[Marxism] Steven Salaita: why I was fired

Louis Proyect 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.)

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 
and rhetorical.

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 
unjustifiable decision.

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 
university administrators.

Universities are lucrative spaces; nothing is lucrative without also 
being corrupt.
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 
student well-being.

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 
cotton-bond paper.

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 
of power.

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 
opportune moments.

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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