University of Illinois professor loses his job after anti-Israel tweets


In this April 28, 2014 photo, Students walk past the Alma Mater statue, a landmark on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Ill. (AP Photo/David Mercer)

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has retracted a job offer to an outspoken critic of the conflict in Gaza, according to a letter released Wednesday and signed by the university’s chancellor.

Steven Salaita, a former Virginia Tech professor, had been offered a tenured appointment as an associate professor in the American Indian Studies department with a salary of $85,000, pending approval from the board of trustees. Such approval is essentially guaranteed, and his start date was set for Aug. 16, the Chicago Tribune reported.


But according to Inside Higher Ed, “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.” As the blog pointed out, criticism of Israel is not unusual in academia. Nor is it that rare at the University of Illinois, where varying viewpoints of the Israel-Palestine divide have played out in the pages of the campus newspaper, the Daily Illini.

In an Aug. 1 letter obtained by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise and Christophe Pierre, the vice president for academic affairs, wrote Salaita, “Your appointment will not be recommended for submission to the Board of Trustees in September, and we believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely.”

For weeks, Salaita’s tweets have been very, very focused on criticizing Israel.  


Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson wrote that “Salaita’s Twitter feed is crudely anti-Israel and has been since long before the recent Gaza conflict.” Salaita’s Twitter bio touts his most recent book, “Israel’s Dead Soul.” Salaita is no stranger to controversy: In a 2013 Salon essay not about the Mideast, he wrote, “The first rule for any serious writer is to agitate the contentious and embrace the disreputable.”

Campus spokesman Robin Kaler would not comment on Salaita’s status, but told the News-Gazette: “Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all our employees.”

The Illinois chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) posted a statement to its blog defending the professor:

Reports that the university has voided a job offer, if accurate, due to tweets on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country.

Professor Salaita resigned his position at Virginia Tech and was about to assume his  new appointment at the University of Illinois. We stand by the appointment and by Professor Salaita and defend his right to engage in extramural utterances.

But Cary Nelson, a University of Illinois English professor and former president of the AAUP, told the Chicago Tribune that “it was valid for the campus to basically say … we better take another look at this guy.” He also told the Huffington Post that Salaita had “stepped over a line.”

For several days this month, Salaita’s Twitter feed was quiet — until Monday, when he tweeted, “Thank you, everybody, for your support. I have received your many messages and am deeply grateful.”

Currently, a Change.org petition calling for Salaita’s “immediate reinstatement” has collected more than 14,000 signatures.

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