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

A tenured American Indian Studies professor was fired following tweets criticizing Israel and its actions in Gaza creating a backlash of opposition.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has fired a tenured professor in the American Indian Studies program after he tweeted comments criticizing Israel and its actions in Gaza.

Dr. Steven Salaita is a Palestinian American scholar in Native American studies, who has done groundbreaking work in comparative analysis of the Native American and Palestinian peoples’ experiences. He was scheduled to begin work at UIUC on August 16. But on August 1, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise e-mailed that he would not have the job after all, according to the Chicago Tribune, which received university documents under the public records law. Wise said that the board of trustees was unlikely to approve Salaita’s appointment so she would not forward it to them, the Tribune said.

“We believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely,” Wise wrote. “We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty ... Thank you for your interest in and consideration of the University of Illinois.”

Salaita was an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech when he was offered the UIUC position last October at a salary of $85,000 for the academic year, according to the offer letter obtained by the Tribune.

Brian Ross, UIUC’s interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, wrote in the October 3 offer letter, “Please let me express my sincere enthusiasm about your joining us. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a wonderfully supportive community, and it has always taken a high interest in its newcomers. I feel sure that your career can flourish here, and I hope earnestly that you will accept our invitation.” Salaita signed the offer letter October 9. He arranged to finish the academic year at Virginia Tech and start his new UIUC job this month. Both he and his wife resigned from their jobs in Virginia and were in the midst of moving to Illinois when Rice’s termination email arrived.

News of Salaita’s firing broke on August 6 in a posting on Inside Higher Ed. The posting noted that UIUC would not discuss Salaita’s termination, but “sources familiar with the university's decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel's policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita's tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.”

Salaita's tweets, were posted during what the United Nations Human Rights Council called “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations carried out in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 13 June 2014.”

In a little over a week after the article appeared, dozens of publications had picked up the free speech debate, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. An online petition demanding Salaita’s reinstatement collected more than 15,000 signatures and Wise has been deluged with messages from scholars promising to boycott UIUC until he is reinstated.

The termination, if not reversed, will be a “great loss” to students in American Indian Studies, to the program itself and to the university as a whole, said Robert Warrior, an Osage Nation citizen, Director of American Indian Studies and professor of American Indian Studies, English, and History.

Warrior himself has been a vocal opponent of Israel’s policies in Palestine.

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Neither Salaita nor Rice could be reached for comment.

Salaita has a team of lawyers working on his case and UIUC faculty are discussing a vote of no confidence in Wise as the controversy continues to unfold, Warrior said.

The Board of Trustees was scheduled to meet on Monday, August 17, to discuss the issue of Salaita’s termination.

Warrior hopes the board does the right thing.

“Steven is an incredibly gifted and generous teacher who has helped many, many students develop their own independent thinking and their own critical capacity to think about the world around them,” Warrior said. “He sees teaching as only worth doing because you want the next generation to have that capacity of thinking critically about the world around them.”

Meanwhile, the department’s teaching schedule, including Salaita’s classes, remains in place. Warrior said he hasn’t received any “marching orders” to change anything.

“I’ve written approval letters to moving companies for things to be loaded up and brought here and nobody’s told me to do anything otherwise. I’ve got courses with students in them. I’d have to be taken kicking and screaming to be the one who orders those courses to be taken off the books,” Warrior said. “And, frankly,” he added wryly, “if the chancellor wants to micromanage the employment process and thinks we’re incompetent and cannot figure out who to properly hire for a job, I don’t see how I can be trusted to take a course off the books…She’s going to have a lot of decisions to make over the next six months from my office.”