The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

University of Illinois censured after professor loses job over tweets critical of Israel

Steven Salaita, a professor who lost a job offer from the University of Illinois over dozens of profane, anti-Israel Twitter messages, speaks during a news conference in September 2014. (Seth Perlman/AP)
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Last summer, upset by the escalating conflict in Gaza that left more than 2,000 people dead, Professor Steven Salaita took to Twitter to express his outrage.

Like many people on Twitter, Salaita’s comments were passionate and provocative, even incendiary.

And like many Twitter users, Salaita soon found that his online remarks had gotten him embroiled in offline controversy.

First, a number of blogs picked up on his tweets. Then local media near the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where he was about to join the faculty of the American Indian Studies program, reported them. By August, the university rescinded its written job offer, while critics on campus and off accused Salaita of anti-Semitism and supporters pledged to boycott the school until his offer was reinstated. The next month, the school’s Board of Trustees voted against his hiring.

Suddenly Salaita was the face of a debate on Twitter, politics and academic freedom. He was also out of a job.

This weekend, the American Association of University Professors, a group that promotes academic freedom and tenure, among other things, voted to censure UIUC for its treatment of Salaita, citing a violation of due process in the dismissal of an already-appointed faculty member. As far as penalties go, censure from the AAUP is somewhat toothless — according to the association Web site, it simply “informs the academic community that the administration of an institution has not adhered to generally recognized principles of academic freedom and tenure.” But it’s not the best publicity for a university, particularly when it comes to recruiting faculty.

The investigation that ultimately recommended that the AAUP censure the school revolved mostly around the contractual aspect of Salaita’s un-hiring. Once he had accepted a written offer, resigned his current position, and been scheduled for a slate of fall semester classes, the report said, Salaita was entitled to the same rights as any tenured faculty member, even though his appointment had not been approved by the school’s Board of Trustees (a process that’s usually just a formality). By rejecting his appointment without a proper hearing or academic due process, the school violated standards for the dismissal of staff.

Calling Salaita’s dismissal “one of the more significant violations of academic freedom this decade,” the chair of the investigating committee Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay, said that the issue at hand was not what Salaita had said but how the school responded.

“One may consider the contents of his tweets to be juvenile, irresponsible, and even repulsive and still defend Salaita’s right to produce them,” Reichman said in an AAUP news release.

Salaita called the vote “a momentous moment” in an e-mail to The Washington Post. But it’s not the end of the conversation on the issue. He’s filed two lawsuits against UIUC — one to force the school to release all records relating to his hiring process, the other to have his job offer reinstated.

Meanwhile, many of the questions raised by the incident are still unanswered: Should scholars’ remarks on Twitter be regulated by the academic institutions that employ them? What exactly are schools asking for when they demand “civility” from their staff? And is there a higher bar for “civility” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a source of relentless combat not only in the Middle East but across the academic landscape in the United States and Europe in particular?

Salaita believes it’s wrong for a school to make faculty decisions based on “extramural” comments — Twitter and teaching are two separate spheres, he said.

“I think there’s a difference between saying something ‘controversial’ on social media and in the classroom. The two environments are dissimilar; each has its own set of ethics,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Post. “Teachers should be judged by the quality of their teaching.”

But Cary Nelson, a former president of the AAUP and an English professor at UIUC, agreed with the school that Salaita’s tweets would affect his performance in the classroom.

“When Salaita tweets, ‘If you’re defending Israel right now, you’re an awful human being,’ he issues a judgment about his future students that would justify them believing they would be academically at risk in expressing pro-Israeli views in class,” he told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “It’s not a violation of academic freedom to decide you don’t approve of someone’s publications or their public use of social media. It’s not a violation of academic freedom to decide not to hire someone with a deplorable role as a public intellectual.”

More than 1,000 students who signed a petition against Salaita’s appointment agreed. Josh Cooper, a UIUC senior who collected signatures for the petition, praised the chancellor’s advice that the Board of Trustees not approve Salaita’s appointment at its vote last September.

[Nobel laureate Tim Hunt says he was forced to resign: ‘I have been hung out to dry by academic institutes‘]

“Hate speech is never acceptable for those applying for a tenured position, incitement of violence is never acceptable, [and] yes, there must be a relationship between free speech and civility,” he said, according to the UIUC newspaper, the Daily Illini.

Lots of critics of the decision, including Salaita, pointed out that the university’s rescinded offer coincided with a slew of letters from angry donors who threatened to stop supporting the school. In an e-mail to The Post, Salaita wrote that the conditions of his un-hiring spoke to other, broader problems in academia — “the growth of corporate norms,” an intolerance for dissenting views on controversial issues under the banner of civility.

He also pointed out that conversations about Israel and Palestine seem to have a particularly low threshold for civility.

“Articulations of support for Palestinian human rights have been taboo for a very long time,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Just look at the number of professors who have been sanctioned or fired for criticizing Israel throughout the past three decades.”

(Critics of Salaita point out that he’s an advocate of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli academics — something they say is comparable to the way Salaita was treated for his own views. But in an e-mail, Salaita wrote “there is no equivalence” between the two sides.)

And UIUC Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise wrote in an Aug. 22 message to students that the school took issue with the tone of Salaita’s tweets, not the fact that they were critical of Israel.

“What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois,” she wrote, “are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

“We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals,” she added.

In an e-mail sent to faculty on Saturday, Wise said the AAUP decision was “disappointing, but not unexpected,” according to the Associated Press.