BY PETER N. KIRSTEIN
One of the concerns that emerged during the ideological purge of Steven Salaita was its potential evisceration of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Many feared that the vile assault on academic freedom and shared governance that precipitated the irreparable harm of a tenured professor’s career, would lead to a mass exodus from the American Indian Studies program. If one could have a signed contract terminated after resigning a tenured position for using Twitter to support the Palestinians, many of whom were suffering under Israel’s aerial bombardment in Gaza, then other faculty seeking to explore the history of genocide of native peoples might be at risk. If a program could have a completed national search simply swept aside by an unscrupulous provost and arrogant board of trustees, then the likelihood of future programmatic primacy in identifying faculty hires would be uncertain.
Given the racist history of UIUC with its unseemly, condescending mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who, until 2007, would prance around on a horse with school-coloured war paint, the fears of collateral damage to American Indian Studies have materialised. This is a stark indication of the gutting of AIS. There were seven core faculty at the time of the Salaita dismissal. Now there are none! A few faculty are “borrowed” from other departments as AIS limps along.
Of particular concern is the departure of Robert Warrior, the former director of the American Indian Studies program. Professor Warrior was an intrepid defender of Steven Salaita, and offered encouragement to other professors actively struggling for a restoration of Salaita’s position. I personally can attest to his incredible spirit of humanity and graciousness. His departure is a terrible loss for the flagship university, and according to The Chronicle, has left UIUC for a more honourable and secure academic environment as a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas.
I aver the AAUP censure of the University of Illinois should remain at least until the university can demonstrate that those who teach in American Indian Studies will not be subject to dismissal based upon extramural utterances that may offend entrenched constituencies. This would require a reconstitution of the AIS, recognising that universities can eliminate programs of study. Future hiring of core faculty to this shredded program must cohere to normally accepted practices of shared governance, and respect for the professoriate’s leading role in determining academic appointments through a national search.
The fallout from Salaita continues to affect the academy and in particular the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Salaita firing was over two years ago. Yet its legacy is one of a destruction of a significant program, a departure of major scholars in indigeneity, and a continued refusal to either concede error or issue an apology. No settlement can remove, for me anyway, the need for a public admission of gratuitous harm to an individual and a vital academic program.