After more than a month of silence, Steven Salaita made his first public statement Tuesday, September 9 about being misled by the University of Illinois into thinking he would be a tenured professor. Salaita was denied the position allegedly for tweeting criticisms of Israel’s latest military attacks in Gaza, which killed over 2,100 people, including 500 children.
At a press conference in the packed standing-room only ballroom at a YMCA near the university campus at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) surrounded by faculty colleagues, students and members of his legal team, Salaita spoke out against his termination and demanded that the university reinstate him.
“I am here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. I reiterate the demand that the University recognize the importance of respecting the faculty’s hiring decision and reinstate me,” Salaita, a Palestinian-American, said. “It is my sincere hope that I can – as a member of this academic institution – engage with the entire University community in a constructive conversation about the substance of my viewpoints on Palestinian human rights and about the values of academic freedom. This is, as we say in my profession, a ‘teaching moment.’ We must all strive together to make the most of it.”
Salaita accepted a job offer at UIUC last fall, resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, and was scheduled to begin work August 16. But on August 1, Chancellor Phyllis Wise e-mailed that he would not have the job after all. She did not consult with the faculty committee that hired him and gave no reason for his termination.
Wise said in a statement August 22 that Salaita’s anti-Israel political tweets had nothing to do with his firing; she wanted to protect students from their uncivil tone. But hundreds of emails released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that powerful and wealthy supporters of Israel brought pressure to bear on the administration, threatening to stop donating money to the university if Salaita was kept on.
Wise’s action has been hard on Salaita’s family.
“In preparation for my new position, I resigned my tenured position at Virginia Tech; my wife resigned her professional position at the University as well. We got rid of our Virginia home and took on considerable expense in preparation for our move here,” Salaita said.
But “the danger” of the university’s decision has farther-reaching implications than his personal difficulties, Salaita said.
“Universities are meant to be cauldrons of critical thinking; they are meant to foster creative inquiry and, when at their best, challenge political, economic, or social orthodoxy,” he said. “Tenure – a concept that is well over a hundred years old – is supposed to be an ironclad guarantee that University officials respect these ideals, and do not succumb to financial pressure or political expediency by silencing controversial or unpopular views.”
The full text of Salaita’s statement is here.
News of Salaita’s firing went viral. Almost 18,000 scholars and students around the world signed petitions urging the administration to reinstate him.
The press conference took place following a student walkout in protest of Salaita’s termination.
Eman Ghanayem and Rico Kleinstein, Palestinian and Jewish graduate students in American Indian Studies who have been organizing demands, petitions, letters, and actions since they first learned of Salaita’s firing, issued a statement.
“We are here today because the administration’s actions endanger our diverse community by not only producing an environment that scholars, artists, and our fellow students now avoid and boycott, but also an environment that only permits speech empty of indigenous, ethnic, and racially specific narratives and controversial politics,” they said. “We are supporting Professor Salaita not because we want to destroy the University and its administration, but because we want to protect it from destroying itself.”
The students are encouraging others to help persuade the chancellor and board of trustees to reinstate Salaita at Thursday’s meeting. But if it doesn’t, the students said, “The world-wide boycott and on-campus protests will only escalate exponentially. As long as Professor Salaita does not have his position and the University continues to disregard American Indian Studies’ autonomy, all of our indigenous, ethnic, gender, and other interdisciplinary departments will cease to function.”
Watch the full press conference below: