News Local/State

Prof. Salaita Speaks Publicly For First Time About Losing U of I Position


For weeks, all that many people at the University of Illinois Urbana campus had heard from Steven Salaita were the controversial comments he had Tweeted about Israel over the summer --- comments that cost him his U of I faculty appointment.  But Salaita broke his silence Tuesday, at a news conference where he said he would fight for reinstatement.

Steven Salaita has no shortage of critics, who don’t think his comments about Israel -- on Twitter or elsewhere -- are appropriate. But he also has his defenders, including students who staged a mass classroom walkout Tuesday.

After attending a rain-soaked rally on the Quad, the students came to the University YMCA for Salaita’s first news conference since losing his position. While they waited for Salaita to appear, they chanted some of the slogans they had used at the rally, including,"Hey hey! Ho ho! Censorship has got to go!" and “Whose university? OUR university!”. Some covered their mouths with tape featuring the University of Illinois' "Block-I" logo, to show their disapproval of what they considered to be censorship of Salaita's views.

When he took the podium, Salaita expressed his gratitude to his supporters. And he quickly expressed his intention to seek reinstatement to the University of Illinos position.

“I’m here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies Program at UIUC”, said Salaita to cheers from his supporters.

But he also addressed the concerns of those who did not attend the rally or his news conference --- those who had been offended by the anti-Israel message in Salaita's tweets this summer. Salaita, himself a Palestinian-American, had drawn criticism when he condemned the Israeli government --- sometimes with harsh language --- for the civilian casualties inflicted by its bombing of Hamas targets in the Gaza strip.

In his formal statement at the news conference, Salaita said his “deep dismay” at the number of people killed had fueled tweets he described as “passionate and unfiltered”.

But he says he’s never used such speech in addressing students who have differing opinions.

“I’ve never graded them (students) based on what opinions they express”, said Salaita. “Instead I’ve always taught students to think critically. Whatever argument that you raise is fine, as long as that argument has an evidentiary basis.”

And Salaita argued that using social media postings to judge how professors treat their students sets a dangerous precedent.

“The university’s policing and judgment of those messages places any faculty member at risk of termination, if university administrators deem the tone or content of his or her speech uncivil without regard to the forum or medium in which the speech is made”, said Salaita.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise sent a letter to Salaita canceling his faculty appointment in early August, when he and his wife had already resigned their positions at Virginia Tech, and had made plans for moving to Champaign-Urbana.

Salaita, whose family is now living with his parents in the DC area, says his goal is to get his U of I appointment back.A large crowd waits for Salaita to speak at the University YMCA,

(A large crowd at the University YMCA awaits Salaita's address.  Photo by Jim Meadows/WILL.)

While Chancellor Wise has been quoted as saying there's "no possibility" of reinstatement, Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan, says he's been in communication with the university about it ... although he wouldn’t give details on what sort of communications had taken place.

“Prof. Salaita is hopeful that that process will be successful”, said Swaminathan. “And he is committed to working with the university amicably on shared values. But, Prof. Salaita is, of course, prepared to pursue his legal remedies if that is necessary."

Swaminathan says that could include a federal lawsuit seeking a court order to complete Salaita's appointment process. He says the lawsuit--or suits--would cite First Amendment violations, as well as contract law.

Last week, Chancellor Wise began meeting individually with departments on campus, explaining her decision, and expressing regret over the way the controversy unfolded. But Wise stuck to her original decision to withdraw Salaita’s appointment to the university’s American Indian Studies program. She said Salaita's Twitters comments about Israel were a red flag for what could be a hostile classroom environment for his students.

"Discomfort, tension are all warranted in the classroom”, said Wise. “I feel very strongly about that. I think beyond that, whether or not we want to go even further than that and allow even more uncomfortable situations to occur in a classroom that could border on harassment, I think it something we should really discuss."

But Salaita supporters like graduate student Rico Kleinstein Chenyek, disagree. Kleinstein Chenyek, who identifies as Jewish, said at the news conference that Wise's rationale for trying to mitigate discomfort is a weak argument in the face of freedom of speech.

"I cannot allow the University of Illinois to fire Professor Salaita for speaking out against the genocide of his own people, especially as the administration does so under the false pretense of academic freedom and protection of us as students”, said Kleinstein Chenyek.

While Salaita will fly out of town before the University's Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday, his supporters have promised to be present for the event, hoping to spark conversation, though the topic is absent from the board's agenda.

((NOTE: This report was updated and expanded at 1:30 AM, 9/10/14, from its original posting on 9/9/14))

Steven Salaita news conference