To the Editors:
On Aug. 1, 2014, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise revoked the tenured position of Professor Steven Salaita, citing the latter’s Twitter posts that searingly criticized the Zionist state of Israel as evidence that he could not engage in “civilized” political discussion on campus. On Sept. 11, the University’s Board of Trustees voted to support Chancellor Wise’s decision not to reinstate Professor Salaita, a widely renowned Palestinian-American professor of American Indian Studies who had left a tenured position at Virginia Tech to accept his new post at UIUC. His tweets specifically condemned Operation Protective Edge, a ground offensive carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza this past summer, in which over 2,100 Palestinians were murdered, including over 500 children.
Myriad universities in the past year alone — from UIUC to Northeastern University to Loyola University — have actively worked to inhibit a serious dialogue on the conflict by condemning student organizations or firing professors who speak out against Israel’s war crimes and violations of international law. Often these punishments are coded in a discourse that holds the whitewashed concepts of “civility” and “respectability” as the respective benchmarks for legitimate conversation.
A number of issues arise here. The American Association of University Professors, for example, states that it “has long objected to using the criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty elevation because we view this as a threat to academic freedom.” Yet even Oberlin College’s administration has used the notion of “uncivil discourse” to dismiss student demands for institutional change and to discount anger through the guise of respectability.
Under AAUP guidelines, moreover, the decision to dismiss a tenured or tenure-track professor must allow the accused professor a hearing in front of all bodies involved in the decisionmaking process. This guideline was ignored when Professor Salaita was dismissed. Such unchecked unilateralism sets a precedent in which an administration and Board of Trustees may freely act in accordance with politically-motivated biases without being held accountable for their actions.
The erasure of dissenting opinions from an academic institution is not just morally reprehensible, nor is it only dangerous to those engaged in active struggle in solidarity with oppressed people; in fact, it entirely restructures the parameters under which freedom of expression may occur. In doing so, it remolds the very structure of academic freedom itself. If this violent censorship is not spoken out against, it is unreasonable to believe such an incident could not occur at Oberlin.
Students for a Free Palestine believes that the firing of Professor Salaita is an injustice to academic freedom worldwide. We are reaching out to you, as members of the Oberlin community, to support Professor Salaita and to stand for academic freedom that allows professors and students alike to challenge the dominant Israeli narrative without fearing for their livelihood. Though the particular case of Steven Salaita may represent a heinous abuse of power within the realm of higher education, the implications of this circumstance go beyond the life of one individual. The case of Professor Salaita represents an attack on freedom of information and of expression. It demonstrates the power of Zionist hegemony in silencing dissenting opinions, especially when they are voiced by members of aggrieved communities in ways that expressly reject the normative codes of white liberal discourse.
The Oberlin College administration has remained silent regarding Professor Salaita’s dismissal. This is wholly inconsistent with previous positions Oberlin administrators have taken in defense of academic freedom. Academic freedom cannot be applied to situations only when politically expedient. This selective interpretation by our administration makes Oberlin College complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestine in its refusal to speak out against the repression of Professor Salaita.
A version of this letter will soon be circulated in the form of a petition in which signees will demonstrate their support for the right of faculty to voice publicly their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and to criticize the Zionist state of Israel without fear of political persecution.
We would like to invite all Oberlin students, faculty and community to attend Professor Salaita’s speech on Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. in Dye Lecture Hall. We look forward to seeing you there.
–Students for a Free Palestine