The Ironies of the Salaita Case

Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet has an op-ed in today’s Chicago Tribune with the headline, “The writing is on the wall, U. of I.: Offer controversial scholar Steven Salaita a job.” It’s a well-written piece expressing Lubet’s previously expressed opinion that Salaita an anti-Semite and an idiot, but arguing that the U of I’s fight against his job will cost money, endanger academic freedom, and lionize Salaita as a free speech martyr.

Lubet argues: “The great irony is that Salaita himself is no champion of free expression. He has advocated excluding Hillel, the Jewish student organization, from minority group activities on campus, and he supports the boycott of all Israeli academic institutions and the barring of Israeli deans and rectors from scholarly conferences.”

That’s not a great irony; many academic freedom cases involve people who don’t support other people’s academic freedom, and it doesn’t matter. But Lubet’s attacks on Salaita are very weak. It’s true Salaita writes that Hillel is “ethnonationalist” and should “be banned from participating in any form of multicultural celebration.” But that’s very different from proposing any censorship of Hillel (unlike Hillel’s own national policy which bans chapters from participating in any events with anti-Israel people). And although barring Israeli deans from speaking for their institutions at scholarly conferences is a misguided policy of the American Studies Association, since that actually never happens, there is no impact on academic freedom. If this is the worst Lubet can say about Salaita and free expression, then Salaita would be among the strongest supporters of academic freedom in the country, and far better than anyone who favors firing Salaita.

But it is notable that the state’s biggest and most influential newspaper is allowing an op-ed that calls for Salaita’s reinstatement. Also notable is today’s Tribune editorial, which opposes giving Wise the $400,000 bonus for resigning.

The biggest irony in the Salaita case may take place tomorrow. It’s quite possible that the Executive Committee of the Trustees will do to Phyllis Wise exactly what Wise and the Board did to Salaita. The Board of Trustees might revoke a previously negotiated agreement with Wise to give her $400,000 in exchange for resigning, in exactly the same way that Wise and the trustees revoked the hiring offer for Salaita, except that Wise’s penalty for the trustees revoking the agreement would be merely having the tenured position Salaita is suing for at more than three times Salaita’s salary.

There are important differences between the two cases: Salaita has a much stronger legal argument for deserving his tenured position than Wise does for her $400,000 “bonus.” Salaita’s firing violated University Statutes that absolutely protect extramural utterances, it violated the First Amendment protections of free speech and academic freedom, and it violated AAUP guidelines about academic freedom. It also violated the academic freedom of UIUC students and faculty who are deprived of the chance to take classes with Salaita.

There are other differences: Salaita has always performed his academic work admirably well, as his teaching record at Virginia Tech can attest. By contrast, Wise not only miserably failed to do the part of her job that involves defending academic freedom, but she is also being forced out of her position because she acted unethically in her role as chancellor by intentionally violating FOIA law in order to conceal her emails.

If the trustees give Wise the $400,000 bonus promised to her, they will have no moral excuse to deny the same for Salaita and his promised job. If they deny Wise her bonus, then we might see her joining Salaita in suing the trustees for breach of contract, unless she’s satisfied with the millions she’s made from the University so far, and the many millions she will make in the future.

13 thoughts on “The Ironies of the Salaita Case

    • Really? Nothing I have read by Salaita uses that language. If he has used that language in tweets he does not do so in other settings, so this is something of a straw man argument.

      • I come from a very blue-collar background. Over the years, I have been in any number of fine establishments where someone has called someone else “a dumbass motherfucker.” And never once have I heard someone say in response anything even remotely close to “That’s something of a straw man argument.”

        I am not trying to ridicule you for making that response. I am simply trying to point out that the dumbass motherfucker who wrote the original comment does not deserve anything approaching a thoughtful response.

        • No, you are not making an argument, and your pot-shots here don’t even rise to the level of irony. All they lead to is rolling eyes. You are not even responding “in kind” to Salaita’s tweets which, also, do not represent a “new level of respectability” any more than they are what the AAUP and others defend (a different issue completely).

      • Am I feeding the trolls? I guess I think an argument of sorts is being presented. Presumably Salaita has used profanity in some tweets, which is probably acceptable for that medium. But Rich Horton claims Salaita uses profanity in “proper political discourse” which could include, say, an essay on this blog, or even speech in the classroom. I don’t think Mr. Salaita does that. Besides being a straw man argument it is an example of tone trolling. This is a typical smokescreen thrown up by Israel’s defenders when they don’t want to respond to criticism of Israel, although I don’t think that is where Mr. Horton is coming from. Interestingly, according to this link

        on tone trolling if I do not respond to Rich Horton he can accuse me of something called “kafkatrapping” which means “being so mean as not to bother explaining to an idiot why they’re an idiot in simple enough terms for the idiot to want to understand.”

  1. As Cornel West has pointed out, “character assassination is the refuge of those who hide and conceal life and death issues – of police murders, poverty, mass incarceration, drones, TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] (unjust trade policies), vast surveillance, decrepit schools, unemployment, Wall Street power, Israeli occupation of Palestinians, Dalit resistance in India and ecological catastrophe – in order to rationalize their own allegiance to the status quo.” Steven Lubet is engaged in Salaita’s character assassination – pure and simple, all his prattle about freedom of speech notwithstanding.

    • To be accurate, Lubet has made no comment at all about Salaita’s character. John Wilson is inaccurate to state that Lubet has called Salaita “an anti-Semite and an idiot.” His position is that some of Salaita’s tweets were anti-Semitic and it is clear that he has little respect for Salaita’s published work, but he has never labeled Salaita himself an anti-Semite or, for that matter, anything else. One may well disagree with Lubet about the character of Salaita’s tweets, or about his negative assessment of Salaita’s scholarship and his commitment to free expression. But those are about his stated views and positions, not his person. Moreover, it is important to stress that both in this recent “cut your losses” op-ed but also in his previous writings in the immediate aftermath of Salaita’s dismissal, Lubet has clearly stated that the UIUC administration and trustees violated academic freedom and shared governance and that Salaita should get his job back. And, once again, as far as AAUP is concerned, Salaita’s personal character and the content of his tweets are basically irrelevant. He was denied the protections of academic freedom to which he was entitled. That is the violation that concerns us and should concern the entire professoriate, irrespective of their views of anti-Semitism or the Israel-Palestine conflict.

      • Actually, it’s quite clear that Lubet thinks Salaita is anti-Semitic. He’s written that Salaita “traffics in anti-Semitism” and called some of his tweets “inexcusably violent and racist.” He said Salaita’s tweets crossed the line to “blatant anti-Semitism” and condemned his “poisonous ideas.” Obviously, if you say that someone repeatedly and intentionally made anti-Semitic comments, you are attacking his personal character and accusing him of being an anti-Semite. I respect Lubet’s principled defense of academic freedom, but I can disagree with his views on Salaita, which certainly are a form of character assassination. But there’s nothing wrong with character assassination, and Cornel West is simply wrong to imagine that only defenders of the status quo engage in it. However, we should also realize that the Chicago Tribune is much more likely to publish a defense of academic freedom if it smears Salaita at the same time.

      • John, I don’t want to nitpick, but neither you nor I know what Steven Lubet “thinks” beyond what he says and writes. You wrote about Lubet’s “previously expressed opinion that Salaita is an anti-Semite and an idiot.” But Lubet has not expressed such an opinion. That he holds this opinion is your inference from his comments about the tweets and Salaita’s scholarship, but not an opinion that he has expressed. Your inference may be correct, but it is an inference nonetheless. Moreover, I would use terms like character assassination more carefully. It is one thing to argue that someone’s views are reprehensible, which readers may take as a reflection on that person’s character. But character assassination generally focuses on irrelevancies, like personal behavior. It would be character assassination, for examples, to charge that someone cheated on their taxes or had extramarital affairs, but not character assassination to argue with the content of that person’s statements. Both are irrelevant to the defense of academic freedom, but the latter is relevant to assessments of a scholar’s substantive views and that individual’s merits or demerits as a scholar.

    • Actually, the correct analogy would be if the NAACP banned chapters from participating in events with people who oppose affirmative action, which the NAACP definitely doesn’t do and would deserve criticism if it did.

  2. “Obviously, if you say that someone repeatedly and intentionally made anti-Semitic comments, you are attacking his personal character and accusing him of being an anti-Semite.”

    No. People can say stupid things without being stupid. People get things wrong for all kinds of reasons. When they ignore people who say they are wrong, they have all kinds of reasons for doing that.

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