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Academic Ambush: University Gutting Indigenous Studies

The following opinion was adapted from a presentation at the roundtable, “The Colonial Politics of Civility: Implications of the Steven Salaita case for Indigenous Studies and Beyond,” held during the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Meeting, June 5-7, 2015, in Washington, DC.

As a faculty member at “ground zero”—the term our director, Robert Warrior, has chosen to refer to our program in the wake of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign’s (UIUC’s) de-facto firing of our colleague, Steven Salaita, I can only describe the university’s actions as the intellectual negation of critical indigenous scholarship, and one that resonates well with a longer history that is all-too-familiar to native peoples in particular: the will to eliminate the Native in the interest of preserving the colonial occupation of the Native’s land and in the interest of policing indigenous intellectual and especially indigenous political thought.

This is what happens when an institution of higher learning, in a state that removed its first peoples in favor of a caricatured Chief, also decides that a routine faculty hire in American Indian Studies, is deemed uncivil and unfit for the academic community due to the nature of that faculty member’s highly political tweets.

To be sure, against the backdrop of the overall treatment of native people in the last 500-plus years, what UIUC did to Salaita and to our program is only on par with the violence that western colonialism and empire continue to visit upon native peoples around the globe.

Still, it was stunning, even for a faculty habitually alert to the history of such mistreatment of native peoples, to see just how bold and brazen the administration could be in sacrificing established principles of academic culture, such as academic freedom, shared governance, unit autonomy and evidentiary based reasoning, while also spouting platitudes like “inclusivity” and “diversity” in order to legitimize and justify its actions.

As I had come to learn so quickly after my arrival in 2012, UIUC was still a remarkably hostile environment on account of the administration’s tolerance and even sympathy for the supposedly retired Chief mascot, the school’s formerly treasured racist symbol of white supremacy and private property. And because it was AIS faculty that held the university accountable to every instance of the Chief’s continued and public reappearance, it was also AIS faculty who bore the biggest brunt of the reaction and outcry from the most rabid and crazy Chief lovers. I mean, we are talking hate mail and threats and acts of vandalism to the program’s and to our personal properties.

Indeed, the administration’s firing of Salaita, how it did so, and how it continued to double down in the wake of national and international outcry must also be understood in this local or regional context of the Chief.

One link, for example: In the angry aftermath of the Chief’s “retirement” some half a decade ago, there developed a saying in the development office with respect to disgruntled alumni: “No Chief, No Check”. In the wake of the Salaita case, one can imagine a new development at the development office to go something like this: “No Salaita, Check is in the Mail.”

On the flip side, the net effect on our program of the administration’s action and community reaction can be sensed in this unfolding statistic: This time last year, though we had just lost one budgeted faculty member, we still had six “core” members and were expecting an additional two, Salaita being one of them. We also figured we could bank on two, possibly three, more hires in the next several years to bolster the expansion of American Indian Studies along a decidedly global and comparative thread. Mine and my wife’s hire from Pacific Studies, and Stephen’s specialty in comparative American Indian and Middle East studies, were substantive proof of this brand of critical indigenous studies.

Less than a year later, if we can count Steven, we lost three of the remaining eight, while four of the remaining five are entertaining offers elsewhere, with the fifth having since moved a fraction of her line to another department.

So, while the dust has yet to settle, there is a fifty-fifty chance right now that come this fall, American Indian Studies at UIUC would be reduced to a single faculty member. As academic units go, especially for our field, this is rather tragic.

Where one might call it an exodus, or a raiding, I bill it a veritable brand of removal if not elimination, certainly not abandonment of the good fight for American Indian or Native Studies. If there is a consensus among us, it is that the kind of Native Studies that we envisioned will not be tolerated at that institution.

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Worse, in the university’s grotesque perversion of the ideals and practices of academic culture, the climate we faced was one in which we, like Steven, were consistently figured as the undesirable, unqualified, uncivilized embodiments of the very dangerous elements against which and against whom the institution needed to inoculate itself. Not only were we demonized, denigrated on and off campus, but we were also threatened for speaking out against the administration.

For example, in the fall semester, I received an email from an individual, unknown to me, inviting me to “discuss” the Salaita case at some undisclosed venue in Danville, a sundown town some thirty miles away. Even a cursory read of the letter revealed it to be something other than a genuine interest in civil dialogue, as for instance, when its author addressed me as “foaming in the mouth” in support of a “rabid” Salaita, who is further described as “anti-Jewish” in a sentence that also conflated all Palestinians with Hamas. Elsewhere I’ve also seen Salaita described ignorantly as an Islamist Jihadist with links to ISIS, even though he is neither Muslim, a religious fundamentalist, and has also publicly condemned ISIS as he has the State of Israel.

Returning to the letter, there was also something especially disturbing about how it urged me to bring to the meeting (way over there in Danville), “some of your Palestinian students.” Their specific targeting in the letter should not be trivialized given how the author equated Palestine with terrorism. In fact, nobody can read this letter and conclude that it intended anything other than something sinister passing as an invitation to dialogue.

And here’s the rub: I received this letter for no other reason than my public defense of Salaita’s hire and my opposition to the University on academic terms. Precisely because the University mustered all of its authority and resources to discredit Steven, we had now also arrived at the point wherein to publicly disagree with the University was to be cast as a supporter of terrorism. Thanks to the administration, we were now also in the crosshairs of zealous Zionists in the community.

More remarkably, we also found ourselves being delegitimized by academic colleagues from whom one would expect support: colleagues, especially from the sciences, sneered at us, chiding us as crybabies and charging us with not having real work to do; a faculty senate report, while critical of the Chancellor’s handling of the issue, nevertheless found merit in attacks on Salaita’s intellectual fitness, while another colleague, a supposed champion of faculty rights, had doubted AIS’s very “capacity” to undertake a legitimate search! Despite the fact that this was a routine hire, wherein we did our “due diligence” and which was properly vetted “all the way up” to the Vice Chancellor’s levels, we were the troublemakers. By the end of fall semester, I could not walk on campus without second guessing every glance at me, so hostile had it become.

And so it went. At a Faculty Senate Meeting attended by the Chancellor, at which the senate leadership tried different measures to silence opposition (incidentally, key members of the leadership not only endorsed the Chancellor but had actually conspired with her, as FOIA’d documents reveal), I (as AIS Senator) indicated that I would need more than two minutes to detail AIS’s “side of the story.” In the middle of my prepared statements, I was repeatedly interrupted, told that my time was up and to yield the microphone. Alas, my annoyed retort—“And who will make me?”—was presented as an act of unprovoked aggression by the local press, which also ran a quarter page photograph of yours truly in the most familiar and tired of tropes typically reserved for dark skinned native men: that of the big, dark, and sinister savage. A subsequent comment to the story that was posted electronically provided the caption: a “school-yard bully.”

And so it continued. In the same week, I drove up to a local café, and entering, I passed two elderly gentlemen sipping coffee outside. One of them looked straight at me and said, “speaking of the devil.”

In fact, in the specific context of the firing of Salaita from our department, the familiar conundrum that native scholars like myself typically encounter in attacks on and off campus was best captured in a particular post on the local paper’s website, where my credentials and area of study was mocked thus:

“Vince Diaz, who received his PhD in the (sic) ‘History of Consciousness’ … seriously, look him up … looks like he needs to head back to Honolulu and chill.”

First, there is ignorance: I’m not from Honolulu, and my degree is not “in the” History of Consciousness (one doesn’t major in such a thing), but from a remarkably famous doctoral program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, one that boasts a rather renowned faculty and highly acclaimed scholarly reputation. Seriously, look it up.

Then there is the peculiar impossibility that natives like myself continue to face in academia in particular, wherein mainstream academia sees us as suspect scholars, present only for affirmative action purposes, members of certain sectors of university town communities, especially those who lament the supposed hijacking of their beloved institutions by people of color, would disqualify us precisely because of our very success in academia.

In any case, like Salaita, and despite our academic credentials, or perhaps because of it, we are, literally, still the uncivilized, the unqualified, the unworthy.
Though I think at UIUC we’ve reached the limits of the kind of work we thought we could do in expanding American Indian Studies to comparative frames outside the boundaries of the United States, the battle is far from over when we realize that in many ways, what happened at Illinois is only a testing ground for sensing just how far the neoliberal university is willing to go to inoculate itself from what it regards as dangerous and uncivilized people who fail the scholarly fitness test. Inside and outside academia, Native peoples, know that charge all too well. And so, native peoples might also recognize this truth of the tragic statistic: surviving the effort to eliminate the kind of work we’ve begun to do at UIUC, we also live to fight another day.

Vicente M. Diaz is a tenured Professor at American Indian Studies and Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.