Indigenous studies scholar Steven Salaita, who was de-hired from the University of Illinois amidst controversy earlier this year, spoke at the University Thursday evening in an event hosted by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.
Salaita, who was set to begin a tenured position at Illinois this fall, had his job offer retracted after a number of donors, students and faculty at the school contended that he was anti-Semitic.
The charge stemmed from comments Salaita had tweeted from his personal Twitter account during the summer amidst escalating tensions between Gaza and Israel, in which he condemned Israel’s July bombing of Gaza. The bombing resulted in an estimated 2,000 deaths in the area.
Speaking to a receptive crowd of nearly 100 professors and students in Hutchins Hall, who gave him a standing ovation before he began speaking, Salaita discussed the circumstances surrounding his exit from Illinois, along with broader themes of academic freedom.
He said reactions to his firing have run the gamut of politics and opinions, but what disappointed him most is what he characterized as a lack of honesty.
“If you want to support what the (University of Illinois) did, I don’t begrudge you,” he said. “What I ask of you though, is honesty. I don’t want you to say that Salaita wasn’t actually hired yet; anybody who has spent any time in academe knows full well that by the time that termination letter arrived I was hired… and I don’t want you to say that Salaita engaged in hate speech. I very clearly did not engage in hate speech.”
Instead, he said, he would prefer that people take definitive stances on the issue.
“What I would prefer for you to do is simply be honest, and say ‘I hate Salaita’s politics. I don’t like his criticisms of Israel, and therefore he should have been fired’,” he said. “It’s the dishonesty that bothers me more than the argument — it’s people refusing to take ownership over their own positions.”
On academic freedom in the classroom, Salaita said there is often an imbalance of emphasis between how comfort of students with majority identities and students with minority identities are considered. Salaita said as an undergraduate he often heard offensive language from his professors that he disagreed with.
“Not a single administrator ever fretted about my comfort in the classroom,” Salaita said. “Not a single administrator ever fretted about the comfort of a non-normative student in the classroom. Enough of this discomfort already. Enough. What they’re really saying is, we don’t want those who feel invested economically or psychologically with the majority to feel any sort of discomfort.”
LSA sophomore Mekarem Eljamal, SAFE spokeswoman, said they invited Salaita to the University because they felt his message of academic freedom was particularly relevant in light of the group’s UMDivest campaign.
SAFE’s campaign calls for the University to divest from several businesses they allege support human rights violations against Palestinians because of their contracts with the Israeli military. Last year, the group primarily pursued the initiative through a resolution before Central Student Government, which ultimately failed. The resolution was accompanied by several large-scale protests and accusations that voices were being silenced on campus after CSG initially declined to vote on the resolution.
“I hope that (the University community) sees the connection of what happened to students last year on campus, what’s been happening around the country” Eljamal said. “It’s not just administrations and students, or student governments, but it’s administrations and professors and it has a devastating impact on careers.”
Salaita also touched on broader views of academic activism. In response to a question from the audience, he said becoming engaged in politics is a choice based on both personal cost and an individual’s values.
“You have to think about where you’re at in life, both economically and personally and emotionally,” he said. “And I say emotionally because it’s hard sometimes, engaging in political issues, for all sides. You hear things about yourself that you don’t want to hear… it can be a hard commitment. It can be unbelievably rewarding also.”
LSA sophomore Lamees Mekkaoui, who attended the event, said she took away a heightened awareness about issues surrounding academic freedom and academia.
“I thought he brought a very real tone to something that hasn’t really been talked about — academic dissent is basically an untouched field,” Mekkaoui said. “He really brought it to the table and opened up the conversation.”