Confronting Institutional Racism: Steven Salaita on Academic Freedom, BDS, and the Colonial Logic of the Neoliberal University

RAYYA EL ZEIN, GORDON BARNES, and MELISSA MARTURANO

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Salaita on 9 September at a press conference in Urbana, Illinois after he was fired by UIUC.

In October of 2013, Steven Salaita, then Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech was offered a tenured position of Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). Salaita accepted the position and resigned from his post at Virginia Tech. In the summer after the school year had finished, he and his wife, who also resigned from her job, and their young son were preparing for their move to Urbana. On 1 August, fifteen days before he was to take up his position, Salaita was informed by UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise that the written offer of employment to him was being rescinded. She and Christophe Pierre, the U of I system’s Vice President of Academic Affairs, were refusing to submit his employment offer to the Board of Trustees for confirmation.

The reason for the revocation of the offer and the clear disregard for faculty governance at UIUC was pinned by the administration on Salaita’s social media presence. They accused him of “uncivility” on Twitter. In July, the Israeli Defense Forces had begun so-called “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip. For five weeks, the vastly superior armed forces of Israel bombarded the most densely populated strip of land on the planet. Over 2,000 people died, many of them children, as the IDF bombed schools, residences, hospitals, and places of worship. Watching this from afar, Salaita, a Palestinian-American, took to social media. His tweets critiquing Israel and the IDF, many of which took unsparing issue with the barbarity of the Israeli military, came to the attention of the administration, who deemed them “uncivil” and retracted the offer of employment. In September, the school year at UIUC started; the classes Salaita was slated to teach were cancelled or given to other instructors.

In the weeks that followed, tens of thousands have joined campaigns to boycott the UIUC until Salaita is reinstated. In September, the U of I Board of Trustees voted 8-1 not to (re)hire Salaita after he was de-hired by the chancellor. On 17 November, 2014 The Center for Constitutional Rights co-counsel in Chicago filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the University of Illinois, accusing it of failing to release emails between administration officials and trustees about Salaita’s dismissal.

Professor Salaita was in the tri-state area from 17-20 November, speaking at several CUNY campuses, Rutgers, Princeton, New York University, the New School, and Columbia University. He sat down with Rayya El Zein (Theatre), Gordon Barnes (History), and Melissa Marturano (Classics), all GC doctoral students.

Gordon Barnes [GB]: Your Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois was filed this week and the Center for Constitutional Rights is accusing the University of failing to release emails between the board of trustees and the administration. What does your council hope to prove with this suit?

Steven Salaita [SS]: Mostly we feel like it is a matter of public interest. The decision has had visibly adverse effects on the reputation of the university and the ability of the university to function, and there is a desire, I think a strong desire, especially among the taxpayers of Illinois, to find out what exactly went into their decision making process, who was involved, and how it all went down. They are trying to maintain secrecy around a matter of tremendous public interest. Otherwise, it is a matter of trying to get a sense, for us moving forward, who some of the influential donors are, what exactly they were threatening, as well as the [financial support] they were threatening to withhold.

GB: What have been the general reactions to your speaking engagements after the firing? And also, now that you have started speaking here in the New York-New Jersey area, what have been the peculiarities of those talks?

SS: The reaction to the talks has been favorable. I’ve gotten lively, engaged, and curious audiences. To me, it indicates a profound level of interest and feelings of investment in the matters of academic freedom, the corporatization of the university, the importance of the unionization of faculty (contingent or otherwise, graduate students, etcetera), the continued suppression — or in some cases punishment — of advocates of Palestinian human rights on campus.

Rayya El Zein [REZ]: Can you speak a bit more on the importance of unionization in the academe and your ability to speak about what has happened?

SS: In my life, generally, I am a latecomer to labor issues, in part because I went to graduate school in places without unions. I am from a rural area, and I went to school in rural areas. But I think in places like New York City, Chicago, and the West Coast there is much more profound – or at least visible – engagement with labor issues on campus. The first thing that comes to mind is for me self-evident. Had the University of Illinois faculty belonged to a union, the administration would not have been able to get away with [firing me]. [The faculty] have been organizing for a union for quite some time, and after this latest administrative infelicity, they’re pressing even more for a union because they understand so much of what is at stake. I don’t see the suppression of moves towards unionization as distinct from professors getting fired or being punished for political speech. I think they both lead back to a particular neoliberal governing paradigm in universities that comes out of a particular colonial logic which draws on matters of institutional racism. There is a certain demand for affiliation with the bureaucracy; that administrators are expected to stick together, and increasingly, faculty are expected to identify with the administration rather than with the so-called workers on campus. There are those problems, but more than that, the “adjunctification” of faculty labor ties in deeply to the suppression of speech rights. Because contingent or part-time faculty have no functional academic freedom, they can be fired at will. Because they are, more or less, at-will employees, they have to be extra careful not to criticize the administration or to engage in a political critique that goes beyond meek liberal boundaries. I think it’s not just economics that compels administrators to rely on contingent labor, it is also [about] having a huge expendable workforce under its control that they consider expendable and easily replaceable should those workers or employees go out of pocket so to speak.

GB: Have you received any criticism from people attending the talks you’ve been giving? From people opposed to you and are in favor of the university’s decision to fire you?

SS: Actually, nobody has publically copped to supporting the university. There have been plenty of people complaining about my politics or complaining about my tone and language. The conversations have uniformly been respectful, for lack of a better term. There hasn’t been screaming or yelling… though of course I haven’t gone to Brooklyn College yet! So far it’s been good and I have entered into some pretty interesting, enlightening, and productive conversations with folks of differing political opinions.

GB: How have these speaking engagements and the fallout after your firing affected your scholarship? A lot of what you have recently been speaking on regards the suppression of free speech and the lack of academic freedom, so I am wondering how you are negotiating between your role as an advocate for academic freedom and your individual role as a scholar.

SS: The two roles are not always in harmony with one another. As someone who got fired for political speech, I have an obvious interest in the maintenance of academic freedom as both a concept and a practice. But as a scholar I am inherently skeptical of the ability of “academic freedom,” as a practice and an idea, to allow for opportunities to systematically critique state power, structural racism, or the continued colonization of North America. These are speech-acts, or forms of analyses that have never quite existed within the usual practices of academic freedom. In fact, they are analyses that have a long history of being punished in the academy and elsewhere.

Melissa Marturano [MM]: The board of trustees claims you were de-hired, or fired, because you violated “civility,” which they say the university should value as much as scholarship. How is this emphasis on “civility” connected to larger trends in academe? Is this connected to the idea that the university should be about maintaining comfort or do you see this as an isolated attempt by one administration?

SS: It is definitely not isolated. “Civility” has long been in use as an administrative pet term, and you can really see how [the term’s] use has been ramped up by other university administrators. I think it’s telling that not a single college or university president anywhere in the United States has spoken against the University of Illinois’ decision. In that sense it indicates an investment in the university being able to get away with [firing me]. I have mentioned a few times a particular sort of colonial logic that governs universities and I think the invocation of the term “civility” is an important example. It is a term that comes out of wide ranging colonial histories, from all over the world — Africa, the Arab world, South and East Asia, certainly North and South America — it’s a term that attaches itself to a particular history even if its users appear unaware of that history. The fact that they appear unaware tells us how pervasive and insidious that logic is and how it informs a certain type of ethos that, at the very least, is implicitly violent. It makes it easy for class disparities and disparities over access and belonging to become naturalized.

MM: The tactic of boycotting the University of Illinois – which has been endorsed by professors in all different disciplines as well as adjuncts and graduate students, to the total of thousands of people – in the wake of Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s decision to fire you has evoked powerful parallels with recent waves of academic boycotts of Israel. Do you find these parallels productive, do you find them problematic? Is there a conflict between evoking and defending the principles of academic freedom in your case, against the University of Illinois, and your support of the academic boycott of Israeli universities?

SS: It depends on the context in which those comparisons are raised. I do think that BDS – or more specifically the academic boycott of Israel – and my firing have something profound to do with one another. Many people are saying that my firing is a sort of comeuppance because I was vocally in favor of the academic boycott (I continue to be vocally in favor of it) and that I am being treated with the same heavy hand that Israeli scholars are being treated with vis-à-vis the boycott. There is simply no evidence for that kind of nonsensical claim. In fact, the only Israeli faculty member who has ever been fired since the American Studies Association boycott resolution passed, was a guy named Amir Hetsroni. He criticized Operation Protective Edge and got canned for it. There is no evidence that any individual Israeli scholar or graduate students’ academic freedom has in any way been restricted. Zero evidence. In fact, the opponents of the ASA boycott resolution screamed about academic freedom, well they have all lined up with the University of Illinois administration. Academic freedom is a red herring, it has everything to do with assuming whatever position happens to be most convenient in order to better protect Israel from criticism. That is their guiding principle; academic freedom means shit to them. They don’t have any guiding principles besides defending Israel, and so they can be for or against academic freedom depending on which particular viewpoint in that moment supplements that desire. It was the organizing collective of USACBI (United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) that immediately sprang to my defense. We have plenty of examples of academic boycott actually being deeply devoted to practices of academic freedom as [opposed to] its critics who are perfectly happy to organize to get their political opponents fired or in some other way punished.

MM: On your Facebook, you wrote that you do not support boycotting individual scholars from the University of Illinois, but rather supported boycotting the institution. I think that this is an important distinction to make, can you speak more to this?

SS: The post that you reference came out of a specific conversation that I was witnessing on the Support Salaita Facebook page. Some folks were noting that some people seemed to be interpreting the boycott as an inability or unwillingness to invite scholars from UIUC to visit other campuses. I wanted to put my viewpoint out there that this was both counterproductive and unethical. [UIUC professors] are the ones that are really maintaining whatever semblance of dignity that university has left. We should be working hard to invite them and engage with them, rather than isolating them even more in what has become an even more difficult situation for them.

REZ: Could you say a bit more about what you mean? It sounds a lot like the defense some people use: “that we shouldn’t boycott members of Israeli academe because they are the ones doing the ‘good work.’” Where do you see the distinction in boycotting professors at the University of Illinois?

SS: The academic boycott of Israel is strictly against the boycott of individual scholars. They are not prohibited from doing anything, and likewise regarding the boycott at UIUC, individual faculty [members] aren’t restricted from doing anything. It seems to me that “boycott” is a sort of catchall term. It more so asks people to avoid the campus voluntarily in a specific act of solidarity. There is no basis for any sort of recrimination for someone who does go and speak [at UIUC]. What happens is, if someone has been invited to speak, or has an upcoming event, folks might get in contact with that person and say: “would you consider rejecting the invitation because the administration has proved time and again to be invested in institutional racism and to be against faculty governance and so forth.” I see it really as a request.

GB: Given the wide-ranging political usage of the term “academic freedom” around these recent debates, where do you hope that current conversation might go and where do you think that continued deliberation around “academic freedom” might lead? As it currently stands, do you think that such debates, as are being formulated, serve to solidify the status quo in the university? Or is there a transformative socio-political thread that we can all tug on?

SS: I think it is easy for these movements and terminologies to be co-opted and become part of the status quo. That is what “they” do, “they” co-opt things and make them part of their own self-serving process. I do think that there are threads that we can tug on as you so wonderfully put it. I am noticing, even amongst the traditionally liberal professoriate, a growing cynicism and skepticism about administrative bloat and about the role of business interests in the university. To me, this seems to be a particularly productive or potentially fruitful thread. [The debates have highlighted] the ways in which moneyed interest are determining how the academic side of the university is going to be run. For example, the Koch brothers telling Florida State University what type economics professor can or cannot be hired. We have lobby money – or as they say in politics, special interest money – controlling the governance process on the faculty end, the educational end of the university. This poses a particular danger that I think can draw together a broad range of people of varying ideological stripes.

REZ: A coalition of graduate students here at The Graduate Center, CUNY has been trying to pass a resolution in favor of the academic boycott of Israel through the Doctoral Students’ Council. It failed to achieve majority at the last plenary, although it achieved plurality. UCLA student government this week voted to divest. You yourself have written about and worked on BDS campaigns. What do you think is the role of this organizing in the wake of both: the Israeli Defense Forces’ “Operation Protective Edge” over the summer and the intimidation you, as well as others (I am thinking here about Students for Justice in Palestine groups across university campuses), faced after critiquing it? How do you think BDS campaigns affect structures of power—at the level of the university, first, perhaps, but also internationally?

SS: Those are all really good, difficult questions. I do think, first of all, that there are connections to be made between “Protective Edge” and what is happening in activist communities in North America. We are seeing a crackdown regarding me and a bunch of other folks. It exists for many reasons. One of them being that this crackdown has always existed, not just in the context of Palestine. [This repression] has affected African-American scholars, indigenous scholars, and women scholars [in the United States] for decades. This is a long-standing process, it exists in a continuum.

Israel is very difficult to defend now. It is just very hard to raise a defense of Israel’s actions. I believe that is why – in the face of the slaughter of 500 children in less than two months – you did not hear that Israel’s defenders were trying to deny that these war crimes were happening. Instead, they were simply blaming the Palestinians for them and attributing it all on Hamas. There is no actual defense of Israel. [What there is instead] is primarily one of two things: it is the Palestinians fault, or other countries are worse. Neither of these is a defense at all; neither is it a defense on an intellectual or moral level. It is an evasion, not an argument. The default strategy then is not to have the debate or conversation at all. You silence people, you shut them down, or you do not allow the conversation to continue. You call up Dov Hikind’s office and tell him to start raising hell.

But more particularly, I think there is a psychological and emotional component to BDS that we do not often talk about because it is difficult to talk about psychological and emotional things without sounding like a biological determinist. What I mean by this is that — in what I hope is benign usage of those terminologies — it enables people who are witnessing these horrors from afar, who feel helpless, to make them feel like they are acting in some way, to feel like they are doing something. What it is that they are [actually] doing is a much more difficult question to answer. I think it’s at the heart of what you are getting at. I think it is important to recognize that BDS, as effective as it has been in raising the issue of Israeli brutality and colonization and the complicity of American universities and Israeli universities in those practices, has not changed actual policies at this point. BDS is a means to an end. And that end, of course, is the liberation of Palestine. That is its ultimate goal. In that sense, we are all tactically very far away from that goal. But, at the same time, [BDS campaigns are] something that have a remarkable ability to push at the issues in a way the usual arguments against the liberal pieties of dialogue and friendship and coexistence have not been able to do. It forces people to stake out a position and then it flushes the liberal Zionists out: it allows them to be engaged and debated in that way. It also forces the people in power to confront the issue, even if it is only to deny [their complicity with Zionist policies], or to deny that BDS is effective, or to sing the praises of Israel. It forces them into a stance which [in turn] allows us to engage with them in clear ways. I think that BDS as a form of organizing is quite good in the arenas of discourse and in localized situations such as on an individual college campus, or in trade unions. But in terms of the broader goal of transforming policy, it has to be in conversation with comparable movements that collectively might be able to [effect] change.

REZ: So, do you see BDS as a strategy that is coming after and against “conflict resolution,” these kinds of discourses that dominate the liberal Left post-Oslo?

SS: Yes and no. It definitely comes after, it is definitely a response. But it is a way of wresting control of the terms of the conversation. I do not see BDS as a full-on rejection of people who have Zionist positions per se. It is a full-on rejection, in most instances, of Zionism as an ideology. I would actually consider it a form of dialogue in which Palestine solidarity activists actually have a say in the conversation, rather than being relegated to spaces in which they always must be subordinate to the hurt feelings of the liberal Zionist.

REZ: Early career scholars familiar with digital media, such as ourselves, are watching your case with obvious interest for what it implies about what is and what isn’t part of our scholarly output. On the one hand, we are encouraged to have digital presences, to be tech savvy, to not forget to engage the role of “public intellectual.” On the other, we are, through cases like yours, reminded that these technologies expose us to pressure, criticism, and censorship we might not otherwise face. Do you have advice for early career scholars who are navigating these concerns? If you were a recent PhD, with a Twitter handle and political opinions, watching your own case unfold over the past few months, what would it say to you about your future as an academic and an activist on social media?

SS: The platforms have changed dramatically and the ability to share opinions has become a lot easier. First it was blogs, and now it is Facebook, Twitter, and whatnot. It is a matter of changed conveyance. But in terms of the fundamental ethic of speaking in opposition to American structural racism or Israeli colonization or whatever, I made the decision early in graduate school that I was going to [engage these questions] and [that] I was going to be honest in my job interviews about it, so that they knew what they were getting. I learned early what so many generations of ethnic-minority scholars have already known: that you have to be three or four times as accomplished as your white, normative counterparts to get a job. That is why I have published my ass off. I am not particularly ambitious. I am just not stupid. I knew that if I was going to be a critic of Israel, then I also needed to have a stellar dossier. So, I put those two things together.

I would have probably been even more active on Twitter at the age of twenty-five or twenty-six than I am now. I have a family. I have things to do. Usually, even when I was actively tweeting, I would only get on there at night when my kid had gone to bed. I could see myself in younger or in a different era tweeting like a motherfucker—always tweeting.

But in terms of the advice—let me take what I just said and try to broaden it and also make it more specific. I think every young scholar or graduate student has to balance her political commitments with her scholarly desires or ambitions. I do not think it is a good idea to fully hide those commitments on the job market. You do not necessarily have to trumpet them, they do not even have to come up—just do not lie about them. They need to be willing to take you on as you are. Some departments are willing to do that, and happy to do that, but most of them are cowardly. But that is not the kind of department you aren’t going to be happy in anyhow, and after two years there, you are going to be seeking to leave.

I am not good at giving advice. Maybe because I am too easy-going, my general attitude to everything is: “Do whatever you want to do. And if you believe in it, do it. [As long as] you feel like you are doing something that is not unethical, then go for it.” But let me say this. To me, speaking publicly, especially with our access to social media, it is not just a career risk, it is an emotional risk, it is an intellectual risk. You get yelled at, you get screamed at. You are making yourself vulnerable—especially around controversial issues—to ridicule, to verbal abuse, to threats, particularly if you are criticizing Israel. You are making yourself vulnerable in all these different ways. Do you know how many times I have caught hell on Twitter for saying things that are not popular among certain groups? It is hard! There were times when I went to sleep with absolute feelings of despair, with all these feelings of self-doubt, because of the kind of abuse you receive.

There is vulnerability in entering into these spaces in the first place. People have to feel ready to do it. If it is something they feel they want to do, if they feel it is productive to organize politically, if they feel it will be rewarding to speak publicly about certain political issues, and they have thought through the possible implications, both positive and negative, and if they feel it is meaningful to them, they should do it. I do not think people should self-censor. But if they are in a position where their feelings about the job market outweigh their desires to engage in this type of activity, they should wait, hang tight, and they should do it when they are ready. It requires readiness, both intellectual and emotional, and it requires a readiness to tailor your academic progress towards the possible contingencies towards these types of decisions.

REZ: I recently reread some of your pieces on anti-Arab racism and I was wondering if this case at UIUC has me do you rethink any of that work?

SS: Yeah. Tons of it. It makes me kind of want to update it. I mean that particular critique. I have been thinking a lot about how being Arab plays a role in this—above and beyond, let us say, the case of Roman Finkelstein. I mean, what differences exist in being a Jewish critic of Israel and being an Arab critic of Israel. And I am sensing differences, but I have not quite worked them out yet. It is something that I’m still thinking about.

GB: You are not teaching, but many of us are, as graduate students and as adjuncts. If it were up to you, how would you like your case to be taught and discussed? What history is it a part of? Is this a part of the history of United States academe or of neoliberalism within it? Of Palestine and Israel and their ties to the United States? Of racism, of censorship, or something else entirely?

SS: What a great question. There may be a strategic benefit to limiting it to free speech and academic freedom because then you can draw in the broadest coalition. But I do not think it actually does us much good to limit it. For me, I like to situate it—and I hope that others continue to situate it—in the context of how deviant bodies—and bodies of deviant ideas—have always been punished and marginalized in academic settings. How blackness as both an idea and a typology has never been fully welcome in the academy. How indigeneity as a concept and as a decolonial practice has never been fully welcome in the academy. And now we see Palestine very often acting as this particular flashpoint—but it is in no way isolated from the forms of repression that came before it and that continue to contextualize it, and in many ways will re-perform it…But I think the issue, if we want to get really [precise] is one of punishing vocal Palestinians, specifically. If we’re going to look at it, this aspect cannot be separated from this particular story.

REZ: At the beginning of this interview, you mentioned your recognition of the importance of unionization among those in the academy in the wake of everything that’s happened. I’m just wondering if there are other things that have come up for you as a result of what you’ve gone through over the past few months?

SS: You know, I think maybe I’ve always been a little skeptical of authority figures. But this situation has really made me start to investigate, specifically, the ways in which these punitive practices have functioned in academic environments from a very long time ago. It made me think how important it remains to think through the corporate university as being a crucial element of a colonial society—not only the land-grant [university], existing on literally stolen land. (I mean, land-grant my ass! Stolen land-grant is what it actually is.) To me it becomes even more important to keep thinking about the ways that institutionalized racism, colonial paradigms, and a certain sort of colonial logic continue to govern these spaces, and in many ways define these spaces, and how much work we have to do to unpack how these processes work. And trying to think about ways in which those of us who are part of the settler society in one-way or another might avail ourselves of those who are knee deep in the work of decolonizing the continent.

Questions, opening blurb, and transcription prepared collaboratively. We thank Steven Salaita for his honest reflections and his generosity with his time.
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3 comments on “Confronting Institutional Racism: Steven Salaita on Academic Freedom, BDS, and the Colonial Logic of the Neoliberal University
  1. SS makes some pretty bizarre claims. He claims: “There is no defense for Israel”, then he makes the defense (a) “It’s the Palestinians’ fault” (b) other countries are worse. Both of these, and especially (a) are defenses. How can they not be.
    Inquisitor: You have done X, it is bad.
    Defense: X is not my fault, it’s Y’s fault.
    Bingo.
    See. That was easy!
    Next:
    Inquisitor: You have done X, it is bad.
    Defense: X is a pretty reasonable response, any other countries would have done the same or more, and in fact they have.
    Bingo.
    What stays without defense, and which SS provides none (how could he?) is the unmentioned rocket firing, aggression, and terror attacks to which Israel is responding (and the relentless warfare the Palestinians have waged against Israel for 66 years, including, especially in the post-Oslo era).

  2. @Roman…read the interview again. Those are not his personal defenses of Israel. He states that those are two examples of pseudo-defenses he is hearing other people offer in the wake of no longer being able to outwardly defend Israel’s actions.

  3. Ari, you may call these pseudo-defenses. But, depending on what that means, that is either not what SS is saying or they are directly addressed in my comment. SS is claiming that these are offered instead of defenses: that defenders of Israel state these things instead of offering a defense (and then implies that they act oh so uncivilly and call Dov Hikind instead having a conversation). They do awful things like boycott speakers like SS and the like.
    But as I stated in my comment, these ‘pseudo-defenses’ are not merely non-defenses, they are actually (if true) quite good defenses. So SS, in order to refute them, must, you know, refute them, not merely call them non-defenses.
    Israel offers defenses for its actions (responding to rocket fire in self-defense). Maybe these are justified; maybe they’re not. Firing those rockets in the first place, however…that is indefensible. Even SS has the decency not to try to justify that.

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