Infernal Machine   /   September 11, 2014

Twitter, Racism, and the “Safe” Campus

Brianne Alcala

Anyone following journalistic coverage of academia lately is likely to have heard of the divisive case of the "de-hiring" of Steven Salaita at my home institution, the University of Illinois. Reports have appeared in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education, although blogs have offered the more substantive coverage. I'll leave it to other sites to relate the longer story, but the short version is that in early August, Chancellor Phyllis Wise notified Indigenous Studies scholar Steven Salaita that despite his accepting an offer of a tenured position in American Indian Studies last year as the result of a search, she would not be recommending his hire for final approval by the Board of Trustees.

Such approval is typically a pro forma step in the hiring process, as demonstrated by the fact that it usually happens after the start of a new faculty member's first semester of employment. In this case, however, the Chancellor informed Salaita via letter that she felt the Board was "unlikely" to approve his hire. More recently, she has stated that she felt the "humane" thing to do, knowing the Board’s disapproval, was to end his candidacy before the start of the semester, rather than let him move to Illinois and begin teaching, only to be retroactively fired after the Board’s September meeting.

Journalistic coverage has revealed that the Chancellor's decision came on the heels of a flurry of correspondence between campus leaders, trustees, and regular donors. At issue in these exchanges is the question of whether Salaita's strident tweets on the recent Gaza attacks revealed the scholar of Palestine and Indigenous Studies as anti-Semitic, or at least “uncivil” and therefore unfit to teach. With appeals to protecting campus "civility,” Chancellor decided to rescind Salaita's offer, leaving the professor jobless, his students without an instructor, and a campus in turmoil over the implications for academic freedom and shared governance.

The University of Illinois is currently as torn apart as I've seen it (and that's saying a lot given our past scandals). Thousands of faculty elsewhere have boycotted the institution, and there are some signs that we might be on the road to censure by professional organizations. Boycotts were perhaps especially probable given that Salaita himself is one of the leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel. (Indeed, his efforts on that work earned him the attention of bloggers who likely first alerted campus leaders to his Twitter feed.)

There are many dimensions of this story to sort through—donor influence, political corruption, Zionism, racism, and definitions of free speech, for starters—and it also comes at a time when many faculty are moving to unionize. Somewhere near the center is the matter of social media, and how we use it.

Twitter drew attention last year in racist tweets by students against Chancellor Wise in response to a snow day decision, to which the campus responded with a new “Inclusive Illinois” campaign. What is the proper context for even citing a tweet, let alone understanding the import or effects of 140 characters delivered as part of a longer, partially public, partially private exchange?

Many are approaching this matter through lengthy legal arguments and examination of precedents. This may be exactly what Salaita needs to claim wrongdoing in court, or what the faculty need to claim breech of shared governance. When I sat down to write the Trustees, however, I wanted to boil the matter down still more.

The most generous description of why the Chancellor and Trustees de-hired Salaita is that they saw a threat to the well-being of the campus as a space supportive of inclusion and diversity. I know of many who are very surprised to find themselves, as supporters of the Chancellor's decision, on the receiving end of accusations of racism. This whole episode is but the latest in a longer history of inadequate responses to white racism on this campus—particularly in light of our racist mascot "Chief" Illiniwek, banned by the NCAA and the Chancellor, but kept alive by fans and continually present on campus.

My letter to the Trustees thus took the form of a slideshow (one of my favorite forms), six slides to explain how their efforts to make the campus "safe" in fact contribute to the larger problems of racism. Below is my "PowerPoint on power."

[slideshare id=38778831&doc=fwy2akcsis2ep1uonfjw-signature-8885487762a547f5f89aaf0ee749c0de3052c7ded1e2e219b169c878b8bf95f6-poli-140906132904-phpapp02]

Six Questions on the Salaita Case from Complex Fields

Kevin Hamilton is Associate Professor of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Along with regular Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman, he is currently at work on a history of film in American nuclear weapons development.