The Salaita Case, One Year Later

Michael Rothberg considers the lines from Gaza to social media to Illinois -- and their implications for university governance.

July 31, 2015

As we approach the anniversary of Steven Salaita’s “unhiring” by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it is worth reflecting on what has and has not happened over the past year. We know much more than we did one year ago about the decision-making process that led to the Palestinian-American scholar losing his job after tweeting during the Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. We also know more about the balance of powers within the university, but many questions remain unresolved -- as do the crises precipitated by the decision.

What looked at first like an ill considered, quickly made decision taken without due consultation looks today like a conscious choice to cast aside the usual processes of deliberation and the customary deference to scholarly expertise. The relevance of donor and political pressure on the decision remains one of the uncertainties in the case. What we do know now is that the university had already hired lawyers before sending the fateful letter to Salaita (and that they have since spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on those lawyers, with no clear end in sight).

We also know that the chancellor and provost did consult very selectively with faculty members; they simply did not consult with those who had any standing in the hiring or tenure process, nor with those who had any expertise in the various areas that the Salaita controversy — or for that matter Salaita’s scholarship — concerned. In contrast to the first moments of the controversy, today it is hard to see the unhiring as a simple blunder; it appears rather as the result of a calculation — or, better, miscalculation — about the relative “costs” to the university of hiring or not hiring Salaita.

Regardless of how one frames that original decision, it remains the case that we are yet to see redress for the many injustices that were precipitated by the August 1, 2014 letter to Steven Salaita from Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre. Among those injustices are the ones done to Salaita’s career and well being as well as his freedom of expression; to colleagues in American Indian studies, who had their search overturned and their program irreparably damaged; and to those of us in the greater Urbana-Champaign campus,, who have suffered the violation of shared governance and the erosion of our ability to maintain an engaged and open intellectual community that many faculty members have spent years (and even decades) building.

Just as the lawsuits emerging from the case remain open, so does the attempt to think through its implications. In a previous essay, I called the Salaita case “overdetermined” in order to capture the many intersecting forces that came together in the unhiring.

I believe this remains an important optic. Like the medium of Twitter itself, the case involves a ricochet of colliding messages and mixed contexts. Ultimately at stake in the case, I argue here, is the interpretive power to decode those messages and to frame the political stakes of those contexts: the conflict-laden contexts of Israel-Palestine, indigeneity, and the university itself.


The tweets that were the pretext for the university’s withdrawal of Salaita’s job offer were written in a moment of pronounced state violence. Salaita was responding to the latest of Israel’s assaults on Gaza — an assault that followed many others on the blockaded territory in previous years and that eventually cost the lives of more than 2,000 Gazans and injured many thousands more. Sixty-five percent of the Palestinian dead, including over 500 children, were civilians, according to the United Nations. Several dozen Israeli soldiers and several Israeli civilians were also killed by Hamas. To identify Israeli state violence as the first context of the Salaita affair is not to deny or downplay war crimes committed by Hamas, but it is to situate the actions of Hamas in the context of ongoing occupation, blockade, and invasion.

While it is tempting to draw a straight line from the assault on Gaza to the unhiring in Urbana-Champaign, the causality is more complicated. Neither simply a “local” affair nor an abstractly global one either, the Salaita controversy condenses diverse sites of conflict as well as various streams of social transformation. Depending on one’s perspective, one can easily see the contemporary politics of anti-Semitism, anti-Arab racism, or settler colonialism at the center of the controversy. It certainly illustrates the transnational dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which includes diasporic contestations of various sorts by Jews and Palestinians in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The conflict over Salaita also  grows out of local, national, and transnational features of indigenous history, from Illinois’s ugly “Chief” mascot history to attempts to construct trans-indigenous solidarities that include Palestine. The particularities of those contests then play out in one instantiation of a widely shared neoliberal program to remake the university through top-down, anti-faculty forms of governance. Finally, all of those currents have converged on a stage shaped by the ongoing transformation of public discussion by new media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Why do these various, overdetermined contexts intersect in the Salaita case and what is at stake in that intersection? While Palestinian and indigenous struggles concern, above all, claims to sovereignty and territory, those are not the immediate stakes of this controversy. I want to propose instead that the kernel holding together the multidimensional event of the unhiring is a contestation over interpretive power — a form of contestation that has an indirect though still critical relation to the struggle for sovereignty.

In the most obvious sense, the case involves a contest over the meaning of Salaita’s tweets: are they anti-Semitic or ironic? Within or beyond the bounds of acceptable speech? Relevant or not to an academic appointment? But the real struggle over interpretation lies not in assessment of the content of Salaita’s controversial statements, but rather in the institutional framing of the act of interpretation. What is really at stake is not what these statements mean but who gets to decide on the meaning of scholarly and public discourses and under what conditions. Should non-specialist administrators and politically appointed trustees have the authority to override the carefully vetted decisions of faculty? Should outside pressure — whether from donors or politically-motivated bloggers — be allowed to insinuate itself into academic considerations?

In the struggle over the institutional framing of the Salaita case, resistance to the neoliberal transformation of the university comes to occupy a social location provisionally analogous to Palestinian and indigenous resistance to colonialism and state power. The content of those three struggles is not identical by any means; the histories, scales, and stakes vary decisively. What links them — contingently but powerfully — is the fact that in all three cases, activists and scholar-activists confront powerful hegemonies of interpretive power.

In the United States, at the least, neither the Palestinian cause nor movements of American Indians and indigenous people more generally confront a neutral public sphere. The dominant “common sense” is aligned against the claims of these groups. Similarly, the struggle for control of the university confronts a market logic that has increasingly saturated the idea of the university in recent decades. Within that logic, critical thought of the kind practiced by Salaita and his defenders can only be considered beyond the boundaries of the acceptable: it is, in the shorthand evoked by Chancellor Wise and the university’s Board of Trustees, “uncivil.” Indeed, as Joan Scott and others have argued in relation to the Salaita case, the discourse of civility provides the “positive” vision that guides the hegemonic interpretive framing of the controversy. In this case it sutures together the three very different contexts I have highlighted.

In principle, the struggle over interpretive power could link together any number of radical and progressive causes; that is precisely the point of stressing the contingent, overdetermined nature of this case. But that point alone is far too general to be helpful. A return to the specific histories activated by the affair can help elucidate the particular configurations of power at stake.

It is not “accidental” that American Indian studies should be at the center of this controversy given the University of Illinois’s history of anti-indigenous stereotyping and hostility. It is not “accidental” that Israel’s far-away occupation and blockade of Palestine should have ignited the controversy given the central role that the US plays in propping up Israeli policies and the importance that Jewish-American opinion (as divided as it is) plays in maintaining U.S. support for Israel. Finally, it is not “accidental” that these two fields of conflict should intersect with struggles over the balance of power between faculty and administrators in the university.

In a context in which the university’s mission has been undermined by privatization, and fund-raising has replaced public funding, administrators increasingly feel the need to protect the “brand” by enforcing stricter limits on acceptable speech by faculty and students. Certain radical claims to sovereignty by Palestinian and indigenous activists exceed the bounds of acceptable liberal political discourse in the US and seem to threaten the university’s ability to raise money from wealthy private donors and to make its case for public funding to skeptical state legislatures. “Incivility” must be kept well hidden in order for the public university to function in such a precarious environment.

Yet, it is important to insist that these hegemonies are not total. Indeed, there would be no Salaita controversy — not to mention no boycott of the University of the Illinois — if capitulation to common sense were total. And this is another reason that Twitter and the university have served as sites for this mediated struggle over Israel-Palestine and indigeneity. Those are sites that remain partially open, that remain spaces of possibility despite the pressures of liberal consensus politics and neoliberal normalization. They are spaces from which alternative interpretations and counter-narratives can emerge.

Although the boycott under which some scholars are responding to the Salaita unhiring by staying away from Illinois has had a significant negative impact on faculty and students in the humanities and social sciences at Illinois (with numerous lectures and conferences being canceled), it has also served as the occasion for creating alternative venues and institutional structures. A number of speakers, including Katherine Franke, Bruce Robbins, and Todd Presner, have paid their own way and engaged with the Urbana-Champaign community in non-university spaces. The Salaita case thus illustrates how, as the university is opened up to market forces, scholars cannot simply retreat into the walls of the Ivory Tower: new solidarities that can serve as platforms for the struggle over interpretation need to be created that cut across the boundaries of the university.

There is enough at stake in the Salaita case by itself, but as a point of condensation for multiple conflicts it is also a kind of mirror that reveals a larger political landscape. For those of us who do not share the consensus views on Israel, indigeneity, or the privatization of the university, the case has been an opportunity to engage in a struggle over interpretation.

Like everything else that matters, interpretation is saturated with power. But as scholars trained in the arts of critical analysis — some of whom have far greater job security than many Americans — we possess the tools to engage the uneven field of interpretive power. We have the means to offer counter-narratives, to show how Urbana and Gaza are linked, but also to suggest how complicated those links are.


Michael Rothberg is professor and head of the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also directs the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. His most recent book is Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization.


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