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GWS students organize to Support Salaita
GWS Student Stephanie Skora reads student letter of concerns at Board of Trustees meeting
“Criminalizing/Civil-izing the Palestinian” by Eman Ghanayem (PhD student of English and American Indian Studies)
Commentary presented at “Academic Freedom and Political Dissent: A Conversation with Katherine Franke and the Community”
Independent Media Center, Urbana IL
September 18, 2014
I would like to start my commentary by pointing out to that aspect of Steven Salaita’s scholarship and the one I am working on developing which aims at comparing American Indian narratives to Palestinian ones. It is noteworthy that both Steven Salaita and I might agree, as well as the AIS faculty I have been working with and whose insight has been the most useful if not life-changing, that these comparisons are not made for the purpose of conflating the two, or creating good-looking parallelisms, but rather connecting them for the main purpose of finding ways to counter the colonial violence and policing these communities have been forced into. One similarity that stands out in the Steven Salaita affair that not only connects him to the American Indian, but also to other minorities that have been striving for their liberation, is how these groups have been loosely accused by the power that polices their bodies and minds of being complicit in and responsible for their own tragic living, deeming their actions of resistance as criminal and deserving of contempt and punishment. The discourse that has been employed against Steven Salaita is nothing short of atrocious and disgusting and has criminalized him in ways that need serious attention and repair. Looking back into statements written criticizing Steven Salaita, sadly enough sometimes those written in support of him, and the language used throughout the Board of Trustees meeting, a few examples stand out:
One: In one of the statements criticizing Steven Salaita and describing him as dangerous to the U of I community, his words are called “vulgar.” Vulgar being a kin to other words that have been in use against Palestinians, like “savage,” “barbaric,” “animal,” and “non-human” is a word that was used by the author very spontaneously, or maybe intentionally, with complete disregard of how words such as “vulgar” have been used to justify and further the occupation of Palestinians. In one of his speeches, Netanyahu references Israel as the only civilization in the middle of the jungle [reminiscent of Ehud Barak’s famous description of Israel as “a villa in the jungle"]. He also repeatedly referred to Arabs as barbarian and savage. We go back to how these words have been used against certain communities in the US, and though people, academics at least, now know better than describe an American Indian, scholar or otherwise, as “savage” or “barbarian,” in the neoliberal world the US has created, the image of the Palestinian remains easily accessible for a character assassination of the sort without the slightest shame, or even the slightest self-awareness.
Two: Most statements still dissociate Steven Salaita from the context he speaks from. He is a Palestinian living in diaspora, still has relatives who are subjected to persecution in Palestine, and whose tweets comment on one of the most atrocious crimes of 2014 if not of the 21st century that resulted in the killing of almost 2900 people. As we speak, Gaza’s patients in hospitals are losing fights against their wounds, people are taken into jail for protesting injustices, and many are trying to cope with mental and physical disabilities, re-build their homes, and provide good living for their families. Yet in the weird mess this has created, Steven Salaita commentating on crimes becomes the criminal, whereas people who killed these 2900 people, killed what amounts to a quarter of a million and displaced almost 8 million people are not criminal. Those sending military aid are not criminals. Those whose tax money pays for Israel’s weaponry are not criminals or even complicit. And this is how this logic goes.
Three: Even some of the discourse that has acknowledged the victimhood of Steven Salaita lacks enough or any engagement with who he is, the nation he belongs to, and their project of decolonization that has been ongoing for almost 80 years now, since the time of the British Mandate in the region. Some of his supporters have defended his tweets by calling them emotional— employing the notion that “he is writing these things because of how the conflict personally affects him and his emotions, and thus he has the right to be angry and use any language that comes out in the ‘spirit of the moment.’” The use of such discourse also goes in line with what has been used against Palestinians throughout history. They are not intellectual beings in control of their words and actions, but they are feeling-led, sensuous, and in some cases, stupid. The suicide-bomber is not an intellectual being. The protestor is not an intellectual being. The politician is not an intellectual being. The person whose house just got bombed is not an intellectual being. They need to be disciplined, in some cases, “civilized.” Israel did to the Middle East what no Arab has done—bring a civilization to the jungle. I go back to that statement because it is important to see what one should and should not say when talking about Palestinians and their culture that has always been creative, literary, and diverse, until it was usurped, deformed, and in some cases appropriated for the foundation of a new alien state. Palestine is more than Edward Said. It is Ibrahim Touqan, Mahmoud Darwish, Fadwa Touqan, Samih al-Qasem, Suheir Hammad, Rashid Khaldidi, Rabab Abdulhadi, Hatem Bazian, Tamim Al Barghouthi, Rasmeah Odeh, Naji al-Ali, Ghassan Kanafani, and Steven Salaita amongst many others. These are some of the Palestinians who have been targeted for their scholarship or literature— some of them held in house arrest, jailed, injured, and even assassinated (I am referencing here Naji al Ali, a caricaturist, and Ghassan Kanafani, a journalist and fiction writer).
Four: In the BoT meeting, one of those who requested public comment was an ex-trustee who said, without self-restraint, without shame, without raising eyebrows or causing a fuss that he does not want “Steven Salaita to be the face of this [“fine”] institution.” Nobody stood up and said “What is wrong with you?” “What is wrong with Steven Salaita’s face?” “Why can’t this institution have as one of its faces a brown, Palestinian face?” They did not. They did not call it racism or bias. They did not call it “uncivil” or “malice.” Instead, they applauded him. Chairman Kennedy screamed a “Thank you” that he did not use with any of the other speakers. His statement was celebrated. Nobody wants the face of a criminal to be the face of the academy after all. Isn’t that the way it goes?
Conclusion: I am sharing these little “nuances” to show their great damage. I think it is about time that the academy questions its discourse and realizes what horrible crimes its words produce. I am here to comment on academic freedom by saying that the reason why those in support of Chancellor Wise’s decision also employed a discourse of academic freedom is because it has always been the case that some people are excluded from that freedom anyways. Steven Salaita as a Palestinian is physically not free; he remains policed like me and everyone else who dares to criticize power. The fact that he is also not academically free should not only tie to his ethnicity but also tie to how the Academy, at times, functions like a state that permits, prohibits, and punishes without accountability and, as I said before, without shame or even the least bit of self-awareness.
On September 1, 2014, we, a group of graduate and undergraduate students representing concerned members of the student body, met with Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice Chancellor Renée Romano. In this meeting, we listed our demands and pursued clarification of the reasoning behind and events surrounding Professor Steven Salaita’s unhiring. During our conversation and her recounting of the sequence of events, Chancellor Wise stated that the Board of Trustees requested to speak with her about Professor Salaita which prompted Chancellor Wise to familiarize herself with Professor Salaita and his tweets. Wise went on to say that it was made clear to her that the Board of Trustees would not approve Professor Salaita’s appointment. Later in the meeting, Chancellor Wise went on to contradict the now public letter she wrote to Professor Salaita by stating that she had forwarded his appointment and that the Board of Trustees would vote on his appointment at the September 11 meeting. To be clear, any miscommunication that did occur was promulgated by the Chancellor. The contradictions between her public statement, what she told us, and what she subsequently told faculty is either a reflection of a strategic move to discredit the student movement or an indication that Chancellor Wise is not clear herself on what has transpired.
Despite evidence, including the numerous FOIA email correspondences recently made public, Chancellor Wise assured us that her decision was not influenced by donors nor based on Professor Salaita’s political views or tweets. However, Professor Salaita’s tweets comprised a large part of our conversation, with Chancellor Wise going as far as saying that there are people who believe that some of the tweets he sent would make it very difficult for his classroom to be an environment in which all students would feel welcome. In an attempt to counter the thousands of people that are outraged at the gross violation of academic freedom that has occurred, Chancellor Wise claimed that by unhiring Professor Salaita she was acting in a way that would protect academic freedom on campus. She further stated that his tweets “could be considered freedom of speech” but also stated that the Board of Trustees did consider his tweets as part of his record of whether or not he would be able or unable to be a respected faculty member. As we told Chancellor Wise, and reiterate here, we do not feel protected! Instead, we feel that the Chancellor is strategically using the rhetoric of protection and safety to justify this decision, which in effect makes us more vulnerable to ignorance, racism, and intolerance by not honoring academic freedom or supporting American Indian Studies’ (AIS) expertise in the field, their governance, or their hiring decision.
It is also critical to mention that the following statements were made and upheld by Chancellor Wise:
Chancellor Wise hopes that the AIS program can initiate a search for a scholar that is “as respected” and is “as qualified, or more qualified than Steven Salaita is and to be able to attract them to the University of Illinois” to teach on the politics of Israel/Palestine. (We explained to her that Professor Salaita was unique and the leading scholar in comparative Palestinian and American Indian studies and that such a search would lead us straight back to him). She explained that she supports AIS’ decision to expand into Palestinian studies, but does “not enter those discussions unless [she is] asked to.”
Chancellor Wise firmly believes that students, especially those not familiar with Palestine/Israel politics (or what she references as “the Middle East conflict”), be made uncomfortable and made to question their fundamental beliefs in the classroom.
Chancellor Wise had no idea whether the people emailing her (in support of and against Israel) were donors and stated that many of them she doesn’t know. She further stated that even the ones she does know, she doesn’t keep track of whether or not they give money to the university. She assured us that the decision around Professor Salaita’s hire was not made based on whether it would bring in more money or not. (This statement is especially concerning considering the recently released FOIA email exchanges and documents).
In spite of Chancellor Wise’s contradictory and unclear statements surrounding the unhiring of Professor Salaita the meeting still proved productive for several reasons. First, both Chancellor Wise and Vice Chancellor Renée Romano guaranteed that any and all UIUC community members who speak out against the University’s unhiring of Professor Salaita will be protected and will not face any type of retaliation from university employees or administration. The Chancellor has also agreed to continue to meet with our group. However, for future meetings we expect to receive clear and accurate information rather than be subjected to the politicking that she employed in our first meeting. The initial meeting with Chancellor Wise has not resolved anything, nor has it discouraged us from continuing our efforts to have Professor Salaita reinstated. We will continue to ensure that student voices are heard, we will continue to put pressure on the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees to reinstate Professor Salaita, and ultimately we will see that academic freedom is restored on this campus. The outcome of this meeting has not left us discouraged but instead incites us to continue our efforts, and we hope it encourages others to work alongside us to protect this campus and our right to academic freedom.
We stand by our statement as the seven undergraduate and graduate students who as representatives of the student body in support of Professor Salaita attended this meeting and are continuing efforts towards his reinstatement
Updated 9/2/2014, 12:00 pm:
Update from those who have been debriefed by the student organizers: "We've spoken to one of the student organizers, and here's their caution -- the Chancellor and the Provost, who were flustered and not nearly as prepared as the students with whom they met, made a number of contradictory and conflicting statements. This is not yet a success, and so faculty and students from the campus but also beyond it are still requested to bring pressure upon the University of Illinois administration."
Updated 9/1/2014, 10:30 pm central time, from GWS students:
"The Chancellor and Provost will be making their semesterly address to the Student Senate, and taking public commentary this Wednesday, at 7:00pm in the Pine Lounge of the Illini Union! We've also heard that there might be several speakers who are in support of the Chancellor's position on Professor Salaita, and that we should definitely make an appearance, and make statements of our own!"
Updated 9/1/2014, 8:00 pm central time : *Contradictory reports are emerging, and there is no change in the status of Salaita's file*
From GWS Undergraduate Stephanie Skora's report back on student meeting with Chancellor Wise on Monday, September 1, 2014:
"We have discovered that the Chancellor HAS FORWARDED Professor Salaita's appointment to the Board of Trustees, and they will be voting on his appointment during the Board of Trustees Meeting on September 11th, on the UIUC campus! Our immediate future organizational efforts will focus around speaking at, and appearing at, this Board of Trustees meeting. We will be attempting to appear during the public comment section of the Board of Trustees meeting, as well as secure a longer presentation to educate them on the issues about which Professor Salaita tweeted. Additionally, we are going to attempt to ensure that the Board of Trustees consults with a cultural expert on Palestine, who can explain and educate them about the issues and the context surrounding Professor Salaita's tweets. It has been made clear to us that the politics of the Board of Trustees is being allowed to dictate the course of the University, and that the misinformation and personal views of the members of the Board are being allowed to tell the students who is allowed to teach us, regardless of who we say that we want as our educators. We will not let this go unchallenged.
Additionally, Chancellor Wise has agreed to several parts of our demands, and has agreed upon a timeline under which she will take steps to address them. The ball is currently in her court, but we take her agreements as a gesture of good faith and of an attempt to rebuild trust between the University administration and the student body. She has not agreed unilaterally to our demands, and but we have made an important first step in our commitment to reinstating Professor Salaita. In terms of his actual reinstatement, the power to make that decision is not hers. This is why we have shifted the target of our efforts to the Board of Trustees, because they alone have the power to reinstate and approve Professor Salaita's appointment at the University. In regards to the rest of our demands, which we have updated to reflect the town hall meeting, we have made progress on all of those, but continue to emphasize that it is unacceptable to meet any of our demands without first reinstating Professor Salaita.
We have made progress, but we all have a LOT of work left to do. We must organize, write to the Board of Trustees, and make our voices and our presences known. We will not be silent on September 11th, and we will not stop in our efforts to reinstate Professor Salaita, regardless of what the Board of Trustees decides.
Please keep organizing, please keep making your voices heard, and please#supportSalaita!
Also, feel free to message or comment with any questions, comments, or concerns."
Gender and Women's Studies (GWS) students are involved in organizing efforts to voice their concern over the firing of Steven Salaita in August. Professor Steven Salaita's appointment at the Department of American Indian Studies was rescinded by a top administrative officer. Protests among scholars around the country have led to a nation wide academic boycott, and now graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).
On August 24, students from different departments attended the Board of Trustees meeting to voice their concerns and support for Dr. Salaita. Students of American Indian Studies (AIS) and INTERSECT grant students also drafted a Letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise in Support of Steven Salaita that undergraduate and graduate students from different departments around campus have signed. Students have coordinated a Town Hall Meeting on Friday, August 29th 7:30 to 9:30 at the Wesley Foundation at UIUC, and a meeting with Chancellor Wise on Monday, August 1.
GWS Undergraduate Matt Speck, one of the organizers, said about the efforts: "Our efforts on campus work in conjunction with faculty and scholarly protests to hold the administration of UIUC publicly accountable for the uncivil treatment of not only Professor Steven Salaita but also his family, his department, and his students. This is only another in a long line of injustices committed against both the faculty and students of UIUC (especially AIS) by campus administrators. In order to provide a much desired level of transparency and accountability as regards the Office of the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees, we have taken to political action in solidarity with scholars both on campus and transnationally. We act out of obligation to the UIUC student body, faculty, and community at large."
From the Student Statement:
The immediate reinstatement of Dr. Salaita as a tenured faculty member in the Department of American Indian Studies.
Full and fair compensation to Dr. Salaita for time missed during which he would otherwise have been working.
Immediate increased transparency in the faculty hiring process – as a public university, UIUC has the responsibility to make public all intended faculty changes as well as take public comment in regards to any change.
GWS Grad Minor Rico Kleinstein Chenyek, one of the students who took part in the action, told The Electronic Intifada that the university’s firing of Salaita was another example of the use of “a multiculturalist ‘Inclusive Illinois’ imagined narrative, rather than to promote diversity, to actually regulate diversity and the dissent of minoritized people, and in this particular case, that of Palestinian people.” Follow Rico's Twitter account @FreeOfSanity for up to date information.
Stay tuned for more updates on our amazing GWS students!
Students give statements to Chancellor