The Salaita Lawsuit

As expected, anti-Israel activist and purported American Indian Studies expert Steven Salaita has filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois. My take on the merits of Salaita’s case remains essentially the same: (1) FIRE is absolutely correct in the chilling effects of Illinois’ “civility” standard; and (2) the Salaita case is most comparable to that of Ward Churchill, another qualification-challenged professor hired for reasons unrelated to his academic talent. Just as Colorado knew or should have known that Churchill had no business as a tenured professor, but didn’t have any problem keeping him on staff until he caused a p.r. problem for the school, so too would Salaita’s hire have gone through but for the p.r. backlash to his fanatical tweets.

In that respect, just as for Colorado with Churchill, Illinois had little excuse for not finalizing Salaita’s appointment. And just as with Churchill and Colorado, the appropriate response should have been appointing an overseer to ensure that, in future, the Illinois American Studies Program didn’t hire transparently unqualified candidates whose sole qualification appeared to be agreement on Middle Eastern matters with the departmental majority.

Two aspects of the lawsuit deserve a closer look. First, the university came out with the strongest defense of its actions to date. The American Indian Studies Program, the university (correctly) asserted, sought to hire a professor who “lacked the professional fitness to serve on the faculty.”

This admission raises three questions. First, why did the university consider Salaita’s tweets—vile as they were—evidence of lack of fitness, but not this type of “scholarship”? Second, what steps has the university taken to ensure that such inappropriate hires don’t occur again? In particular, will the university exercise greater oversight over future hires by the American Indian Studies Department? Third, has the university reached out to other qualified candidates who applied for the American Indian Studies position to apologize?

Academic freedom means not only that professors shouldn’t be fired for expressing controversial opinions: it also means that professors shouldn’t be hired for expressing political viewpoints that a departmental majority shares. The qualified applicants for this job—professors whose actual expertise came in American Indian Studies, not diatribes against Israel—had their academic freedom violated by the way in which the American Indian Studies faculty conducted the search. Based on that record, why should any applicant expect fair treatment from the University of Illinois personnel process?

The second notable item from lawsuit news came in Salaita’s targets—not merely the university and the trustees, but also donors who might have opposed his appointments and might have said they wouldn’t continue to donate to the University of Illinois if Salaita joined the faculty.

Salaita’s argument regarding the donors is extraordinary, and I can’t imagine how any judge could take it seriously. He appears to believe that donors to a public university must continue to give money to the school, even if they conclude that Illinois turned a blind eye to hiring someone who “lacked the professional fitness to serve on the faculty.” And what of the free speech rights of those who don’t share Salaita’s belief that Zionists have been guilty of “transforming antisemitism [sic] from something horrible into something honorable since 1948”?

In Salaita’s world, donors who might not have wanted to continue financially supporting a university that might hire an unqualified professor who dabbles in anti-Semitism could stop donating if and only if they didn’t tell the university the reasons for their action. But once they explained their rationale, they became subjects of a lawsuit. It seems as if in Salaita’s version of the First Amendment, he has free speech rights, but his critics must remain silent.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

7 thoughts on “The Salaita Lawsuit

  1. As an attorney, there is a far stronger problem with Salaita’s complaint against UofI: it is demonstrably dishonest, in a manner that ought to expose his counsel to sanctions. Salaita’s complaint frames his tweets as “in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza”; many of them, including the most vile (his wish that all the “fucking West Bank settlers” would “disappear” like the three kidnapped and murdered teens) were made well before Israel began responding to rocket fire from Gaza in July.

  2. An important thing that the Salaita and Churchill case have in common is that the departments in question are absolute dreck. The remarks made by Salaita and Churchill are typical of faculty-think in general, and certainly of “studies” departments. But if they were in, say, a math department, it would not have been such a scandal, since defenders would say that they are otherwise quite capable mathematicians. But no such defense can be offered by “studies” departments since they have no standards whatsoever. Any attempted defense of Salaita or Churchill could only shine light on the total worthlessness of their departments.

  3. It’s more than a little ironic that indigenous Americans won’t support the rights of the indigenous people of Israel — the Jews.

  4. Mr. Wilson,

    Link through to KCJ’s earlier article at MTC, and you will find SOME of what you are (rightly) asking about. The bulk of Salaita’s work appears to be on issues in the Middle East, and NOT on Native American topics. (See the links to the articles by David Bernstein and Liel Liebovitz.)

    Sometimes, applicants to specific jobs can be ascertained by looking at the various academic job search wikis. DOn’t know of KCJ did this or not.

    The most troubling aspect of this to me is the clear conflict of interest of Robert Warrior, who was apparently (I’ve not verified this myself) on Salaita’s doctoral committee at Oklahoma, and was also chair of the department that had issued the search.

    1. Robert Warrior was on Salaita’s doctoral committee, and he is head of the department. However, he was not part of the search committee that selected Salaita, so there is no conflict of interest. It’s true that there is often a good old boy network in academia where having the right connections and friends helps people get jobs. This is very common, and never the basis for firing a professor. Nor do we have evidence that this influenced Salaita’s hiring.

      Because Salaita was being hired for a comparative position, his work on the Middle East was relevant to his qualifications, in addition to his work on Native American issues.

  5. This is the best analysis of this that I have seen so far. The argument that the department’s hiring of Salaita represented a violation of the academic freedom of other applicants is especially interesting. One weakness is this: all of the other applicants in this discipline would also agree with the overall groupthink. There is no way you could can work in gender or ethnic studies and have divergent perspectives on social and political issues. The department in this case was after someone that they considered a ‘star’ in the same sense that Churchill was one in the eyes of CU. He is a volatile extremist who will advance very radical viewpoints unapolgetically. The department gets activist ‘street-cred’ and the hack ‘academic’ gets status and validation of their views and activities by association with the university.

  6. Johnson badly misinterprets the U of I’s latest statement in defense of dismissing Salaita, which he calls “the strongest defense of its actions to date.” He apparently thinks that the U of I’s mention of “professional fitness” is a reference to Salaita’s academic qualifications, when in fact it is simply a repetition of the “civility” argument that Johnson correctly decries as “chilling.”

    The U of I has never questioned Salaita’s academic qualifications for the position. To bring it up now in response to a lawsuit would be a classic ex post facto justification that has no legal merit, not to mention the fact that there’s no evidence of it.

    Johnson’s sole evidence that Salaita was “unqualified” for the position is one line in one of Salaita’s books making a dubious claim about Israeli probes. By this standard, virtually any scholar could be fired.

    Johnson claims that there were more qualified applicants for Salaita’s position. I’m curious if he has any evidence of this assertion, or if it has about as much proof as Salaita’s claim about Israeli probes. Has Johnson read the files and the books of all of the top candidates for this position?

    Given his lack of evidence presented, Johnson’s demand for more administrative “oversight” over the department’s hiring is an extraordinary threat to academic freedom.

    As for the dubious assertions by Salaita’s lawyers about donors, I don’t expect any lawsuit to move forward against donors. I think the sole purpose of the legal claim is to aid discovery of evidence that the administration was influenced by donors, which is certainly a legitimate legal argument.

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