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The Third Narrative Blog
Cary R. Nelson, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is Co-Chair of the Executive Committee of the TTN-affiliated Alliance for Academic Freedom. In the current issue (2015 Volume 6) of the Journal of Academic Freedom (published by the American Association of University Professors), Prof. Nelson has an extensive scholarly critique of the decision to hire Prof. Salaita (pictured at right) — whose body of work engages polemically with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in the American Indian Studies Program at his institution. Exclusively for this blog, Prof. Nelson explains his overall perspective as follows:
My essay attempts the kind of detailed analysis of Dr. Steven Salaita’s work that in my view never took place at Illinois, neither in the hiring process, nor in the Chancellor’s decision not to forward Salaita’s appointment papers to the Board of Trustees. That said, in my view the only way his academic freedom was violated is if he actually was an employee at the time the Chancellor acted on Aug 1, 2014. I believe he was not, but I have always said the other view is reasonable as well.
In a hiring process you have a right to decide if a candidate’s scholarly works are well supported and well argued, whether the relevant scholarly literature is cited, whether opposing views are considered and countered, whether the candidate writes well, whether the arguments are original, whether the publications represent major contributions to the field. You have a right to seek the best candidate. Otherwise, one should perhaps hire all 500 candidates who may apply for a single job.
Salaita’s case also presents the very unusual instance of a candidate with a major social media presence in exactly the areas of his publications and proposed teaching. The campus has a right in such a circumstance to consider whether his public identity would enhance the institution’s reputation and make a positive contribution to campus life.
The belated nature of the cancellation of his conditional offer, however, in my view left the university with a moral and professional — though not necessarily legal — responsibility to compensate him. I am the only person to assign a dollar amount in print: $1,000,000.
Loathsome as I think he is, I would not have advocated a tenure revocation hearing. Indeed I would have fought to protect him, as I have all pro-Palestinian faculty who were full-time employees throughout the country. Had Salaita been teaching here as a tenured faculty member, all his activities would have been protected. But from my perspective he wasn’t yet a tenured faculty member and thus wasn’t fired. His work would have survived a tenure revocation procedure—because such a proceeding has a much higher standard to meet.
Illinois has many BDS supporters on the faculty and will surely get more, but they have publications I nonetheless admire. My department head, whom I hired, says he only supports those Jewish traditions that argue there should be no Jewish state. But his books are first-rate. Very little of the debate about Salaita includes people who are tolerant of such nuances or distinctions.
What the Chancellor got right was her judgment that Salaita’s tweets were not aberrant behavior but rather an indication of who he fundamentally was. But that was no more than a guess on her part or the part of those who advised her. They had not done the work to find out. Which means she oversaw a shabby process. But the shabbiness began more than a year earlier—in the program that sought to hire him. A colossal mess? Indeed. But the case requires thought, reflection, and analysis, not relentless hostility.