Conversation With Steven Salaita: A Controversial Scholar Reflects on His Move to Beirut
Steven Salaita shot into the academic and media spotlight in 2014 when the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign rescinded a job offer to him over some comments he made on social media. The controversial termination raised significant questions about freedom of speech. This fall, Salaita published a new book of reflections, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, about his experience of being fired and the larger issues the incident raised.
Salaita received the news that he would not be allowed to join the faculty at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign less than three weeks before the start of the fall semester. By that time, he had been offered a specific salary, received his welcome letter, had an office set aside for him, and been told what courses he would be teaching. He had also resigned from his position at Virginia Tech and was searching for places to live in Illinois.
The chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Phyllis Wise, told Salaita that the board of trustees would not approve his appointment because of a series of tweets he posted that strongly criticized Israel’s actions during that summer’s war between Gaza and Israel. In one tweet, he wrote: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”
As the saga played out, it was revealed that prominent donors had pressured the university about the decision. Salaita supporters said his right to free speech had been violated.
Now, just over a year later, legal action has begun. Wise has resigned. Salaita has found a new home, joining the faculty of the American University of Beirut as the Edward Said Chair of American Studies. I caught up with Salaita, who describes himself as being shy and deferential in person, even if he is outspoken as a writer, on AUB’s campus, where he was spending the early evening at the playground with his son. We spoke about the transition to Beirut, his personal connections to the Middle East, his legal proceedings, and academic freedom.
You’ve recently moved to the American University of Beirut. What are your impressions so far?
I’ve been here for a month. My impressions are really favorable. I love my students. My colleagues are really fantastic. Beirut is indescribably chaotic; it’s filled with contradictions. It’s never boring, whatever else it is. It’s been a good experience so far. I’m still learning how power works at this university and in this city, and this country. I have a feeling it’s going to take quite a while to figure it all out, but I’m enjoying it so far.
How do your students here in Lebanon compare to the students you used to teach back in the United States?
You know the sample size is probably too small for me to make any definitive statements. But so far, what I’m seeing is obviously a much greater understanding of the Arab world and the political savvy [of students] is a little bit more widespread than in my experiences in the United States.
A lot of students at AUB are training to become upstanding members of the ruling class but at the same time there are a lot of radical ideas here. Students are learning these ideas and internalizing them, so it’s an interesting space. They are countering a lot of the ideas of U.S. academia. There’s a deep sophisticated opposition to U.S. imperialism, to Israeli imperialism, to militarism, and to corruption here in Lebanon.
Here at AUB, do you ever feel like you’re preaching to the choir, especially when it comes to issues surrounding Israel and Palestine?
Yeah, I have that feeling. Maybe it’s not fair to do this, but I sort of take it as a given that the students have a particular awareness of Israeli colonization and the damage that Zionism has wrought on the Arab world. My thinking is, no matter where their politics are located, they’re at least familiar with that narrative. So, I try to work off of those assumptions and frame them within an analytical space where we can engage in a profound and more meaningful conversation about the implications of Israeli colonization, much more so than you’re able to do in American academe as a general rule.
Can you tell me a bit about how you ended up coming to AUB? Was AUB on your radar before your situation with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign?
I’ve presented at AUB in the past, so there was somewhat of a familiarity with the place. A lot of folks suggested that I apply to the Edward Said Chair, and they thought that I would be perfect for it, or that it would be perfect for me, and my background, given my scholarly interests. I’ve long had a desire to work and teach in the Arab world. AUB is a great location for various reasons to do that.
What do you see as your personal mission or what AUB’s mission should be to make a meaningful impact within the region?
For me, I’m learning just as much, if not more, from my students as they are learning from me, and that’s a wonderful thing. And AUB, you know, it’s elite, it’s expensive, it’s private, it’s walled, you have to go through gates to get into campus, and I always think it would be wonderful if more people had the opportunity to access the resources that exist on what I consider a wealthy campus, at least wealthy by the standards of the Levant and the Arab world more broadly. AUB aspires to be a leader within the region. It does a great job, but if it’s going to be a leader within the region, it needs to keep its attention focused on the needs of the people, the needs of the region. I think part of its responsibility should be thinking through ways to ameliorate problems, to ameliorate poverty and political corruption. It has a world-class faculty at its disposal with various types of expertise, so it has the resources to mobilize solutions to a lot of the issues that the country and the broader region face.
I understand that while you’re American, your ancestry is Palestinian-Jordanian. Did you grow up visiting the Middle East or speaking Arabic?
I grew up listening to Arabic. I have a kind of passive understanding of the language, which I’m trying to remedy while I’m here in Beirut. I did not visit the Arab world until my early twenties. Since then I have been to Lebanon four or five times. I’ve been to Palestine a few times. I’ve been to Algeria. I’ve been to Jordan a number of times. Taking up residency and employment here is kind of a different thing. It feels like I’m more immersed here in this region than I had been.
Switching topics, what’s the latest on your court proceedings back in the United States?
Last month, the [University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign] released a lot of emails from a freedom-of-information-act request, and those emails ended up contributing to a decent amount of drama. They revealed, to a certain extent, some of the rottenness underlining the university’s decision-making process, not only the moment I was fired but also in subsequent months. A federal judge overruled the university’s motion to dismiss my lawsuit. Legally nothing has happened since then. There’s new leadership in place now and at this point we’re just waiting for them to respond. As the lawsuit continues, next on the agenda will be depositions. That includes the leadership that has resigned or rotated out of positions of authority and the process of discovery, where the university and I have to turn over any documents relevant to the case.
How have you felt about the reaction from the media and from American academia regarding your case?
I’m still blown away about it all. I have received tons more support than not. I’m obviously not receiving support from centers of administrative power at universities. But at a more grassroots level, the support has been extraordinary. It encompasses people with whom I have significant ideological disagreement around Zionism or U.S. foreign policy. The support really runs the gamut, from the radical left to libertarian on the grounds of free speech. It has made me a much more optimistic human being. And I think it really has the potential, no matter how this case is resolved, to keep its forward momentum as a movement that’s devoted to countering managerial corruption and restrictions on academic freedom. It’s been a wonderful thing to learn the extent to which faculty, students, employees and community members are unwilling to continue on this trajectory of, really, the destruction of institutions of higher learning.
What are your thoughts regarding AUB’s involvement with companies that do business in occupied Palestinian territory, some of which are listed by the BDS movement [campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions]?
I’m learning about it. At least one of the engineering colleges is named after Bechtel Corporation and there’s Nestle [Café on campus]. I think AUB has an exclusive contract with HP. I think that these are issues that students, faculty and community members should resist and push. We would want AUB, just like any other institution but particularly one located in the Arab world, to not deal with any companies that are indirectly or directly complicit with the colonization and military occupation of Palestine. At the very least, you would want the university to sever ties with companies that are profiting from the Israeli occupation.
Could you foresee a reverse case to yours happening on a campus like AUB? For instance, if a professor was very pro-Zionist and made statements or tweets supporting their viewpoints? If they were to be fired, is it equally problematic?
I imagine there have been faculty at AUB who have had some affinity for Israel or at least some animosity towards the Palestinians. But if there were somebody hired to teach based on credentials, based on pedagogy, on scholarship and whatever else and there were no evidence to suggest that the professor or whoever had engaged in malfeasance or professional misconduct, I would be deeply upset if they lost a position based on their political viewpoints. Think about it this way: Zionism has long predominated on U.S. campuses. Those of us who have been outspoken on Palestinian rights, we’ve had to argue with a strong opposition. That’s the way it works and we understand that going in, but we don’t expect to lose our jobs due to opposition to Zionism or Israeli policy. If someone at AUB wants to express support for Israel, I imagine they are going to run into pretty strong vocal opposition to her or his politics, but I would hope that her or his political opponents would not seek to have the faculty member fired as the first recourse. The Palestinian solidarity movement has to be better than these tactics of repression that have long been the hallmark of Zionist activism.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.