This month, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reached a settlement with Prof. Steven Salaita, the scholar of indigenous studies who was “dehired” — in other words, fired — after a series of controversial tweets he made during Israel’s war with Hamas last year. Salaita will receive roughly $600,000 after lawyer fees and will not be teaching at the university.
“Yes, there was some dispute as to whether he was actually officially hired in the first place, but a federal court found decisively in Salaita’s favor,” Stanford University Prof. David Palumbo-Liu wrote in Salon. The judge declared: “Simply put, the University cannot argue with a straight face that it engaged in all these actions in the absence of any obligation or agreement” to complete Salaita’s hiring process.
Salaita has indeed obtained some measure of vindication. He will receive a significant sum of money from the university, and Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who originally rescinded the offer after extensive pressure from donors, was unceremoniously fired. Regardless of one’s views of Salaita’s tweets critical of Israel’s military operations in Gaza, there is no doubt his dehiring was a clear violation of free speech and academic freedom and did him significant harm.
But the settlement falls far short of a victory. The size of the settlement pales in comparison to the upwards of $3,000,000 he would have earned at UIUC in salaries and benefits had he worked there for the rest of his scholarly career. For her part, Wise remains a highly paid faculty member at UIUC, with an annual salary nearly as large as Salaita’s total net settlement.
What’s more, as part of the settlement, the university did not have to admit any wrongdoing.
Has the Salaita affair in fact come to a conclusion with this agreement? As Salaita himself put it in a piece for The Nation describing his feelings about the settlement, “It’s settled, then. Only it’s not.” In so writing, Salaita directly compared the settlement of his case to the Zionist settling of Palestinian land, in the sense of obtaining a legal result through coercive means. It’s a fair analogy. One of the chief ways that Zionist leaders gained control of territory in Palestine before 1948 was through the courts, by fixing or “settling” the title to lands they had purchased. Ostensibly these agreements were made with the “owners,” but rarely if ever with the long-term occupants who, under existing laws, had the right to remain on the land as long as they used it productively.
This led the Zionist movement to deploy already well-established colonial tropes meant to dislodge indigenous peoples from their lands around the world. They provided supposed proof that natives were incapable of using their lands productively, thus justifying their displacement in favor of more modern, productive and efficient Europeans.
In this regard, perhaps Salaita returning to UIUC to take up his position would have been like the Palestinian “Right of Return” — the only fair and just solution, but one which, given the imbalances of power and the ability of the university to wait Salaita out until he had no choice but to settle, was not going to happen.
If, as seems likely, Salaita will never be a professor at UIUC, those who sought his removal can declare victory at an acceptable cost. And if the school’s American Indian Studies program has also suffered long-term harm, no doubt the victory for conservatives is even sweeter. Why would the nation’s underfunded, constantly threatened ethnic, gender and labor studies departments hire controversial professors who could put them in a similar situation?
Pro-Israel conservatives such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson have already invested tens of millions of dollars in fighting the next battle, against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses. Whatever the long-term outcome of this struggle, the amount of damage it will inflict on scholars and students who don’t have sufficient protection from their university systems will be immense.
Salaita has succeeded in linking anti-Palestinian forces with corporatized university administrative power. As he wrote in The Nation, “Zionism is part and parcel of unilateral administrative power.” Indeed, wealthy individuals and corporations are increasingly demanding and receiving a say in how donations to cash-starved institutions are spent and in how universities must behave if they are to continue to receive their largesse.
The Salaita case reveals the truly disastrous effects of the erosion of shared governance at America’s great public universities. In an environment of truly shared governance and academic control over hiring, Salaita’s firing would be inconceivable. For that matter, had Salaita been represented by a strong national union, it would have been impossible for Wise to fire him without the due process that his collective bargaining agreement would have afforded him. Such a situation would have protected Wise as well, as she could have sympathetically listened to her donors’ complaints before explaining that there was simply nothing she could do.
True academic freedom and shared governance protects everyone — senior administrators as well as the faculty grunts. Wise, like Salaita, was thrown under the bus despite acting the good soldier for her superiors and benefactors. This is perhaps the greatest lesson of the Salaita case: As in every large company, in the corporatized university anyone can and will be sacrificed if the bottom line is threatened. But this weakness in the system provides an opening for those working for solidarity and justice to continue the struggle.