An Open Letter to the Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana -Champaign,
Dr. Steven Salaita and the threat to academic freedom at the University of Illinois
by Miriam E. Sweeney
Dear Chancellor Wise,
On August 6th I was stunned to read Scott Jaschik’s article about the firing of Dr. Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign due to his political stance on the occupation of Gaza. This is an outrageous and unacceptable reason for termination that is discriminatory and flies in the face of the long held value of academic freedom. I am asking that you reconsider your actions against Dr. Salaita and reinstate his appointment post haste.
I am writing this letter as a recent alumna who has been watching with concern as growing numbers of critical scholars, scholars of color, and activist scholars have left the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign campus in recent years for positions on more supportive campuses. This steady flight of talent is a signal that UIUC constitutes a hostile environment for marginalized voices, in particular those of people of color, women, and native peoples.
In light of this landscape, I was very pleased to hear that UIUC was able to successfully recruit and hire Dr. Salaita into the American Indian Studies program. Dr. Salaita’s research in comparative American Indian-Palestinian-Arab American studies positions him as a leading voice on Israel’s occupation of Palestine, colonialism, and Middle East studies. This scholarship is critical, now more than ever, as national conversations about Israel and Palestine are filtered through compromised media outlets that are subject to political pressures to misrepresent atrocities against Palestine and obscure U.S. involvement in Israel. That these topics are “controversial”, difficult, or unpopular is all the more reason to engage them, particularly through scholarly research that privileges marginalized voices and perspectives. After all, as the AAUP Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure state (http://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure), controversy is the heart of academic freedom. If political dissent and critical inquiry cannot be practiced within the academy, where can they be practiced?
The firing of Dr. Steven Salaita sets a dangerous precedent for curtailing academic freedom in favor of the conservative, corporate, and military interests that dominate the governance of the academy. These interests, too, are politically fraught though they cloak themselves in the speech of neutrality, balance, and risk-aversion. UIUC has singled out Dr. Salaita for critiquing Israel’s actions, yet remains silent about the increase of corporate and military sponsored research and technological development at UIUC (e.g. information assurance research, data mining, artificial intelligence, drone technologies) that are directly implicated in war efforts. Rather than being politically neutral, this singling out of critical scholars paints a picture of what political projects UIUC is actually in service to. There must be space in the academy to dissent, to question, and to critically examine these investments without penalty.
Academic freedom must be protected for scholarship to thrive, for knowledge to expand, to hold our governments accountable, and to build a more socially just society. Chancellor Wise, I believe you said it best yourself on January 30th, 2014:
“Of all places, a university should be home to diverse ideas and differing perspectives, where robust – and even intense – debate and disagreement are welcomed.”
–Phyllis Wise, Chancellor, University of Illinois http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/01/30/chancellor-u-illinois-responds-twitter-incident
All eyes are on the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in this moment. It is my hope that you will reconsider your position and reinstate Dr. Salaita immediately, proving that UIUC is a campus where academic freedom is valued and protected.
Miriam E. Sweeney, Ph.D.
University of Alabama