By Robert Warrior, Director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
As the one-year anniversary of the debacle over the aborted appointment of Steven Salaita at Illinois approached, Inside Higher Education published an op-ed by former AAUP president Cary Nelson spelling out the lessons he contends we can all learn from the this now infamous episode. He places the blame for it on my colleagues and I in the American Indian Studies Program at Illinois for having recommended the appointment in the first place, and I began formulating this response right away. Then the Illinois chancellor and provost resigned, with an embarrassing trove of email messages they had schemed to keep secret released between resignations. As such, I found myself distracted from my response.
As is the case with much of what he has written about the Illinois debacle and the Salaita appointment, Nelson’s IHE anniversary op-ed relies on fabrications, speculation, and half-truths. So, when a moment came in which I could catch my breath, I returned to my response and asked IHE to publish it. The editor declined, saying he had already published enough pieces about Salaita. Fortunately, the editors of the Academe blog have provided this opportunity that Inside Higher Ed refused to me.
Nelson’s basic argument in IHE is that my colleagues and I in American Indian Studies created the whole mess because we lacked the scholarly competence to have recommended Salaita’s appointment in the first place. Nelson uses more space to detail this argument in an essay coming out soon in the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom, and I have responded to that essay as well. In both cases, my hope is to show how Nelson has used this and other weak arguments to divert attention away from the gross violations of academic freedom and shared governance at the center of this still-festering crisis.
Nelson presents his diversion as a cautionary tale, the lesson of which is that “the whole academic hiring process disintegrates when a program or department attempts to initiate a faculty hire outside of its areas of competence.” More than incompetent, he paints my colleagues and I as hardcore ideologues more interested in advancing our political goals than paying attention to academic standards, championing someone unqualified for an appointment in our field. Further, he says, we took advantage of “an understandable inclination” of our dean and other administrators “not to challenge the American Indian Studies Program” in adopting the focus on global indigeneity that created the opening through which we recommended Salaita’s hire. Together, this led us (back to incompetence) to equate Palestinians with Indigenous peoples such as American Indians while casting Israelis as European colonizers.
Whatever else Nelson’s cautionary tale may be, it certainly isn’t true, nor is it based on any credible facts. So, I have a cautionary tale of my own: beware a self-proclaimed “tenured radical” like Nelson who ignores facts, makes up others, and willfully and unfairly sullies scholarly reputations in the service of advancing the goals of his political agenda.
On the issue of Salaita’s qualifications as a scholar of American Indian studies, Nelson never mentions the fact that Salaita earned his PhD in English with a concentration in American Indian literatures at the University of Oklahoma. Nelson has repeatedly pointed out in other pieces that I was a member of Salaita’s dissertation committee at Oklahoma, where I used to teach. He has never pointed out, however, that Salaita’s primary adviser at Oklahoma, Alan Velie, was the first professor anywhere to teach an American Indian literature course back in the early 1970s and through his publications and professional work helped establish the legitimacy of Native literary studies. OU’s concentration in Native literature is the only one of its kind in the US, and one of the few graduate programs that offers doctoral level training and credentialing in any field of Native American studies.
Nelson also leaves out the fact that I was not a member of the search committee that identified Salaita for its short list or its finalists, nor was I privy to any but the most rudimentary of their deliberations, including their recommendation of whom we should recruit. I did not know what the committee’s recommendation was until they presented it to the AIS faculty.
Salaita’s scholarly work has, it’s true, focused on topics other than the ground-breaking comparative work on Native American, Palestinian, and Palestinian American literatures he did for his doctoral program and his second of six books. Nevertheless, he has maintained a professional profile, through journal articles and conference presentations, that includes Native literary studies across the span of his career. Further, the comparative work of his training at Oklahoma clearly informs all of his work, especially in regard to issues of indigeneity that arise in his scholarship. Likewise, Salaita’s public intellectual work has often taken up Native American issues along with or as a touchstone to Palestinian and Arab American issues.
Having said that, I should also point out that Nelson is incorrect in stating that Salaita’s “main job would have been to teach ‘comparative indigeneity’” focused on “Native Americans and Palestinians.” We hoped eventually to find appropriate ways for Salaita to teach courses reflecting all of his broad interests, especially Arab American studies, but no one should miss this fact: though AIS has had some of the most highly-respected leaders in Native American and Indigenous studies on its faculty, Salaita was our first and still only hire of someone with an actual graduate-level credential in American Indian or Indigenous studies. He can, in fact, teach nearly every course in our curriculum. The two courses he was kept from teaching in the fall of 2014 were “Introduction to American Indian Studies” and “Indigenous Intellectuals.”
Second, American Indian Studies at Illinois has no programmatic history of highlighting Palestine or the Middle East, nor do the faculty members who participated in this search have a shared set of positions on Palestinian issues that would have provided the basis for us to make a political rather than academic choice in the search. Three of the six core faculty members from the time of that search, including me, have endorsed the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, but the other three, and also the three affiliated faculty members (all full professors) who participated in the deliberations, have no public record of political advocacy on Palestinian issues.
Further, our program has never hosted an event or a speaker on Israel or Palestine. In the five years of faculty meetings in my term as director of American Indian Studies at Illinois leading up to the recommendation of Salaita, Palestine was never an agenda item, nor did we ever discuss Palestine except perhaps in the context of LeAnne Howe’s year on a Fulbright fellowship in Jordan. I can’t decide which is more offensive, Nelson’s assumption that my colleagues and I are uncritical ideologues who walk in lockstep with each other, or that he writes under the assumption that his readers will accept his baseless characterizations of us at face value.
Neither of those assumptions is as ludicrous as this final one. Salaita’s appointment, according to Nelson, is one which reveals “doubts about whether either the position being searched for or the candidate being proposed is illegitimate.” Nelson contends that our program’s focus on comparative Indigenous studies had not “received sufficiently critical review” for us to be searching for someone working in that field and that Salaita lacks the qualifications to have been a legitimate candidate for such a position even if we had known what we were doing. The result was that our faculty “acted out of political solidarity and proposed an appointment that was more political than academic.” We managed to pull this off, Nelson suggests, because our dean, provost, and chancellor were hesitant to challenge us. Whatever the reason, what’s clear to Nelson is that our search was not “properly conducted.”
Nelson’s accusation that my colleagues and I are not competent to conduct a search in comparative Indigenous studies runs counter to all available evidence. In this piece and others, Nelson suggests our program had only recently embraced Indigenous studies beyond the US before this search. Yet, in January 2012 two scholars joined us who focus on Pacific Native studies to a faculty that at that point had only four members. Those appointments were the result of increasing engagement and embrace of global Indigenous studies that included postdoctoral fellows whose work focuses outside the US, a two-year initiative focused in large part on comparative indigeneity in the Americas, symposiums that have featured scholars from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific, and a steady stream of lectures and other events focused on global issues of indigeneity (I can report as an eyewitness that Nelson attended, back in 2008, at least one of those events). So, global indigeneity was the opposite of new to us when we were considering Salaita’s appointment. It was, rather, constitutive of what gave our program international prominence (and many would argue preeminence).
American Indian Studies, in fact, was well on the way to gaining the status of the Department of Indigenous Studies before this debacle put those plans on hold. Discussion of this change in name and status began in earnest in 2010 and has continued ever since. Our graduate program, which was approved in 2009, focuses on global indigeneity and is, in fact, a graduate minor in American Indian and Indigenous Studies. So, focusing on global indigeneity was neither novel nor illegitimate when Salaita became a candidate in our search.
The suggestion that we managed to evolve into our commitment to global indigeneity without serious scrutiny and review is, frankly, ridiculous. Proposing the graduate minor, opening our postdoctoral program to scholars from outside the US (the main source of those we’ve recruited who do comparative Indigenous studies), advertising positions that specified global indigeneity among potential specialties, and then recommending faculty appointments of scholars who do Indigenous studies focused outside North America, exposed us to strenuous critical review at each step.
Why Nelson became a darling of Phyllis Wise, our seemingly corrupt and now disgraced former chancellor and her rabidly anti-union, anti-AAUP cronies is something he, of course, will have to answer for. What’s important for me to say is that he is both wrong and wrong-headed in his besmirching of my colleagues in American Indian Studies. He is free to spend his retirement doing whatever he likes, of course, including trying to convince people that he is right about Salaita even though AAUP officers, executive staff, and members along with growing numbers of leaders on the Illinois campus put him in a diminishing minority that is still seeking to justify the fruits of Wise’s flawed leadership. Whatever he chooses, I want him to stop trumping up charges against American Indian Studies faculty in service of his political allegiances. More than anything, I hope the number of those who take Cary Nelson seriously continues to decline, diminish, and dwindle.