By Kindred Winecoff
Steve Salaita resigned from a permanent position at Virginia Tech to accept an appointment at the University of Illinois. Then, this week, his offer from Illinois was rescinded. Neither the university nor Salaita has divulged the reason for this reversal, but Inside Higher Ed has speculated:
The sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.
For instance, there is this tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” Or this one: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”
Salaita’s appointment to Illinois was thus apparently canceled because of the opinions he expressed concerning a current event. There are questions about whether this constitutes a violation of academic freedom — in the article linked above a professor at U of I suggests that protection is limited to academic work — but I am on record defending academics in similar cases from institutional reprisals. In other words, I think Salaita’s appointment should have gone through. The fact that I disagree vehemently with some of his expressed views, particularly the allegations of genocide and statements that Israel has earned any anti-Semitism it experiences, is immaterial. If the university was concerned with Salaita’s opinions, which were not a secret before this week, then they should not have given him the offer in the first place. Given that they did, and he gave up his previous (tenured) employment to accept this offer in good faith, it absolutely should be honored.
But I wonder on what principle folks like Corey Robin can object. Robin strongly protested the appointment of General David Petraeus to a temporary teaching position at his own university. While the content of Robin’s protests were primarily about the fiscal cost of hiring Petraeus, given Robin’s advocacy efforts (and the fact that he uttered not one word of disappointment when Paul Krugman was later given a permanent position at a higher salary for less work than Petraeus) it is difficult to believe that ideology wasn’t a part of it. Robin is also a visible proponent of the BDS movement and supported the American Studies Association’s proposed boycott of all Israeli academic institutions. It appears, in other words, that Robin believes in politicizing academic hiring and promotion decisions except when he does not, and that there is a perfect correlation between his political attitudes and his attitudes on such decisions.
This is the abrogation of principle. If the university is to be politicized, and Salaita seems to believe it should not be, then it is disingenuous to express outrage with a political outcome. The fact that university administrations appear to be reflexively pro-Israel is why actions such as those taken by the ASA are counter-productive and a defense of principles is so important.