It’s 6:50 in the evening on Wednesday, October 8, 2014. The 7:00 event start time at Columbia College Chicago draws near. The lecture hall is filling up rapidly. The star attraction has not arrived. Professor Iymen Chehade, indeed a star in his own right, and I are waiting for Steven Salaita. A skilled, poised and charismatic student leader of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Dania Mukahhal, informs the audience that “the professor is on the way.” At about 7:15 I leave the panel podium and venture into a nearby hallway when I see coming toward me the scholar whose academic freedom case has galvanized the academic community in the United States unlike any I have seen since the DePaul University Norman Finkelstein case.
I quickly shake his hand and somewhat sheepishly follow him into the lecture hall when I exclaim, “He is here!” The audience breaks into applause. He is an imposing figure, tall, erect, gracious and a warm personality. The first question I whispered to him as we were taking our seats was. “How do you pronounce your name?” He said, “SaLIEta.” Ms. Mukahhal then introduced the three panelists. Mr. Chehade spoke eloquently on the suffering in Gaza and his own battles with Columbia College when a section of his Israeli/Palestinian course was removed, in the aftermath of a censorious, unidentified student who complained he showed the class the Academy Award nominated film, 5 Broken Cameras. Mr. Chehade’s remarks were clearly intended to communicate the difficulties that professors have in this country to engage in critical thinking on the Middle East cauldron of violence, retaliation, brutality and oppression. At times he spoke with great emotion on the Gaza condition and maintained a presence of resolve and optimism that justice will ultimately prevail both in Palestine and in the battle for academic freedom in higher education. I followed him to the podium and then Steven Salaita spoke.
Like the other two panelists, his remarks were read from written text. The three panelists wanted to get it right and to present carefully their remarks before a packed Ferguson Hall on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Dr. Salaita is a dynamic speaker combining both passion and stunning intellectual power as he reflected upon the remarkable situation that brought him to this point. I found his remarks on civility of particular significance as he captured the essence of the latest weapon from corporate academe and their ideological acolytes to impose viewpoint cleansing on the professoriate and derivatively on their students. This is an excerpt:
Valuable ideas disrupt, reorder, undermine, confront, subvert, unsettle, upset, menace, admonish, forebode. Critical thinking is fundamentally incompatible with conformity, which is collegiality’s primary desire…Collegiality is the etiquette of submission. It’s impossible to be collegial when challenging the common sense of corporate dominion, no matter how politely you state the criticism.
Now, collegiality has given way to “civility,” which creates a new set of challenges to academic freedom. The usefulness of the term as a silencing mechanism is apparent by how many upper administrators have embraced it. Its basic function is identical to that of collegiality, but it more explicitly evokes colonial violence. The very act of using “uncivil” to describe supporters of Palestine (or any other site of decolonization) is a terrible irony: the accusation locates the subject in the wretchedness of subhumanity, but implicates the speaker in centuries of colonization and genocide.
Remember: I was hired in the American Indian Studies program. I still shake my head that the powers-that-be decided to rationalize their abrogation of academic freedom and faculty governance by invoking the terminology of New World colonization. It actually puts me in mind of George W. Bush calling his war on Iraq a “crusade.” It’s another reminder that there’s no appreciable correlation between intelligence and authority.
After his remarks, the audience of about 130 people with folks standing in an aisle along the wall, engaged in a spirited question and answer period. One of the comments from a professor whom I believe is from the University of Illinois at Chicago, expressed his anger and sorrow that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was denying its students and the American Indian Studies Program the contributions of a talented, humanistic professor who projects such an elevated level of discourse. Steven Salaita in a soft-spoken response to a question, stated he hopes to still teach at UIUC. May his wish come true!