The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), one of the country’s largest professional groups for college faculty, has lent its financial backing to controversial academic Stephen Salaita, whose job offer at the University of Illinois was revoked after he made dozens of inflammatory anti-Israel tweets last summer.
The $5000 grant comes from group’s Academic Freedom Fund, thereby expressing the group’s belief that Salaita’s struggles are an issue of academic freedom. The money is intended to help him cope with living expenses while he fights to have his job restored.
“Since we believe that he should be suspended with pay, we believe it is only fair that we provide him with a donation,” AAUP vice president Hank Reichman told The Daily Illini. Reichman’s statement reflects the organization’s position that Salaita was neither fired nor “unhired” for his job in the school’s Native American Studies department. Rather, they hold that he has simply been barred from teaching classes already assigned to him for the fall, and that his dispute with the college is an elaborate suspension.
The AAUP has some 47,000 members across over 500 campus chapters. The group’s primary goals include the promotion of academic freedom and the protection of tenure rights for faculty members.
The subsidy to Salaita is a warning shot that could preface a far more dramatic action by the organization: Putting the University of Illinois on its “censure list” of schools officially condemned for violating academic freedom. No major research university has ever been placed on the list, and at a University of Illinois faculty meeting held Monday one professor said being placed on the list would be “devastating” for the school’s reputation.
“A censured institution is not an excellent institution,” said English professor Curtis Perry, according to The News-Gazette.
Salaita, previously a professor of American Indian Studies at Virginia Tech, was offered a tenured job at the University of Illinois in October of 2013. In preparation for the new job, both Salaita and his wife quit their jobs and prepared to move to Champagne.
However, in July, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, which prompted a torrent of activity from Salaita, a supporter of the Palestinian cause. He made dozens of sharply anti-Israel tweets such as “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” At another point, he suggested that nobody would be surprised if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared wearing a necklace made of Palestinian children’s teeth.
Following complaints from the public including several donors, the University of Illinois’s board of trustees revoked Salaita’s tenure offer, a move Salaita says has left him unemployed and with a ruined career. Since then, he has embarked on a speaking tour in the Chicago area protesting the decision, and has also said he will file a lawsuit, based on the claim that he was already a de facto employee of the school who enjoyed tenure protections, even if the formality of trustee approval had not yet taken place.
Support for Salaita in the academic community has been significant, with scholars arguing that Salaita’s remarks, while crass, should be protected speech. Several thousands academics around the country have signed a petition in support of him, and even the Jewish Studies department at the University of Illinois condemned the revocation of his tenure offer.
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