Salaita on his settlement, student activism and what’s next for him
Professor and author Steven Salaita’s highly publicized lawsuit against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) recently reached a settlement of $875,000—$275,000 will be used to cover lawyer fees.
The lawsuit was prompted by UIUC’s termination of Salaita’s job offer and faculty position after he criticized Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza in 2014.
The case also resulted in the resignation of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who had sent Salaita his termination letter, and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida, who deleted emails to avoid FOIA (freedom of information act) requests. The case is a victory in regards to free speech and academic freedom on university campuses for both faculty and student activists.
Palestine in America had a chance to ask Salaita about the settlement, his future plans, and words of advice to current university students advocating for Palestine.
Palestine in America (PiA): You had sued to have your position reinstated. What was going through your mind when you accepted the settlement?
Steven Salaita (SS): Too many things to sort through. I was thinking of the Palestine solidarity community, the students and faculty at UIUC, the well-being of my family, the implications of a long and costly litigation, and other things simultaneously. I was also cataloging the various victories: AAUP censure, the resignation of key administrators, the boycott, the release of the emails, and so forth. It’s pretty amazing what we accomplished in the year following the termination.
PiA: You stated that “nothing untidy ever ends,” and that you will continue to fight injustice. Now that this case is settled, what specific next steps do you have in mind?
SS: There’s still repression happening across campuses. Palestinians and Natives are still colonized. Police brutality continues unabated. I’m eager to work on these and other issues–through speaking, writing, teaching, the usual approaches for somebody with my skill set.
PiA: In your personal opinion, do you think your case has inspired more people, especially in Academics, to speak up regarding Israel, or has it served more as a cautionary tale?
SS:There’s no way to empirically measure it, but my sense is that more people than ever–inside and beyond academe–are contesting not only Israeli policy, but the viability of Zionism itself.
PiA: Do you feel you are more or less cautious on Twitter nowadays? What role do you feel social media will take on in the coming years for social justice?
SS: I’m not “cautious” if the term refers to appeasing power. I discuss the same issues on the platform I always have, just not as frequently. I’m not sure about the role of social media in movements for justice. They’re useful in various ways, but they’re no panacea. The hard work of traditional organizing will always be crucial.
PiA: In your article in The Nation, you write that you will continue to fight injustice “no matter my state of employment,” but also describe the peace you and your family have enjoyed in Beirut with steady employment. How do you balance your fight against injustice while maintaining the peace we all need in our personal lives?
SS: It’s different for every person and family. I’m no exemplar of balance. It’s a struggle. It’s difficult to tune out the noise and not become too cynical. But I always figure that if folks who have it much worse than I are able to do it, then there’s no choice but to keep going. Oppression sure as hell isn’t ever on hiatus.
PiA: Our readership includes many university students—many of whom are being silenced and punished on their campuses for their speech regarding Palestine. What would you tell them?
SS: Think closely about the potential outcomes of your work. Never succumb to the idea that you need to be civil or respectable. And keep doing the work if you’re able. You’re absolutely routing extremely powerful, well-funded Zionist groups. It’s remarkable when you think about it. No worthwhile activism exists without recrimination from centers of power. The punishment, then, is an affirmation of your effectiveness.
PiA: How has student activism directed at Palestine changed since you were a student?
SS: In some ways, it’s exactly the same: students with few resources and facing hostile opposition working to educate people about Palestine and make connections with other groups on campus. I’d say the major difference is scale: more students seem to be active at a greater number of colleges and universities. And the sophistication of students today is something that never fails to impress me.