For the entirety of his career, Steve has had a reputation as a caring instructor, able to foster respectful dialogue and create learning environments that have welcomed all his students. His stellar teaching evaluations have attested to that, and give lie to Chancellor Wise’s claim that Steve would be anything but a highly successful, kind and supportive professor to all his students. Over the years, Steve has worked with many students who have gone on to successes of their own. Like you, they are shocked and outraged by the treatment he has received. Here they are, in their own words.
I find it very difficult to believe that anyone who has ever met or worked with Professor Salaita could think that he would ever create a less than welcoming and engaging classroom environment. Professor Salaita is one of my favorite professors from my time at Virginia Tech. He is a talented, open-minded, kind, and generous teacher who was always willing to drop what he was doing to offer me or my fellow MAs advice about school, academia, or teaching. Dr. Salaita is the sort of teacher who makes his students feel as though they matter, as though their opinions are worth discussing and developing, and as though they are a part of a larger intellectual conversation, which is not something that can be said of all or even most professors. Last year he spent several weeks working with me on my various submissions to English conferences and I feel sure that without his help I would not have had the success that I did. He helped me develop my cover letters, my abstracts, and, eventually, my presentations; because of his dedication as an educator and adviser I felt fully prepared to enter the realm of academic discussion. He provided similar guidance to my entire MA class in the course we took with him in Fall 2013. Without him, I doubt any of us would have had any idea how to go about developing and completing a large, graduate-level project like a thesis.
Dr. Salaita always encouraged us to express our opinions, to share our thoughts or concerns, and to challenge each other–but never once did he do so in such a way as to create a “hostile” environment, to use Chancellor Wise’s words. Professor Salaita is exactly the sort of person that a university should be proud to have on their faculty; he is a great scholar, mentor, and teacher. That he is being treated in this way by an institution–a university–that should, according to the ideals of higher education, cherish and promote free speech and the exchange of ideas, is truly shocking.
After hearing Chancellor Wise blocked an appointment for Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I aim to debunk the accusation that Salaita would create a “hostile environment” for his students.
During my senior year of undergraduate coursework, I sat in the back row of Professor Salaita’s American Literature class. I wish I would’ve sat in the front.
Professor Salaita’s powerful pedagogy was a thunderclap that roused us sleepers awake. He fostered the pursuit of knowledge and the formation of well-rounded opinions. He encouraged healthy student-to-student debate and never made his own beliefs known – but he made sure every student’s voice was respected and acknowledged. Most of all, Professor Salaita pushed each of us to think about the human experience differently. He’d surprise us with questions that urged our thoughts deeper into that essence literature seeks to capture. He taught us how we are all strung together no matter how our stories read.
Even after his class ended in 2010, I’d seek out Professor Salaita with challenging questions about education, current events and the future. He, still the mentor, would give gentle guidance and pass along information I could use to form my own opinions. And when I asked for help with my writing, he encouraged me to roar.
I’ve benefitted greatly from Professor Salaita’s leadership and compassion during my undergraduate coursework and in the years following. Chancellor Wise’s accusations that Professor Salaita would create a “hostile” environment are completely groundless. I’m saddened that the students at Illinois are unable to have such an extraordinary instructor invested in their educational well-being.
Laken Renick Yancey
I am writing in response to the University of Illinois’s unfortunate decision to not recommend Dr. Steven Salaita for employment their university. Currently, I am an Instructor of English at the University of Southern Indiana and the managing editor for the Southern Indiana Review. I am also a former student of Dr. Steven Salaita, and it is in that capacity that I write this letter. I took two graduate courses with Dr. Salaita, Critical Theory and Studies in the Native American Novel, and he also served as my Capstone director. Since I became an academic, I arranged to have Dr. Salaita visit two campuses, here at USI and Tarrant County College in Texas. In all contexts – as a professor, mentor, guest speaker, and friend – Dr. Salaita has been respectful, kind, compassionate, and intellectually supportive. He has been one of the top two most important teachers in my intellectual development, and I doubt that I could have achieved the success I have without his support.
Chancellor Wise’s letter, titled “The Principles on Which We Stand,” calls academic freedom a “bedrock principle” and denies that disagreement with his politics influenced their decision. Rather, the letter turns on the claim that “personal and disrespectful words […] that demean and abuse” are not welcome at the university. Moreover, students “of any faith and background” must feel welcomed in the classroom and “value[d] as a human being.” Chancellor Wise and I – and I would venture to say Dr. Salaita – agree on all these points. Her commitment to academic freedom and support of respecting students are laudable concepts, but such valuable ideals should not lead them to exclude Dr. Salaita from the university; in fact, he would fit in wonderfully.
As a student, I never felt discriminated against, I was never the victim of anti-Semitism, and even though I occasionally disagreed with Dr. Salaita, I never felt that my opinions were ignored or demeaned. And I never witnessed anything like this happening. In other words, I believe the university is the victim of misinformation. Regardless of whatever is on Twitter or screes from his detractors, Dr. Salaita conducts himself as a professional committed to the “bedrock principles” all academics hold dear.
The political views that have garnered attention, from no less an authority than Inside Higher Ed, deserve attention as well. Dr. Salaita, whose dissertation centered on Native issues, was hired to teach in the university’s American Indian studies program, and a quick review of his scholarship and education will reveal that he is a qualified choice. He was not hired to be a political spokesperson for the university, nor do his personal politics affect his performance in the classroom. Like all of us, his political convictions are informed by his experiences, values, and education, and his rights to express those convictions are protected by both the First Amendment and academic freedom. Public intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said have expressed similar sentiments as Dr. Salaita; in some cases their phrasing was even more incendiary. It may be true that Dr. Salaita’s politics are not popular, but not only is his expression protected, it is also his duty to his conscience to speak out against injustice. And as a former student, I can guarantee that if his politics enter the classroom, they do so as subjects for debate and respectful discussion.
Obviously, this issue has received national attention both in and out of academe, and I am sure that the University of Illinois never intended to embarrass, defame, or unduly inconvenience Dr. Salaita. Rather, this is an example of a specific political will mixing with a host of bad information and out-of-context, protected, personal, political speech to create an unfortunate mistake. Mistakes can be fixed. The university can recommend Dr. Salaita’s hire, support academic and political freedom, and feel confident that their students will be welcomed, respected, intellectually challenged, and more broadly aware as a result. I’ve seen what Steve can do with a willing, intellectually curious student, and I hope that the University of Illinois’s students can see it too.
I could not disagree more strongly with their decision, and I hope they re-consider their actions.
I write to you today as a former graduate student of Dr. Steven Salaita. I have followed the news of Professor Salaita’s termination with an increasingly heavy heart as it becomes more and more obvious that the students at the University of Illinois will not have the opportunity to work with such a great scholar, researcher, educator, and human being. I feel that not only has this decision to break his contract denied Dr. Salaita his right to academic freedom, but perhaps just as importantly it has denied the students at U of I a valuable mentor and advocate.
I worked with Dr. Salaita for two years at Virginia Tech. I had the pleasure of taking two of his classes on Arab American literature, and he served as a mentor for me during my Masters program as I applied to PhD programs. In both of the classes, Dr. Salaita emphasized his expectation that the classroom be a place where diverse and conflicting opinions could be discussed, tested, tried on, and cast off with respect. No idea, value, or thought was stupid in his class; it was only the willingness not to engage with an open-mind that was not accepted. It was in this atmosphere of collaborative inquiry into issues of gender, race, sexuality, class, and other politically charged issues that we (students and Professor Salaita) questioned what we thought we knew. Never were students made to feel like their opinions were not valid or that they were less than human. Did Dr. Salaita push his students to consider alternative view points? Of course, and he encouraged us to challenge him as well. That’s one of the reasons why his class was so life-changing to me: Dr. Salaita called upon his students to act as collaborators in creating knowledge, to question him, to questions what we thought we knew beforehand, to question what we thought we knew after, and to ultimately engage in a process of continuous inquiry that extended beyond his classroom.
In the justification for why Professor Salaita was not hired, you mention your commitment to academic freedom and fostering an academic community where each student feels personally valued as he or she encounters new ideas. I understand and empathize with such a commitment. However, I believe that this ideal of a safe academic community does disservice to your students. An education should challenge and change students; I know my educational experiences with Dr. Salaita certainly positively challenged and changed me. But never once in this process of challenge and change did I feel that my ideas were not valued; if anything, for the first time in my educational career, I felt that my ideas were being valued as real and important, as part of something larger than my own privately held beliefs. I only wish that the students at the University of Illinois had a similar opportunity to engage with a professor such as Dr. Salaita who truly values the students and shows them how important ideas, their ideas, are and can be.