[Marxism] Steven Salaita: why I was fired
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 6 06:48:53 MDT 2015
(Just got a copy of his book from Haymarket. This is an excerpt.)
THE CHRONICLE REVIEW
Why I Was Fired
By Steven Salaita OCTOBER 05, 2015
In August 2014, I was fired from a tenured position at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The firing made me a free-speech darling —
or the world’s most violent person since Stalin, depending on your
perspective. It also sparked a debate about academic freedom, faculty
governance, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the role of social media
in university life. That debate rages with no resolution in sight.
The story of my notoriety begins on July 21, 2014, when The Daily Caller
ran an article about me titled "University of Illinois Professor Blames
Jews for anti-Semitism." With the brio and wisdom for which right-wing
websites are known, the piece begins, "The University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign has continued its bizarre quest to employ as many
disgusting scumbags as possible by acquiring the services of Steven
Salaita, a leading light in the movement among similarly obscure
academics to boycott Israel."
The article, and subsequent coverage, focused on several tweets I wrote
in the summer of 2014. One tweet read: "At this point, if Netanyahu
appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian
children, would anybody be surprised?" In another, I wrote, "You may be
too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank
settlers would go missing."
It has since become popular to call me uncivil. Or intemperate. Or
inappropriate. Or angry. Or aggressive. It’s unseemly to describe
myself, but because "unseemly" is an improvement over what many people
now call me — why not? I am a devoted husband and a loving father. I
never talk out of turn. I deliberate for long periods before making
significant decisions. As is normal for somebody born and raised in
Southern Appalachia, I call everybody "sir" or "ma’am." I do not raise
my voice at people. I am deeply shy and chronically deferential. That is
to say, I am civil to a fault.
This exegesis on my disposition probably seems unnecessary, but it’s
important to distinguish between somebody’s persona and his personhood,
though in most cases one informs the other. This is the extent of my
feelings on the matter: It is precisely because I am a loving person
that I so adamantly deplore Israel’s behavior.
My tweets might appear uncivil, but such a judgment can’t be made in an
ideological or rhetorical vacuum. Insofar as "civil" is profoundly
racialized and has a long history of demanding conformity, I frequently
choose incivility as a form of communication. This choice is both moral
The piety and sanctimony of my critics is most evident in their
hand-wringing about my use of curse words. While I am proud to share
something in common with Richard Pryor, J.D. Salinger, George Carlin,
S.E. Hinton, Maya Angelou, Judy Blume, and countless others who have
offended the priggish, I confess to being confused as to why obscenity
is such an issue to those who supposedly devote their lives to analyzing
the endless nuances of public expression. Academics are usually eager to
contest censorship and deconstruct vague charges of vulgarity. When it
comes to defending Israel, though, anything goes. If there’s no serious
moral or political argument in response to criticism of Israel, then
condemn the speaker for various failures of "tone" and
"appropriateness." Emphasis placed on the speaker and not on Israel. A
word becomes more relevant than an array of war crimes.
Even by the tendentious standards of "civility," my comments on Twitter
(and elsewhere) are more defensible than the accusations used to defame
me. The most deplorable acts of violence germinate in high society. Many
genocides have been glorified (or planned) around dinner tables adorned
with forks and knives made from actual silver, without a single
inappropriate speech act having occurred.
Academics are usually eager to contest censorship. When it comes to
defending Israel, though, anything goes.
In most conversations about my termination, Israel’s war crimes go
unmentioned, yet it is impossible to understand my tweets without that
necessary context. My strong language — and I should point out that much
of my language is also gentle — arises in response to demonstrable acts
of brutality that in a better world would raise widespread rancor. You
tell me which is worse: cussing in condemnation of the murder of
children or using impeccable manners to justify their murder. I no more
want to be "respectable" according to the epistemologies of colonial
wisdom than I want to kill innocent people with my own hands. Both are
articulations of the same moral rot.
In 11 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. Yet
people affiliated with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
have impugned my ability to teach.
Students are capable of serious discussion, of formulating responses, of
thinking through discomfort. They like my teaching because I refuse to
infantilize them; I treat them as thinking adults. I have never
disrespected a student. 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 viewpoint as a
result. My philosophy is simple: Teach them the modes and practices of
critical thought and let them figure out things on their own.
The hand-wringing about students is pious, precious claptrap, a pretext
to clean the stench from a rotten argument raised to validate an
Troublesome assumptions underlie accusations about my fitness for the
classroom. It is impossible to separate questions about my "civility"
from broader narratives of inherent Arab violence. This sort of
accusation has been used to discredit people of color (and other
minorities) in academe for many decades. Administrators and the public
monitor and scrutinize our actions in a manner to which our white
colleagues are rarely subject. It is crucial to train us in the ways of
civility lest our emotions dislodge the ethos our superiors hold so dear.
When it comes to opposing colonization, there is no need for
dissimulation, which is the preferred vocabulary of the cocktail party
and committee meeting. I could make a case that dissimulation is
immoral. It is undoubtedly boring. When I say something, I have no
desire to conceal meaning in oblique and wishy-washy diction. This is
especially so when I respond to the various horrors of state violence
and the depravity of those who justify it. On campus, such
forthrightness is unconventional.
But no tenet of academic freedom considers failure to adhere to
convention a fireable offense.
Professors are often punished for disrupting convention in informal
ways, however. My case is interesting because administrators ignored the
de facto standards that regulate our behavior and exercised their power
directly. This should be worrisome to any scholar who isn’t a sycophant.
People with doctorates who make claims unsupported by evidence and who
uncritically repeat terms like "incivility" as if it describes anything
other than their own dull prejudice are the ones most unfit to teach
Being called an anti-Semite is deeply unpleasant. Those who make the
accusation should be responsible for providing evidence, yet it is I who
has been saddled with the impossible task of disproving a negative.
The rhetorical incoherence of my critics is evident in their
ever-evolving justifications for my firing. First I was anti-Semitic.
Then I was uncivil. Then I was a bad teacher. Then I was too
charismatic. Then I was too angry. Then I was too profane. Then I was
too radical. Then I was too unpatriotic. Then I wasn’t really hired.
Then I was unqualified in the field of American Indian studies. Then I
benefited from nepotism. Then I was a poor scholar. Then my colleagues
were incompetent. Then my colleagues were deceitful. Then my colleagues
were ignorant. Then the American Indian-studies program required special
guidance. Then the decision to hire me was solely based on politics.
Then indigenous studies was illegitimate. Then the entire damn field
needed to be shut down.
Part of our charge as educators is to encourage students to find the
language that will help them translate instinct into concrete knowledge.
It’s the kind of preparation we all need to survive the capitalist
marketplace. While antiauthoritarianism may start as an attitude, it has
infinite capacity to develop into an ethic.
Distrusting the motivation of institutions and their managers often
means demotion or recrimination. But there is reason to distrust
authority on campus. Universities are lucrative spaces; nothing is
lucrative without also being corrupt.
As Thomas Frank put it in an essay in The Baffler:
The coming of "academic capitalism" has been anticipated and praised for
years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these
days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech
startups; they boast of being "entrepreneurial"; they have rationalized
and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for
cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a 19th-century
railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments
into in-house hedge funds.
Frank later pinpoints the reason for campus authoritarianism:
Above all, what the masters of academia spend the loot on is themselves.
In saying this, I am not referring merely to the increasing number of
university presidents who take home annual "compensation" north of a
million dollars. That is a waste, of course, an outrageous bit of
money-burning borrowed from Wall Street in an age when we ought to be
doing the opposite of borrowing from Wall Street. But what has really
fueled the student’s ever-growing indebtedness, as anyone with a
connection to academia can tell you, is the insane proliferation of
Universities are lucrative spaces; nothing is lucrative without also
The numbers validate Frank’s observation. Benjamin Ginsberg points out
that in the past 30 years, the administrator-to-student ratio has
increased while the instructor-to-student ratio has stagnated. The rise
of untenured, or non-tenure-track, faculty exacerbates the problem; a
significant demographic in academe lacks job security or the working
conditions that allow them to maximize their pedagogical talent. Over a
recent 10-year period, spending on administration outpaced spending on
instruction. At American universities, there are now more administrators
and their staffers than full-time faculty. In the past 10 years,
administrative salaries have steadily risen while custodians and
groundskeepers suffer the inevitable budget cuts — as do the students
whose tuition and fees supplement this largess.
When so much money is at stake, those who raid the budget have a deep
interest in maintaining the reputation of the institution. Their
privilege and the condition of the brand are causally related. The brand
thus predominates. Its predominance often arrives at the expense of
Take the matter of sexual assault. Reporting rates have recently risen,
but all versions of sexual assault remain woefully underreported. There
are numerous reasons why a victim chooses to keep silent. One reason is
that she may expect a wholly inadequate, or even hostile, response from
her own university. In 2014, Columbia University fielded 28 federal
complaints claiming the university had inadequately investigated reports
of sexual assault. Florida State University, with the help of the
Tallahassee Police Department, orchestrated a clumsy cover-up of a rape
allegation to protect the star quarterback Jameis Winston. A different
category of sexual assault infamously occurred at Pennsylvania State
University, where the onetime defensive coordinator of the football
team, Jerry Sandusky, was found to have molested various children, some
of them on campus. The university’s complicity is but an extreme
instance of a common phenomenon.
In this era of neoliberal graft, universities barely pretend to care
about the ideals upon which higher education was founded. Sure,
administrators and PR flacks still prattle about dialogue and
self-improvement and the life of the mind, but not even impressionable
18-year-olds believe that claptrap. They know just as well as their
superiors that college is really about acquiring the
mythical-but-measurable status conferred to them by a crisp sheet of
As universities more and more resemble corporations in their governance,
language, and outlook, students have become acutely brand conscious.
Guardianship of the brand thus predominates and overwhelms the primacy
of thought and analysis to which the academy is nominally committed.
Students no longer enter into places of learning. They pay exorbitant
prices to gain access to the socioeconomic capital of affiliation with
the most recognizable avatars, adorned magisterially with armor and
pastoral creatures and Latin phrases.
Take that most sacred element of pedagogy, critical thinking. Many
faculty don’t know how to do it, never mind imparting instruction in the
practice to those trying to learn it. (My conception of "critical
thinking" includes acting in some way on the knowledge it produces, if
only in the formulation of a dynamic ethical worldview.) One of the
greatest skills critical thinking provides is the ability to recognize
and undermine bunk. In short, if critical thinking is to be useful, it
must endow a reflexive desire to identify and understand the disguises
This sort of focus is low on the list of what universities want from
students, just as critical thinking is a terribly undesirable quality in
the corporate world, much more damning than selfishness or sycophancy.
Let us then be honest about critical thinking: On the tongues of cunning
bureaucrats, it is little more than an additive to brand equity, the
vainglorious pomp of smug, uptight automatons who like to use buzzwords
in their PowerPoint presentations.
Critical thinking by faculty is even more undesirable. In research
institutions, we are paid to generate prestige and to amass grant money;
in teaching-centered colleges, we enjoy excess enrollments according to
fine-tuned equations that maximize the student-teacher ratio. (In elite
liberal-arts colleges, we pamper the kids with simulations of parental
affection.) Critical thinking is especially harmful to adjuncts, reliant
as they are for income on the munificence of well-paid bosses who
cultivate a distended assemblage of expendable employees.
Nowhere in our employment contracts does it say, "Challenge the
unarticulated aspirations of the institution, especially when it acts as
a conduit and expression of state violence; and please try your best to
support justice for those on and off campus who are impoverished by
neoliberalism." If we practice critical thinking, though, it is
difficult to avoid these obligations.
Because of their high-minded rhetoric, it is tempting to believe that
university managers care about ethics or maybe even about justice, but
most managers care about neither. The exceptions, of course, deserve our
praise — just don’t poke around the highly ranked schools if you want to
find them. The key to a successful managerial career isn’t striving to
be a good person, but developing enough instinct to cheat and charm at
Whatever independence can be acquired in academe requires a fundamental
distrust of authority, be it abstract or explicit. There never have been
pure epochs of uncorrupted democracy, but increasing corporate control
disturbs greater sectors of American life, particularly on campus. There
has to be a better way to conduct the practices of education.
What to do about injustice? I hear this question a lot since I was
fired. I have no solid answer. My instinct, which I fully understand
isn’t actually instinctive, is simply to tell people to do what they
feel comfortable doing. I’m not big on demands or injunctions. Yet I
recognize that as somebody who now exists in a public position I am
summoned to analyze a set of dynamics in which I and the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are embroiled. These dynamics are
especially important to folks in academe who wish to pursue material
commitments alongside theoretical and philosophical questions.
Graduate students and prospective graduate students are especially
anxious these days. They are right to be. Decent humanities jobs are in
decline. Grad-school slots have become more competitive. Any advantage
is a great asset. Being deemed a troublemaker or a radical is no advantage.
Making trouble is precisely the function of the intellectual, though.
And being radical is a solid antidote to boring work.
There’s always been repression and recrimination in academe. Anybody
with an eye toward a career as a scholar has to internalize this
reality. Aspiring and established scholars should not abdicate
intellectual commitments in order to please the comfortable. This would
be careerism, not inquiry.
And that’s the point. If we don’t examine relationships of power and
highlight the disjunctions of inequality, then we’re not doing our jobs.
(We will be according to the preferences of the managerial class, but
pleasing its functionaries isn’t generally the mark of an interesting
thinker.) Upsetting arbiters of so-called common sense is an immanent
feature of useful scholarship.
"What can/should we do?" is not a universal question. Consider that the
labor of minority scholars is already politicized. We have to publish
more. It’s risky to be introverted because so many white colleagues
cannot tolerate a minority who doesn’t pretend to like them. We have to
act as diversity representative on all sorts of committees. We cannot be
mediocre because our tenure and upward mobility rely on senior
colleagues who reward only their own mediocrity. It’s hazardous for us
to show emotion because we’re aware of the possibility of confirming to
others our innate unreason. Adding "activist leader" to this list of
tasks is a heavy undertaking. In many ways, simply deciding not to
appease power is an active form of advocacy. It is the activism of survival.
Getting fired doesn’t make me an expert on anything. I’m doing my best
to make sure something productive comes of it, though. My having a job
changes nothing if the system that orchestrated my ouster remains
intact. I am merely a symbol of the stark imperatives of the wealthy and
well connected. We all are, really. Unless the system changes at a basic
level, everybody is merely buying shares in a corporation with the power
to dissolve our interests the moment we become an inconvenience.
Steven Salaita holds the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the
American University of Beirut. This essay is adapted from his new book,
Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, just out
from Haymarket Books.
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