Today is the publication of Steven Salaita’s new book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Haymarket Books). Salaita’s book is smart, charming, funny, intense, civil, and sincere—and it’s a powerful argument for just how wrong the University of Illinois trustees were to fire him.
Salaita’s book may not persuade those who supported his firing and enclosed themselves behind a barrier of rationalizations. But it is a thoughtful book destroying the portrait of a mindless ideologue that so many of his critics have desperately painted.
As with any collection of essays written quickly during a time of turmoil and published soon after (it even includes an epilogue about Wise’s resignation and the release of her secret emails less than two months ago), Uncivil Rites is a book that lacks cohesiveness. Salaita’s story of how he learned he was fired, and the traumatic months that followed, shows up in the middle of the book. Salaita’s critiques of civility fill several of the essays. Salaita admits that the book emerged from his “sporadic doodles.” But this book is much more than the sum of the its parts; it’s an important argument for why we need advocacy and engagement and incivility, and why we need academic freedom to protect it.
Salaita describes the experience of being fired by the University of Illinois trustees who simply referred to him as “Item 14, page 23, number 4.” What Salaita regards as a de-humanization is really just an accident of bureaucracy, Because the trustees treated faculty appointments in a pro forma manner, they had no mechanism for considering cases or rejecting them. As a result, all they could do is identify Salaita from a long list of other faculty appointments that were approved on a purely routine basis. His firing wasn’t individualized because the trustees never evaluated faculty on an individual basis—until Salaita’s political opinions made him a target.
Salaita is less persuasive when he tries to defend the Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) movement. He argues that BDS targets institutions, not individuals, but claims, “only individuals who consciously participate in advocacy for the Israeli state would be affected.”(88) Of course, academic freedom is supposed to protect conscious participation in advocacy.
So, is Salaita guilty of hypocrisy? Maybe on a tiny scale, even though he’s never called for firing the defenders of Israel. The real hypocrites, of course, are those who defended Salaita’s firing or stood by silently, like the hundreds of college presidents (including Phyllis Wise) who denounced BDS as an attack on academic freedom, and then never speak out against real threats to academic freedom such as Salaita’s dismissal.
Salaita’s book makes a powerful rejection of the accusations of anti-Semitism and “blood libel.” He writes thoughtfully about his own complicated history as a Palestinian-American growing up in Appalachia, and defends both Twitter and cussing as valid tools of expression.
But the core of the book is about academic freedom, in the personal and the abstract. Salaita displays great depth in understanding the issues: “It’s not just finances that compel administrators to rely more heavily on untenured labor. It’s a mechanism of plutocratic control, ensuring a power balance that strongly favors the administration.”(59) Salaita even confesses, “I’m tepid about academic freedom as a right,”(91) which is not surprising considering that so far, that right hasn’t gotten him his job back.
The truly insurmountable argument in defense of Salaita comes from his discussion of teaching:
“In eleven years as a faculty member, I have fielded exactly zero complaints about my pedagogy. Every peer evaluation of my instruction—the gold standard for judging teaching effectiveness—has been stellar. Student evaluations ranked higher than the mean every time I collected them.”(44)
Here is how Salaita describes his treatment of students:
They like my teaching because I refuse to infantilize them; I treat them as thinking adults, instead. I have never disrespected a student under my charge. I have never told a student what to think. Nor have I ever shut down an opinion. I encourage students to argue with me. They take me up on the offer. I sometimes change my viewpoints in return. My philosophy is simple: teach them the modes and practices of critical thought and let them figure out things on their own.
It’s difficult to imagine how any of Salaita’s critics can denounce him for this statement. And so far none of the critics have presented even a sliver of evidence that Salaita’s discussion of his teaching is wrong.
We all know that the real reasons why Wise and the trustees fired Salaita were because they disliked his political opinions or they feared retaliation from donors. But those reasons are illegitimate to anyone who believes in any conception of academic freedom. Instead, the excuse given by Wise and the trustees for firing Salaita was based upon his teaching, and their belief that Salaita as a teacher would violate the unspoken rule that “any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner.”
When Salaita demolishes the only possible academic reason for dismissing him, on the grounds of his teaching ability, his critics are left with sad and desperate attempts at distraction. Cary Nelson and many others attempt (and fail) to attack Salaita’s research abilities because he can prove nothing bad about Salaita’s teaching.
Salaita was fired by administrators and trustees who knew nothing about his teaching because they simply assumed he could never be an adequate teacher. Uncivil Rites shows exactly the brilliance and thoughtfulness that makes Salaita an admired teacher, and it adds a personal story to the mountain of evidence that Salaita’s firing was unjustifiable.