Salaita Case Highlights Donor Influence in Higher Ed

Jade Schiff, Politics department

To the Editors:

Like Students for a Free Palestine and many other campus organizations and academics around the world, I condemn the revocation of Steven Salaita’s job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by Chancellor Phyllis Wise. Like them, I also think that free expression and academic freedom are at stake. But this analysis misses the root of the problem. The academy is not exactly notorious for being anti-Palestinian. On the contrary, university professors tend to be liberal or left-leaning, to the delight of some and the chagrin of others. Tellingly, Salaita sailed through every academic hurdle to his appointment. It was blocked by Chancellor Wise, but the Board of Trustees did not merely affirm her decision, as SFP suggests. We know from records made public some time ago that Wise bowed to pressure from members of the Board itself.

The Salaita case goes far deeper than anti-Palestinian sentiment; it points to the sway of private donors in higher education, and in public institutions in particular. The latter are woefully underfunded and so depend heavily on donor support. It is not enough to protest, piecemeal, every denial of employment or tenure that appears to be on political grounds. In addition, we all ought to agitate for better funding for public institutions, which would make them less vulnerable to donor preferences.

I think Chancellor Wise’s decision not to oppose the Board was cowardly, but it also reflects a tragic situation in which public universities are increasingly forced to choose between the values of higher education on one hand and financial security on the other, to the detriment of all.

–Jade Schiff 

Politics department