Lessons of the Salaita Affair

When departments hire outside their areas of expertise, criticism can be no surprise, writes Cary Nelson.

July 31, 2015

If the long-term implications of the Salaita affair should be discussed when the case can be recollected in tranquility, then we certainly are nowhere near there yet. Passions remain high, even though the practical actions that can be taken by either side outside the courtroom, save for Salaita’s supporters maintaining the boycott of the university, are for now largely exhausted. Whatever can be said about the roads taken or not taken by both parties, we cannot guess what shall be said “somewhere ages and ages hence.”

University of Illinois officials have said they approached Salaita to make a settlement offer a few months ago. But whatever outreach the university made was rejected on Salaita’s behalf by his attorneys.

The case is in the courts, where the outcome is of course uncertain, though the courts have traditionally been more inclined to award financial compensation than a tenured position, since they are reluctant to override university decision-making about faculty appointments. Remember that Ward Churchill received but $1 when he said he did not want money; he would only accept his job back, and the court refused to force his reappointment. And that was a case decided in Churchill’s favor. Whether the courts will find Salaita’s tweeting behavior befitting a faculty member, or whether they will be willing to consider his conditional offer the equivalent of an unconditional contract remains to be seen. Should he lose his case, the university would have less to gain by offering a settlement, especially since the value of a standard non-disparagement clause would seem minimal. Salaita has been denouncing the university’s actions far and wide, and he has written a book about his case.

But there are nonetheless some lessons to be learned, even if they are mostly based on contested evidence. The foremost of these, I believe, is that the whole academic hiring process disintegrates when a program or department attempts to initiate a faculty hire outside its areas of competence.

The one constant throughout Salaita’s career has been his opposition to the Jewish state and his support for Palestinian rights to all the land between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river. Salaita was to be hired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s American Indian Studies Program. But his first (of six) books is the only one dealing with Native American texts and issues, and even that book is focused on a claim that American Indians and Palestinians are comparable indigenous peoples who were subjected to similar colonialist oppressions.

His main job at Illinois would have been to teach “comparative indigeneity.” Native Americans and Palestinians — the first group objectively indigenous, the second only polemically and politically so — were the indigenous examples he was scheduled to teach. Salaita’s two books on Arab American fiction were neither within the department’s area of expertise nor part of its mission. And his highly polemical Israel’s Dead Soul also served goals outside the program’s mission, even if all but one of the program faculty embraced its argument.

Not only the local but also the credible national support for Salaita is founded on the conviction that a properly constituted academic search committee’s hiring recommendation should be honored. There is of course a not-so-credible local and national component to Salaita advocacy: hostility to Israel and support for the boycott movement’s efforts to discredit and eliminate the Jewish state. Salaita himself asserts that “donors” (read “Jewish donors”) bullied the university and the Board of Trustees not to proceed with a final offer. And others, including members of the American Association of University Professors’s national staff and its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure share that conviction, despite the lack of clear evidence. Still others, including a group of historians, were willing to state that Salaita’s tweets only said what we all knew to be true about Israel. But the principled basis for outrage is really only the assumption that a faculty search committee is a sacred entity. The AAUP has traditionally agreed with that position, and so would I when a search is properly conducted. The AAUP maintains that search committee recommendations should be honored except in exceptional cases. Some of us believe Salaita’s case is exactly that, exceptional.

That said, college and university review committees examining departmental appointment papers do not typically confront doubts about whether either the position being searched for or the candidate being proposed is illegitimate. They can question whether the candidate’s credentials match the job description, whether he or she meets the institution’s standards, whether the outside letters offer only qualified support, what the candidate’s future research prospects are, and so forth. In this case, “comparative indigeneity” was one of the search goals, and there was no serious effort to ask whether the candidate’s obsessive focus on Israel and the Palestinians matched a responsible effort to include comparative indigeneity within the department’s mission or whether experts in Middle East history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played an appropriate role in the decision-making process. Nor had the implications of the American Indian Studies Program’s decision to embrace comparative indigeneity received sufficiently critical review.

At a spring 2015 meeting of the campus’s Faculty Senate, a local law professor, Matthew Finkin, rose to say an authority in anti-Semitism should have reviewed Salaita’s publications. If any members of the university review committees harbored such concerns, they either did not voice them or did not press them hard enough. Perhaps there was an understandable inclination not to challenge the American Indian Studies Program. In any case, the program was not well served by its own evolving standards or by the subsequent review process.

Rather than stay within its academic mission and the academic standards appropriate to that mission, the program acted out of political solidarity and proposed an appointment that was more political than academic. That made the situation still worse and is a warning to those humanities and soft social science departments that have become increasingly politicized over the last generation.

There are still more lessons, challenges, and questions built into this case: What kinds of criteria are appropriate to a search process, as opposed to a tenure decision? What role might a major presence on social media within a candidate’s research and teaching areas play in evaluating a job candidate? How does academic freedom bear on evaluating either a job candidate’s publications or public statements about his or her areas of research? What role should political solidarity play in seeking outside reviewers for a faculty appointment? What questions should college and university reviews pose for problematic proposed hires? Does a Board of Trustees have any meaningful role in the awarding of tenure? In the light of the standard warning that bad cases make bad law, I am not hopeful about the general principles that might be derived from the passions still surrounding the Salaita affair.



Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



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