Victim of McCarthy-Era Witch Hunt calls on U-Illinois not to Fire Critic of Israeli Policies
Note by Juan Cole: In the early 1950s, under the influence of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), a national witch hunt was conducted for leftists. McCarthy claimed to have a list of 100 Soviet moles in the State Department. Even former members of the Communist Party, which had been popular in the 1930s Great Depression before Stalin’s crimes were recognized, and which was part of the formal US alliance against the Axis in World War II, were suddenly put under scrutiny. Running against secret Communists or alleged covert socialists became common in politics (a slimy sociopath named Richard Nixon got his start in Congress that way). Screen writers in Hollywood were fired, names taken off the films, and made non-persons. No actual crime had to be alleged or proven– people were punished and ostracized, essentially for thought crimes. These techniques of intellectual bullying and intimidation, supposedly on national security grounds, were intended by many of their proponents to roll back the New Deal reforms that made a decent life possible for working people and to make criticism of the absolute property prerogatives of corporations and the very wealthy illegal. Many of our social pathologies in the 21st century are rooted in the success of this inquisitorial drive. At the University of Michigan, there is still an annual lecture, the Academic Freedom Fund, in honor of three University of Michigan professors who were fired or suspended for refusing to testify to a visiting delegation from the House Un-American Activities Committee. One of those summarily fired was a mathematician, Chandler Davis, who emigrated to Canada. Professor Davis, still feisty in his late 80′s, has just written a personal letter to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise urging her to rescind the firing of Professor Steven Salaita, a specialist in Native American Studies, for his trenchant criticisms of Israeli government policy toward the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. When I first wrote him suggesting I reprint the letter, in his gentlemanly way he said it was a letter to Chancellor Wise and he preferred not. Then it got out on the internet anyway, and he relented.
Chandler Davis writes:
Dr. Phyllis Wise
University of Illinois
Dear Chancellor Wise:
I write from a rich experience of attacks on academic freedom; I have seen the damage that enforcing conformity can do to intellectual life. Among the victims was myself. My expulsion from American academe in 1954 has been thoroughly refuted by history, so that I speak not with the bitterness of any unresolved grievance, but with the immediacy that personal memory gives.
When anti-segregationists were expelled, when socialists were expelled, the damage was dire for the victims, but dire also for the whole community. Today, we have our work cut out for us to defeat real anti-Semitism and real bigotry of all sorts. I am heartsick to see your office betray the struggle by joining the attack on Professor Steven Salaita.
Of course some sufficiently strong partisans of the Israeli government are sorry to hear his criticism, and might deplore his presence on your faculty. You are not obliged to bow to them. They are asking you to violate the security of an academic position– in this case, a position firmly promised though not yet taken up. Even if you could justify breaking your University’s commitment to Prof. Salaita –which you can not– you should reject with indignation the calls to wrench him from the community. He is an active opponent of anti-Semitism and other bigotry, as you must know from his writings. We need him by our side.
Many of you have probably learned about the circumstances surrounding the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne’s (UIUC) recent revocation of a tenured appointment in the American Indian Studies Program to Associate Professor Steven Salaita, formerly of Virginia Tech, nearly ten months after Salaita was offered the position. The undersigned ask you to add your name to a petition calling for the reinstatement of Salaita’s offer and agreeing not to visit UIUC until this has happened: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/995/171/092/rhetoric-composition-and-communication-scholars-statement-on-salaita-case/
A number of organizations, including the AAUP, Center for Constitutional Rights, and the MLA have urged UIUC to change its course. We urge the leaders of our professional organizations, particularly RSA and CCC, to follow suit and make public statements regarding this case.
Below, we provide some background on the case, rationale for the petition, and links to further resources for those with additional questions or concerns:
Background: No explanation for the firing has been given, although many have connected the timing of the decision with Salaita’s tweets during the month of July in response to the war between Israel and Gaza. On Friday August 22, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise issued a statement in which she refused to acknowledge any connection between the revocation and the tweets, but she also provided no other explanation for the firing. In her statement, Wise reaffirmed the decision to the university community, stating that: “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” The UIUC Board of Trustees issued a statement of its support of Wise shortly thereafter.
Rationale: The UIUC decision carries serious consequences for all scholars who hold academic appointments in the U.S. A few points stand out in particular:
1. The UIUC administration made its decision unilaterally, without consulting the American Indian Studies Program recommending his hire or the body of scholars, including the Faculty Senate, which subsequently vetted and supported the Program’s recommendation. This action is a violation of the principles of shared governance and academic due process that are grounding principles of every American university, including UIUC. In point of fact, the American Indian Studies Program at UIUC issued a vote of no confidence in UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise on August 24, 2014.
2. The UIUC administration’s decision to rescind a job offer on the grounds that faculty must engage in a particular kind of discourse (in this case Wise appeals to her audience by calling for “civil” or “respectful” language) clearly violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the rights of U.S. citizens to free speech and opinion.
3. Similarly, Wise’s statement that UIUC “cannot and will not tolerate… disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them” essentially closes the door on faculty’s rights to pursue basic academic research, scholarly debate, or inquiry. UIUC’s policy, as framed by Wise, implicates and threatens every UIUC faculty member, tenured or not.
UIUC’s decision is especially troubling given its profile as a Tier-1 research university, as well as a home to one of our discipline’s most well-respected graduate programs at the Center for Writing Studies. If the university’s decision stands, other universities of similar repute could use the precedent to follow suit, a move which threatens our rights as scholars to expect protection of academic freedom and inquiry within our institutional homes, as well as the basic right to free speech, whatever our political, professional, or personal allegiances may be.
Although we believe that the right to free speech, the protection of academic freedom and shared governance is central to this case, we know that many of you may have concerns about the content of Salaita’s tweets. In response, we would urge our disciplinary community to apply its considerable expertise in rhetorical analysis and consider the tweets as we would any text: place them in context and read them carefully (you can read them for yourself here: https://twitter.com/stevesalaita). As rhetorical scholars, we know how easily public speech and writing can be twisted by those in power. After our own careful review of Salaita’s tweets, we – like many others who have written publicly about the case, including Michael Rothberg, Holocaust and Jewish Studies scholar and Head of English at UIUC – have not found Salaita’s tweets to be anti-Semitic. In fact, we found many examples of Salaita’s tweets that express tolerance and respect for a wide range of views and diverse groups of people, including Jews.
As scholars of rhetoric and advocates of public discourse and academic freedom, therefore, we believe it is our responsibility to encourage all in our community to take a strong stance against the decision made by the UIUC administration. If you are as troubled as we are by UIUC’s blatant disregard for the protection of shared governance, academic freedom, and free speech, as well as the rhetorical appeals to “civility” and “collegiality” that are being used to mask what’s at stake, we again ask you to consider signing this petition for members of our field: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/995/171/092/rhetoric-composition-and-communication-scholars-statement-on-salaita-case/
We have also created an online space geared toward Rhetoric and Composition scholars in particular where you can read more about the case: https://rcsupportstevensalaita.wordpress.com
If you would like to read more about the case, we have compiled below a list of references:
• (8/7/14) “Statement on Case of Steven Salaita,” AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure: http://www.aaup.org/media-release/statement-case-steven-salaita
• (8/7/14) Center for Constitutional Right’s Letter to the UIUC Chancellor: http://ccrjustice.org/files/CCR Letter to University of Illinois re Prof Salaita 08 07 14.pdf
• (8/15/14) MLA’s Letter to the UIUC Chancellor, authored by the Executive Committee: http://www.mla.org/ec_univ_illinois
• (8/17/14) “Anitsemitism and Salaita,” an open letter to Chancellor Wise by Michael Rothberg, the Head of the Department of English at UIUC and Holocaust and Jewish Studies scholar: http://academeblog.org/2014/08/20/antisemitism-and-salaita/
• (8/20/14) “Don’t Speak Out: The Message of the Salaita Affair,” David M. Perry, Associate Professor of History, Dominican University: http://chronicle.com/article/Dont-Speak-Out-The-Message/148393/
• (8/22/14) “Chancellor Decrees Faculty at Illinois Are Subject to Civility Test; Trustees Back Her to the Hilt,” Illinois CFA (faculty union): http://cfaillinois.org/2014/08/22/chancellor-decrees-faculty-at-illinois-are-subject-to-civility-test-trustees-back-her-to-the-hilt/
• (8/22/14) “On the Salaita Decision,” Timothy Burke, Professor of History, Swarthmore College http://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/blog/2014/08/22/on-the-salaita-decision/
• (8/23/14 and ongoing) “More than 3000 Scholars Boycott the University of Illinois,” Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center: http://coreyrobin.com/2014/08/23/more-than-3000-scholars-boycott-the-university-of-illinois/
• (8/23/14) “University of Illinois Repeals the First Amendment for Its Faculty,” by Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values, University of Chicago: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-leiter/university-of-illinois-re_1_b_5703038.html
• (8/23/14) “Scholars Sound Alarms about Being Judged on Their Civility,” Nick DeSantis, The Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Sound-Alarms-About/148469/
• (8/23/14) “Updated: Wise Explains Salaita Decision, Gets Support from Trustees,” The News-Gazette: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-08-23/updated-wise-explains-salaita-decision-gets-support-trustees.html
• (8/24/14) “AIS Faculty Cast Vote of No Confidence in Chancellor Wise,” American Indian Studies Program at UIUC: http://www.ais.illinois.edu/news/current/noconfidence
• (8/24/14 and ongoing) Blog postings by Peter N. Kirstein, Professor of History at Saint Xavier University, http://english.sxu.edu/sites/kirstein/
• (8/25/14) “The Emails on Salaita,” Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/25/u-illinois-officials-defend-decision-deny-job-scholar-documents-show-lobbying
Matthew Abraham, Associate Professor of English, University of Arizona
Lisa Rebekah Arnold, Assistant Professor of English, American University of Beirut
Seth Kahn, Professor of English, West Chester Univ.
William Thelin, Professor of English, Univ. of Akron
Nancy Welch, Professor of English, University of Vermont
To sign this petition addressed to Chancellor Wise, go to:
To: Chancellor Phyllis Wise, University of Illinois
From: Concerned Rhetoric, Composition, and Communication Scholars
Whereas academic freedom is an essential aspect of academic life and campus climate;
Whereas UIUC has violated the academic freedom of Professor Steven Salaita and the UIUC faculty who served on the hiring committee which approved his appointment;
Whereas parties external to the University of Illinois have influenced the administration’s disposition toward Professor Salaita’s appointment by bringing in irrelevant considerations, such as the content and tone of his Twitter messages, at the last minute and at the conclusion of the academic process;
Whereas the right to free expression as enshrined in the First amendment extends to all US citizens;
We the undersigned—teachers and scholars of writing, rhetoric, and communication studies, at colleges and universities across the country, dedicated to the arts of language and public discourse in all their myriad, often-controversial forms—will not step foot on UIUC’s campus until Professor Salaita’s appointment is reinstated.