Steven Salaita, the Media, and the Struggle for Academic Freedom

The evolution of a controversy.
By Peter N. Kirstein

On August 6, 2014, as I was preparing to check news accounts about the solemn, annual remembrance of the Hiroshima bombing, I came across a “breaking” story from Inside Higher Ed: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had dismissed Steven G. Salaita, a newly appointed tenured associate professor in the American Indian Studies Program, for his postings on Twitter.

Within minutes, I had notified other members of the Illinois AAUP conference’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which I chair, and on the same day, we released a statement in support of Salaita. The vast majority, perhaps 95 percent, of academic freedom cases receive little or no media coverage. Within days, though, major media throughout the nation began covering this story. Why?

The University of Illinois is a Big Ten public flagship university, part of the educational elite. A similar case at a smaller institution would likely have received scant coverage. What made this case newsworthy, though, was that Salaita had been dismissed for tweets he had posted within Twitter’s 140-character limit. The nation is obsessed with technology and preoccupied with social media: had Salaita written a letter or placed his comments on a bulletin board outside an office, there may have been little reaction to his statements.

Salaita had tweeted about babies who had been killed in Palestine during the seven-week Israel-Gaza conflagration in July and August and had asserted that Israel was indiscriminately killing noncombatants and destroying cities. Over the past two decades, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has increasingly galvanized student activism, especially within the spreading Students for Justice in Palestine movement. It has also helped trigger a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign on many college campuses and within professional organizations such as the American Anthropological Association, the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the National Association of Chicano and Chicana Studies, and the National Women’s Studies Association. Salaita supported the boycott.

Salaita’s parents were immigrants: his mother was born in Nicaragua of Palestinian heritage, and his father emigrated to the United States from Jordan. He describes his ethnicity as Palestinian and Jordanian. Here, we had a scholar of Arab ancestry firing off tweets on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, challenging the demand from the University of Illinois’s ruling elites for unstinting support of Israel. Salaita had just returned to the UIUC administration a legal, signed contract proffering him a tenured position at the rank of associate professor, had resigned from a tenured position at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, had been provided moving expenses, and was about to meet his first classes on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

His robust and, at times, earthy tweets on Gaza were a critical factor spurring media coverage. When Salaita tweeted on Israel’s military actions in Gaza, a firestorm erupted. The University of Illinois surrendered to censorious demands for his dismissal and banishment from campus.

The Coverage

Headlines are important: they steer readers into a story and may influence how they interpret it. They frequently reflect the ideological preferences of a paper. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times used pointed but accurate headlines. Haaretz used a headline that overtly criticized the denial of Salaita’s freedom of speech, while the more conservative Jerusalem Post referred to Salaita’s tweets as “anti-Israel.” The New York Times was one of the last major newspapers to cover the Salaita affair. In its six news articles on Salaita, only once did the paper assign a Times reporter. Three articles, including coverage of the AAUP censure of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education or were distributed by the Associated Press (AP). The headline writers avoided the provocative “anti-Israel” label, choosing more sympathetic reportage. The Times waited eight days to reproduce, with editing, a Sydni Dunn piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on August 31, 2014, with the headline, “University’s Rescinding of Job Offer Prompts an Outcry.” This headline was consistent with if slightly more muted than the Chronicle’s headline, “U. of Illinois Feels Backlash from Scholars Angered by Salaita Case.” The New York Times chose the headline “Professor’s Angry Tweets on Gaza Cost Him a Job” on September 12, 2014. “Academic Group Votes to Censure University of Illinois” preceded the AP’s widely circulated piece on June 13, 2015, the day of the AAUP censure.

Original New York Times analysis of the Salaita dismissal appeared on the paper’s blogs and in guest-commentary sections. Joseph Levine critiqued University of Illinois chancellor Phyllis M. Wise’s demand for civility as a condition of employment, declaring that there were several “reasons for being so ‘uncivil’ as to impugn his [Salaita’s] opponents’ moral character.” Although he claimed that he was more interested in the ex cathedra civility standard than in the actual rescinding of Salaita’s contract, Levine assailed the University of Illinois: “To my mind, it was wrong—a straightforward violation of intellectual and academic freedom.”

On October 2, 2014, Jake Flanagin wrote in “Op- Talk,” an online commentary section of the New York Times website. Above his article was an image of a rain-soaked University of Illinois student, eyeglass lenses dripping, mouth covered with a sideways letter “I” symbolizing the disruption of campus free speech. The article, “neutral” in analysis, was a compendium of opinion that either supported or opposed the University of Illinois’s treatment of Salaita. Ignoring whether Wise and Christopher G. Kennedy, the former chair of the university’s board of trustees, succumbed to possible donor influence, Flanagin quoted former University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins’s magisterial defense of academic freedom condemning universities that “ingratiate themselves with the public, and in particular with the most wealthy and influential portions of it, . . . in order to get money.” For Hutchins, the supplication for endowments and big-money contributions was “ruinous to a university in any rational conception of it.” Flanagin also referenced a letter by University of Illinois alumnus Pauline Park to the student newspaper, the Daily Illini. Park quoted the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which specifically delineates the realm of extramural utterances as a safe zone for academicians: “when they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”

Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times was consistently supportive of Steven Salaita’s bid to compel the University of Illinois to honor his contract and reinstate him. Above one of his articles appeared the headline “A Voice from the Past Warns of the Big Money Takeover of the University.” Beneath was a dramatic image of University of Illinois students holding up thick wads of ersatz cash and displaying signs: “Unwise,” in reference to Phyllis Wise, and “Civility = Silence, Silence = Death.” Hiltzik also cited Hutchins: “A university should not adopt a policy because it will bring money. . . . External control by definition prevents universities from being centers of independent thought.” Hiltzik ended this critique with an admonition: “The danger is upon us.”

In August 2015, the one-year anniversary of the controversy saw an increase in media coverage. Also in August, Harry D. Leinenweber, who sits on the United States district court for the northern district of Illinois, rejected the University of Illinois’s efforts to dismiss Salaita’s lawsuit against the university and ordered the case to possible trial or summary judgment. Hiltzik described Leinenweber’s ruling as a confirmation that “university officials lied.” This approach to critical inquiry remained a staple of Los Angeles Times reporting on Salaita.

No mainstream newspaper appears to have exceeded the Washington Post in sheer volume of coverage. Twelve different items were published, seven as entries on the Volokh Conspiracy, a blog by Jonathan H. Adler acquired by the Post and behind its paywall, and the others as news stories. The Post’s treatment was straightforward and thorough, quoting in depth the pro-Salaita statement of Illinois Conference A and providing significant coverage of national AAUP intervention.

While the AAUP’s imposition of censure received substantial coverage in the national media, only the Washington Post assigned a reporter to cover the annual meeting. With the exception of the higher education media, most outlets used AP or other wire reports. The Post assigned five different reporters and commentators to events from the Salaita dismissal to Wise’s own dismissal a year later, coverage that surpassed that of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune.

Consistent vociferous defenses of Steven Salaita emanated from progressive news websites specializing in Middle East reporting, including Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada, Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz’s Mondoweiss, and Ray Hanania’s Arab Daily News.

Israeli media also covered the Salaita case and his furious critique of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, which he said did not honor the principle of noncombatant immunity during war. The Jerusalem Post was clearly opposed to the appointment. Its op-eds on the case were uniformly supportive of the action to revoke Salaita’s contract. In one op-ed, “Illinois—A University with Principles,” Sherwin Pomerantz, a University of Illinois alumnus, compared Salaita’s antiwar tweets to shouting fire falsely in a theater and “causing injury and death.” He defended the decision to dismiss Salaita on the grounds that Jewish students who enroll in his courses “might feel quite uncomfortable.”

Cary Nelson, past president of the AAUP and a prominent supporter of Wise’s decision to dismiss Salaita, appeared twice on the Jerusalem Post op-ed page. On October 25, 2014, while describing himself as a Zionist, Nelson charged that Salaita’s scholarship was anti-Semitic. On December 25, 2014, he averred, “The [contract] offer should never have been made in the first place,” rejecting arguments that Salaita’s “academic freedom was violated.”

Reporting on the AAUP’s censure, a Jerusalem Post headline pronounced: “U. of Illinois Censured after Rescinding Job Offer to Professor over Anti-Israel Tweets.” It harkened back to the McCarthy era in the United States, when critics of American foreign policy were purged for “anti-Americanism.”

In Haaretz, a relatively liberal Israeli newspaper, Neta Alexander wrote an extensive piece under the headline, ‘“I Am No Anti-Semite’ Says Steven Salaita . . . ” Underneath was a subheading: “So, is there still freedom of speech in the U.S.?” The December 5, 2014, article included a Skype interview with Salaita. The piece also included another dramatic image of pro-academic-freedom Illinois students protesting with mouths taped shut with the written exhortation: “#Support Salaita.” The image surfaced again on January 30, 2015, in another Alexander article, with a Jerusalem Post–like headline, “Anti-Israel Professor,” and for a third time, five months later, in a Haaretz report on the AAUP’s censure. After a lull in reportage, following the censure of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there were dramatic developments, including administrative changes that occurred on campus.

Wise was forced to resign in August 2015 after revelations that she had used a personal e-mail account to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests. Hundreds of e-mails from private accounts contained university-related business, including those related to the Salaita matter.

As controversy grew and departmental votes of no-confidence spread across the campus, Wise and her faculty confrères—Nicholas Burbules, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Education Policy, and Joyce Tolliver, associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese—had attempted damage control. They wanted to get a pro-Wise op-ed in the Champaign News-Gazette.

Burbules sent four e-mails to Wise on August 13 and August 15, 2014, reassuring the beleaguered chancellor that help was on the way: “Joyce and I have submitted a piece to the News-Gazette . . . to clear up some of the misconceptions.” Later that night, in another e-mail, he predicted, “It’s going to be published” and included a copy of the draft. It appeared on Sunday, August 17, and Wise responded in an e-mail, “Thank you so much for taking the time to compose such a well-reasoned op-ed. I just wish that you (and we) did not have to spend time on this. But since we do, it is so reassuring to know that I/we have the support of respected faculty like you.” The following day, Provost Ilesanmi Adesida, who would also resign in the wake of the private e-mail revelations, praised the op-ed in an e-mail to Wise and the professors. He noted there was additional anti- Salaita coverage in the paper.

Two days after the op-ed appeared, the News- Gazette published my op-ed, “Illinois AAUP Defends Salaita’s Academic Freedom.” In it, I defended the principle of academic freedom and directly challenged the Burbules-Tolliver defense of summary dismissal.

Academic Freedom Activism

It is one thing to obtain media coverage after an AAUP censure. It is quite another to induce the media to cover a case as it is unfolding on a college campus. It has proven beneficial to the Illinois conference to secure quick media coverage of a violation of AAUP principles, whether it be over an inappropriate denial of tenure (Norman Finkelstein at DePaul and John Boyle at censured Northeastern Illinois University), punitive section reduction of an adjunct’s course on Israel and Palestine (Iymen Chehade at Columbia College Chicago), or the egregious replacement of numerous tenured faculty with term appointments (censured National Louis University). The following are suggestions for those engaged in the academic freedom struggle.

Some complainants do not desire publicity. Their wishes must be respected. Sometimes publicity leads to greater resistance on the part of a college or university administration. However, a public airing of a case is more likely to induce administrative reversal, or compromise, as was evident in the Chehade case. When the Illinois AAUP conference’s Committee A wrote a report that received press coverage in local media and the Chronicle of Higher Education, the administration restored Chehade’s other section of the course, which had been previously eliminated after a student complaint about the showing of the Academy Award–nominated documentary Five Broken Cameras. Most institutions dread negative publicity and are likely to be more compliant if faced with public exposure. The corporate university wants to protect its brand; challenging its product through local and national media can be a winning strategy.

Waging academic freedom battles does not lend itself to the precise tactics of an army field manual. Yet making the infraction known is preferable to allowing the violation of AAUP guidelines without public notice or scrutiny.

There was a case at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, where we fought for the reversal of an egregious tenure denial: we lost the case, but the handbook has been changed to address our initial concerns. Even losing a specific case can reduce victimization in the future.

Illinois Committee A has developed important press contacts in Illinois and nationally. Since Illinois has witnessed so many high-profile cases, publicity is relatively easy to obtain. However, in the Salaita case, it took persistent efforts by e-mail and a telephone call with Jodi Cohen of the Chicago Tribune to convince her of the newsworthiness of his dismissal.

It is shrewd to utilize faculty contacts to solicit coverage in a student newspaper. I avoid planting a story with a student editor, but encouraging on-campus faculty to contact student journalists is worth considering. Student editors frequently contact the AAUP after a story has gained media exposure. DePaulia at DePaul, the Independent of censured Northeastern Illinois University, and Columbia College’s Chronicle all contacted Illinois Committee A concerning academic freedom cases at those institutions.

Unfettered student press reporting serves as a significant vehicle for alerting a campus community of ongoing transgressions against faculty. Most administrators avidly read campus papers. Major court rulings including the Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier and an appellate court decision in Hosty v. Carter significantly attenuated student-press freedoms from high school through university. However, rarely is an article suppressed that includes explicit AAUP engagement with an academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance issue.

On the Media

I e-mailed several questions to Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, asking for his reflections on the Salaita case. He confirmed that his breaking the story of the Salaita affair was “certainly a big scoop for Inside Higher Ed,” triggering “massive traffic” to the website. I asked, “Is there anything else you would want the Academe readers to know?” While Jaschik stated he was not commenting on the merits of the Salaita case, he responded in a lengthy paragraph that the Salaita case raised issues about academic policies that have systemic implications across the academy. I have taken this paragraph, subdivided it into discrete questions, and responded to those questions myself below.

What is the appropriate role for presidents and boards in reviewing hiring and tenure decisions?
The role should be minimal. As the AAUP noted in its April 2015 report on Salaita: “The Statement on Government . . . provides that ‘the governing board and president should, on questions of faculty status, as in other matters where the faculty has primary responsibility, concur with the faculty judgment except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.’”

How does the hiring process for faculty actually work?
For full-time positions, as in the Salaita case, the hiring unit—usually a department or program—posts an announcement, with an administration’s approval, in various professional-disciplinary venues. They form a search committee. They vet the applications and come up with a short list. Folks are interviewed either by phone or, preferably, on campus. A dean typically must approve the selection, and a designated official, whether the president, provost, or dean, officially informs the candidate that she or he has been selected for the position by the hiring unit.

How much (if any) pressure from board members is . . . appropriate?
None. They should rubber stamp the recommended appointment unless they encounter significant procedural flaws in the process. The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois confirms appointments after professors have begun teaching their courses, which is an affirmation that they are already fully employed. The board voted affirmatively on 120 other appointments, as a group, in fall 2014. The board of trustees subjected only Salaita to individualized attention.

How do colleges handle it when their professors have views that are not understood/supported by the public?
Poorly. I have a perfect solution: Issue a laconic press release over the president’s or chancellor’s name. “Professor X does not speak for the university/college. The professor’s views are his or her own. We do not support, accept, or endorse the statements that were made.” Only in circumstances where harm might occur, and there is prima facie evidence of a lack of fitness, is there a need for disciplinary action.

Why do different groups of faculty look at these issues in different ways?
This is an interesting question. Sixteen departments voted no confidence in Wise, former president Robert Easter, and the board of trustees. Fifteen were in the social sciences and the humanities; the Department of Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership was the sole dissenter outside those broad areas of inquiry. The STEM faculty, some of whom are getting a new College of Medicine, either remained silent or expressed support for the UIUC administration. Progressives tend to flock into those areas of inquiry that challenge the existing social and political order, fields that raise questions about the preexisting structures of control and domination and whose business is to explore cultures and ethnicities other than the privileged Anglo-Saxon. While we do not want to stereotype entire disciplines with ideological predilections, one would not expect engineers, as a group, to share the same weltanschauung as departments of gender and women studies, history, and sociology. Wise, significantly, is tenured in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

The contrast between Jaschik and John Foreman, president of the News-Gazette, is stunning. Foreman, following the Wise resignation, wrote a blistering column blaming “activist academics” for turning the University of Illinois into “a national punching bag.” In his August 23, 2015, harangue, Foreman, with a string of ad hominems, lambasted Salaita as a “crank” and “unlikely martyr,” describing him as a “juvenile” and claiming that Salaita lacks “the academic bona fides to earn even an interview on the Urbana campus.”

With inadvertent irony, given the tumult that erupted during her tenure, Foreman praised Wise, in an unintended double entendre, for bringing “electricity” to campus. The News-Gazette chief declared that the university fired Wise for “unspecified transgressions.” Without naming names, Foreman charged Wise’s subordinates for “likely failing her” and said that they should have shielded the chancellor from the Salaita firestorm. The controversy should have been “cut off by trusted subordinates.” Foreman presumably blames the American Indian Studies Program, the search committee, and the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for doing their jobs in following the prescribed procedures for conducting a national search. They recommended a qualified candidate for the position that Wise, Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre, and their superiors rejected because of ideological animus over tweets that protested suffering in a foreign war.

Media coverage of the conflict between Salaita and the administration of the University of Illinois has generally been fair and reasonable. Yet it has certainly not been uniform. Some reports engaged in gratuitous formulaic descriptions of the tweets to discredit Salaita. Others have delved into the meaning of academic freedom and the preservation of free speech in a democratic society. A few accounts avoided any judgment and simply compiled other press coverage. Overall, journalistic interest in the controversy has been comprehensive, vigorous, and healthy in advancing the public’s knowledge of a major academic freedom case.

Salaita reached a settlement agreement with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on November 12, 2015. He received $600,000 and his attorneys $275,000. Media coverage was significant but not as comprehensive as the reporting on the revocation of his contract. If the University of Illinois is removed from the AAUP’s censure list, media coverage would, in all likelihood, primarily emanate from the education-oriented media. Yet the impact of comprehensive University of Illinois reforms could significantly enhance academic freedom and shared governance on that campus. There are numerous instances on campuses across the United States, and elsewhere throughout the world, where dreams are broken, livelihoods placed at risk, professional careers thwarted, and fear of the future is pervasive. The media can mitigate these tragedies. In reporting the news, the media serve the common good. When revelations surface that students are being denied professors who are free to teach so that they are free to learn, education is protected.

As Justice Louis D. Brandeis once observed, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Peter N. Kirstein is professor of history at Saint Xavier University. He is vice president of the Illinois AAUP conference and chairs its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. His e-mail address is kirstein@sxu.edu.

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