearing on one’s fitness in the classroom. Peer review classroom visits, asking a job candidate to give a guest lecture, examining syllabi and student course evaluations are how professionals evaluate teaching. Caving into fund raisers and e-mail campaigns from pro-Israel groups to deny students from receiving a balanced view­­­­­­ of the Middle East conflict was the real reason for the summary dismissal of Dr. Salaita.

In 1970, AAUP revised the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure that is relevant to the Salaita case:

“Paragraph 3 of the section on Academic Freedom in the 1940 Statement should also be interpreted in keeping with the1964 Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances, which states: “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.” {Emphasis added}

As Illinois AAUP Committee A averred in its statement defending Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and right to academic due process:

We are unaware that the university has afforded Professor Salaita any due process. In the absence of due process, particularly if a contract were signed, any institutional action to reverse an offer of appointment would be a grave violation of academic due process. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach. These statements were not made in front of students, are not related to a course that is being taught, and do not reflect in any manner his quality of teaching. What one says out of class rarely, in the absence of peer review of teaching, confirms how one teaches. Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network, does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment.

We shall see what happens next. I predict, speaking only for myself, there will be an AAUP investigation and a recommendation for censure of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign if there is not a restoration of Professor Salaita’s position as a tenured associate professor in the American Indian Studies Program. We need to keep the pressure on and the drean alive that justice will prevail.

Thank you

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