University professor’s tenure revoked over anti-Israel tweets

Steven Salaita’s Twitter posts cost him his job.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offered him a tenured professorship in 2013 but revoked the offer on Aug. 1 before school started this year due to his opinionated posts on the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Now Salaita stands at the center of a firestorm of controversy about academic freedom and the rights of professors.

As the conflict in Gaza came to a boil over the summer, Salaita voiced his personal opinions on Twitter.

“It’s simple: either condemn Israel’s actions or embrace your identity as someone who’s okay with the wholesale slaughter of children,” said Salaita in one of his tweets.

Comments like this one convinced administration at the University of Illinois that he did not deserve a tenured professorship at the university.

“What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” said Chancellor Phyllis Wise to the university community.

People have started voicing their opinions questioning whether the university was justified in denying Salaita his job.

“When you’re in that position, you have to be careful about saying things that are provocative or hurtful,” said Max Carter, director of the Friends Center at Guilford and campus ministry coordinator. “But, there was a major conflict going on where people in his own community were being killed. Obviously, there’s emotion there, and one ought to be given some leeway in freedom of speech and freedom of expression if it’s not leading directly to harming others.”

The university and its supporters have justified the de-hiring due to the impolite nature of many of Salaita’s tweets.

“The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multicultural democracy,” said the trustees in a statement to the university community. “To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.”

Others took offense at other aspects of Salaita’s comments.

“It’s not the politeness I have an issue with, it’s the language,” said Josh Weil, president of Guilford College Hillel. “He deserved to lose his job. There’s a limit to where your language can go.”

However, professors on Guilford’s campus more sympathetic to Salaita’s situation have expressed their concerns about Salaita losing a tenured position over personal opinions.

“In academia this is a very big deal, as tenure is there to protect faculty exactly against this kind of thing,” said Diya Abdo, associate professor and chair of English.

It would take a drastic change of events for the University of Illinois to re-hire Salaita at this point. The board of trustees voted 8–1 to uphold the decision against the professor.

Salaita, though, had this warning for academic institutions.

“Dear Guilford students: terms like ‘civility’ are subjected and easily co-opted into the service of repression,” said Salaita. “I urge you to complicate simplistic moral formulations and come to conclusions — on Palestine, my situation, foreign policy and anything else — based on a thoughtful engagement with a variety of sources and points of view.”