Book Your Tickets to Urbana-Champaign, Fast!
You may have never seen Urbana-Champaign as a place to go for vacation. It is isolated in the middle of Illinois. According to Wikipedia, it is only the 191st most populous metropolitan area in the United States. The climate is not exactly like Malibu.
But thanks to Hamas, some educated Jews, a war in Gaza, a Virginian jack of all trades who got duped out of a job, trustees with strong convictions, and (at last count) 1,736 signatories to a petition, Urbana-Champaign is now the place to go for quality time and peace of mind.
Let me explain, by first addressing that last point – the petition – and then I’ll work backward through an overgrown jungle of anti-Semitism, university bias, and ridiculous double standards when it comes to “academic freedom.” You will understand why now Urbana-Champaign is a very cool hot spot.
The Boycott That’s Too Good to Be True
As of just now, there are over 1,700 university professors who have signed a pledge not to set foot on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
These represent, in one easily referenced list, all the most useless loudmouths whom anyone interested in intelligent discourse would wish never to see, hear, or bump into.
Hoping to bring Urbana-Champaign to its knees over a hiring squabble (see below), they have unwittingly mapped out an earthly collegiate paradise in the Midwest.
In my sixteen years in higher education, I have never seen such a golden opportunity.
Book your tickets, and fast. These people may soon change their minds. They might decide to register their disgust with the University of Illinois by busing themselves there for a protest. For now they are staying away in their intellectually impoverished and choleric grottos, from Palo Alto (see #277) to Cape Town (see #932).
But you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend time in the proximity of earnest college students and researchers, with no risk of being harassed with the musings of Judith Butler (#56), Jasbir Puar (#295), David Lloyd (#221), Gayatri Spivak (#358), or Angela Davis (#85).
These signatories really are to blame for the collapse of higher education
In case these names do not ring a bell, allow me to give you some context. In your world, they are nobodies; in their world, they are gods. They are luminaries in the scholarly cult that turned once-great disciplines like English and history into Stalinist pep clubs and replaced dignified pursuits like literary criticism and historical analysis with trite political movements like eco-feminist poetics, transgender studies, post-colonialism, and – here is the one that did them in – BDS, or the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel.
You may not be aware that the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies both passed resolutions sympathizing with the BDS movement. Indeed, the Modern Language Association, charged with overseeing English, literature, and foreign language programs, came very close to doing the same.
Though I am hardly the most seasoned person in the academy, I have personally known dozens on the list. They are, without exception, the most poorly read and illogical bullies in all of the professoriate.
I lack the math skills to count how many people’s tenure cases were derailed by these people, how many brilliant writers were blacklisted from the academic publishing racket because they were a threat to one or more of the people on this list, how many recent Ph.D.s were unable to find work to support their families because people on this list had their own sycophants and acolytes in mind for a position, how many panelists went crying to their hotel rooms at conferences because people on this list trashed them for no legitimate reason.
That’s not to mention how many grants and endowments these petitioners have hoarded to spend on their own fruitless (and often harmful) hobby horses, like “pinkwashing,” “unlearning your privilege,” “heteropatriarchy,” “ethnonationalism,” “counterpublics,” and “hybridity.”
Do those terms mean anything to you? If your answer is “no,” then congratulate yourself. You are a normal human being. Go to Urbana-Champaign while the people who coined such insanity are vowing to leave you alone.
While university tuitions skyrocketed by over 400% in only twenty-five years and student debt went toxic at one trillion dollars, these overpaid tyrants ruled over pedantic fiefdoms in Middlebury, Vermont and Oberlin, Ohio. They wasted students’ time and parents’ money blathering about queerness, otherness, Marcusian strategies of resistance, and other faux populist chicanery.
Here’s where the petition started…
Their reasons for what they call a boycott are complicated and have to do with Steven Salaita, who has made a name for himself in the fields of English and American Indian Studies by publishing voluminous political opinions about Israel and the Palestinians.
His work seems to have little to do with literature, the English language, or Native Americans. His main focus is political rhetoric and human rights activism regarding an Arabic-speaking population in the Middle East.
He bounced from one tenured position in English at Virginia Tech to a sweet gig in American Indian Studies worth over $80,000 per year in Illinois. Had a controversy surrounding his harsh statements about Israel not thwarted his plans, he would currently be nestled with lifelong security in the latter state.
Having some helpful allies because of his prominence in the BDS movement, he decided to trade in his cushiony job in Virginia for a tenured position in Illinois last year.
Apparently in complete defiance of their responsibility to recommend hires who are actually qualified to teach about American Indians, they voted to offer him a job, and this offer made its way through the university hierarchy in 2013.
He was given tenure, without having worked his way up through the review process as an Illinois assistant professor. As of the end of last year, there was only one level of approval pending – the Board of Trustees.
We assume that with tenure, he would be eligible for generous sabbaticals and a high platform to voice pro-Palestinian politics with no obligation to educate himself or his students on the culture, history, or language of any Native American nation. That is, unless we count Palestinian Arabs as honorary Indians because they are “indigenous” to somewhere. As of late 2013, it looked like a done deal. Steven Salaita told Virginia Tech he was leaving.
Snag: Gaza erupted, he tweeted some unsavory things about Israel, and the inbox of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise exploded. Wise knew: if you want to make your college subject to alienation, then cc a memo to Jewish alumni that you are going to lavish unearned tenure on a potty-mouthed anti-Israel activist.
While they may seem inscrutable, Jewish Americans are major players in higher education, and their concerns and fears can’t be taken lightly without risking pushback. After Salaita’s tweets became a hot topic on sites like Legal Insurrection, e-mails were sent and calls made. Wise no doubt understood the equation and had to weigh considerations: Salaita’s under-qualified hurt feelings versus outrage from Jewish alumni, parents, and students.
Given the violent tone and profanity from Salaita’s Twitter feed, Wise did what any of us would do. She read the fine print and reminded herself that the last step was still pending – the Board of Trustees had not approved of the tenured hire. So in a crisp letter to Mr. Salaita, she announced that she would not recommend him to the Board, and he did not have a job.
While I have heard a lot about the fracas at Illinois, I have read little about what happened in Virginia. We have to assume that the people at Virginia Tech’s English department made it clear that they didn’t intend to undo his resignation. So Salaita had no position at Virginia Tech and no job in Illinois, tenured or otherwise. He transfigured overnight, from rock star scholar with lifelong appointments at two universities to unemployed supplicant.
Where’s our army of defenders?
Countless people in the academy have felt political backlash: for starters, me, but also names now famous like Bishop Tengatenga, Naomi Schaefer Riley, Erik Loomis, Ward Churchill, or Mark Armitage.
To me, Armitage’s name is particularly meaningful. He is currently suing my employer, California State University-Northridge, over his firing. He was fired after scientists at Northridge realized that he had published a peer-reviewed article doubting the age of dinosaur bones. Not coincidentally, Armitage is Christian, and his religion exposed him to apparent scorn before his dismissal.
Did we get 1,736 professors boycotting Cal State or wall-to-wall coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education? Could we count on blogger Claire Potter’s snarky support on Tenured Radical? No.
Yes, I worry about the threat to academic freedom posed by what happened in the Salaita affair, but to raise a ruckus over an ally whom you’ve pushed unfairly through the system for years, and never speak up for the legions of underpaid and struggling academics who aren’t your friends, is worse than saying nothing at all.
If you aren’t willing to get off your rump and fight for academic freedom for all academics whose freedom is threatened – whether they are temporary, tenured, or unemployed – then you should shut up and go back to your office. The world doesn’t need to hear from you.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I have had years to build up my indignation over things that go on in the academy. I support a family on a much smaller salary, toil at four upper-level courses each semester, have 160 students, and count on no sabbaticals with very few grants. Even having been called up for reserve duty by the Army in 2010, I managed to publish articles and a book (Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman) in the area in which I was hired, early American literature.
What appalls me most about Salaita and his thousands of advocates is their longstanding disregard for the basic premise on which they are employed as academics in the first place. I’m also political and opinionated, but I took the time to relate my opinions to a thorough analysis of Roman and Greek influences on early American literature. I did this because I work in an English department teaching early American literature to college students. And not to the tune of $80,000.
I earned tenure. If I were to leave my position, I sure as heck would not presume that I would have tenure at another institution, especially if I were changing academic disciplines. Personally, I would not resign until I had the keys to my new office, my name was on the door, and the first pay warrant was on its way.
The small kernel of sympathy I can muster for Steven Salaita crumbles when I look at the details in context. This is clearly a case of arrogance, corruption, and incompetence among American professors. In a word, cronyism: they’ve been publishing, hiring, and promoting friends while excluding better-qualified scholars for decades.
If they do not recant on the “unhiring” of Steven Salaita, Urbana-Champaign will expose very quickly how much of a fool’s burden these 1,736 signatories are. I’m confident that the university will be better, stronger, smarter, and more effective if it has no ties whatsoever to the nepotistic dirty-dealers who have signed the statement against the university. While they think they will bring Phyllis Wise’s administration to its knees, the campus will be free to do what universities are actually supposed to do: learn, teach, study, and discuss. Such are the things that Salaita and his supporters stop everyone from doing with all their incoherent, unbearable noise.
So book your tickets now.
Robert Oscar Lopez is editor of English Manif and founder of the International Children’s Rights Institute. He is an associate professor of English and classics at CSU Northridge, but the views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of his employer.