Steven Salaita tells UNC-Chapel Hill audience that “civility” is a racist term

More than 100 students, faculty, administrators, and political activists packed a lecture hall at UNC-Chapel Hill last Thursday to hear controversial indigenous studies professor Steven Salaita speak about academic freedom and censorship.

Salaita has become a celebrity of sorts. Last summer, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rescinded its job offer to Salaita after he posted a series of caustic (or, as my colleague George Leef has described them, “astoundingly nasty”) anti-Israel tweets.

Since then, Salaita has embarked on a national speaking tour (for example, last week, in addition to Chapel Hill, he spoke at Guilford College and Duke University); he’s received support from high-profile organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association; and, with the assistance of the New-York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, he recently filed a federal lawsuit naming upper-level University of Illinois officials (and unidentified university donors) as defendants. Salaita has become the poster child for those who define academic freedom so broadly as to set virtually no boundaries on the words or actions of professors.

While most of the Chapel Hill audience cheered at various points during Salaita’s speech and seemed to be star-struck by his presence, one audience member voiced strong dissent. During the Q & A session, a man who described himself as a Jewish UNC employee referred to one of Salaita’s infamous tweets, which stated, “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” The man called that tweet and others “vile” and said he was ashamed that Salaita had been invited to talk. Several people in the crowd began to talk down to him and drown out his voice. Eventually, the heckling dissipated and the man asked Salaita to explain himself.  

Salaita responded: “I don’t disagree that there is something vile in those tweets, [but] I suggest [that you read them] in the context of the type of murderous, vile behavior that I was criticizing. Israel is often mythologized as something divine and special in opposition to its reality as a political entity which is that of a violent, murderous colonial regime.”

Earlier in his speech, Salaita claimed that those who refer to his tweets as “uncivil” are actually perpetuating deep-seated “colonial” racism. According to the professor, the word “civility,” as it has been used in the context of post-16th century North American civilization, “sets up a hierarchy that distinguishes between those who are capable of entering into modernity and those who are incapable of entering into such a passage.” Salaita said that University of Illinois administrators were unaware of those New World, “racist” connotations. “They thought ‘civility’ was [an] innocuous word.”

In an interview following his talk, Salaita told me that in his view the only legitimate reason for firing a professor at a public university, short of a violent crime conviction, would be if that professor engaged in “hate speech,” which he defines as speech that “targets an entire class of people for repression.”

For someone who spent several minutes of his discussion condemning University of Illinois administrators for their “arbitrary” and “unilateral” decision to fire him, it would seem that such an amorphous term as “hate speech” would have no place in Salaita’s lexicon. Its vagueness would give more arbitrary power to university officials, who could selectively enforce it and “protect” certain groups over others, depending on the shifting winds of political correctness. Unfortunately, however, ill-defined terms, sloppy thinking, and logical contradictions appear to be Salaita’s modus operandi.

Throughout his hyper-political lecture—which was more of a rant against Israel’s government than a commentary on academic freedom and censorship—Salaita attacked capitalism and decried what he called the “corporatization of higher education.” Each time, he received nods and claps from the audience, even though he had not defined what he meant or explained his reasoning. So, in our interview, I asked him to elaborate on higher education’s alleged “corporatization.” He responded by saying that state governments have slashed higher education funding in recent years, which has led some universities to seek “outside” funding—funding which he says often comes with strings attached.

Salaita argues in his federal lawsuit that university administrators, facing financial pressure from “wealthy university donors,” fired him (actually, he never received final approval by the university’s board of trustees) because his speech “[challenged] the prevailing norm.” One of Salaita’s attorneys, in a January 30 interview with Inside Higher Ed, said, “People should not be able to use their financial wealth to interfere in a university hiring process and influence decision-making [outside of] shared governance structures.”

In a sharply-worded response to Salaita’s lawsuit, the University of Illinois called his claims “meritless.” (One of the claims is that the university is intentionally inflicting emotional distress by not offering him a professorship.) The university contends that its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure has concluded that donor influence was not a factor in the university’s decision, and that Salaita had demonstrated, via his tweets, that he lacks “professional fitness to serve on the faculty.”

“As a private citizen, Dr. Salaita has the constitutional right to make any public statement he chooses. Dr. Salaita, however, does not have a constitutional right to a faculty position at the University of Illinois,” said the school. A court hearing on the university’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit is scheduled for February 13.

The issues of donor influence and academic freedom came up last week at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, again with respect to Salaita. He had been scheduled to deliver a speech at the college’s Frank Family Science Center, but the event was moved to a campus library after a member of the Frank family, donors of the center, asked college president Jane Fernandes to make the change. While the college acted on the request, Fernandes said later, “If another suitable location had not been available, the lecture would have been held in [the Frank Center].”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s event, titled “Uncivil Rites: Academic Freedom and the Silencing of Speech,” was sponsored by the departments of Asian studies, Romance studies, anthropology, and sociology (which offers a “social and economic justice” minor), as well as Students for Justice in Palestine and Faculty for Palestine. Speaking to the heart of his “progressive” audience, Salaita said that his fields, indigenous and American Indian studies, have a lot in common with those programs. He said such programs are under threat by state policymakers who “desire an unthinking, robotic people that go to polls every few years and then go to the mall and spend a lot of money.”

In Salaita’s view, the great thing about the programs is that the people attracted to them have a “purpose that goes beyond the creation and dissemination of knowledge”—that is, a purpose directed toward social and political change. Salaita said that students and professors in those fields “are not separated from the communities [they] study, [but] are deeply devoted to them.”

All in all, at this event Salaita came across as a political activist with an ax to grind, not a serious scholar or defender of academic freedom. His unhinged words and sophomoric barbs speak volumes about the depth of intolerance and anger within some academic circles.