“Waiting” in the Neoliberal University: The Salaita Case and the Wages of an Academic Boycott

This essay by anthropologists Martin Manalansan and Ellen Moodie at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides an updated account of the fall-out from their institution’s un-hiring of Steven Salaita for his tweets critical of the state of Israel during its 2014 war on Gaza. It argues for a broader campaign against the revanchist state and neoliberalization of the university.

“WAITING” IN THE NEOLIBERAL UNIVERSITY:  The Salaita Case and the Wages of an Academic Boycott

Martin F. Manalansan IV and Ellen Moodie**

The crisis at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has become known as “the Salaita case,” or just “Salaita.”  In common parlance the surname refers not so much to the Palestinian American literary scholar who signed a contract with the university in the fall of 2013 as to the choleric situation that emerged from the efforts of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, in collusion with other Illinois figures, to prevent Steven Salaita from coming to campus to join the renowned faculty at the American Indian Studies (AIS) Program. The decision came after Wise began receiving complaints from alumni and donors, as recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests reveal. By now, few people doubt that a campaign against this staunch critic of Israel and author of several books was orchestrated by well-funded political lobby groups.

We have since watched and waited as a devastating administrative decision has spiraled into a crisis in the humanities and social sciences at the University of Illinois and beyond. American Indian Studies—always vulnerable in the context of the university’s supposedly retired “chief” mascot—has been all but destroyed. It’s likely that most of our AIS colleagues will leave Urbana. University rhetoric about faculty governance has been revealed as a farce. The local, donor-driven decisions in Urbana, instigated by an organized campaign among pro-Israeli alumni, sparked a national and international boycott, one unofficially linked to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. This link is not simply one of parallelism (an example of how a boycott works, as many claimed), but one of substance. It is no coincidence that it was Steven Salaita, Palestinian-American critic of Israel, who was discarded.

In this column we share what it has meant to be boycotted. We cannot speak for AIS or Steven Salaita (who recently accepted a position at the American University of Beirut for 2015-2016). We are two anthropologists active in the Urbana-Champaign campus faculty coalition that emerged last August, first to exchange information, and then to plan a series of actions and protests. Many progressive-minded faculty members and graduate students at UIUC have rallied to take the administration to task not only for the Salaita unhiring, but also for the complete disavowal of shared governance and academic freedom.

Beyond these university-focused issues, we have considered our struggle to be part of the overall BDS movement. We strongly believe in responding to the call to action in the fight against the violent and inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state. Discussions of Salaita’s work and other critiques of Israel’s settler colonialist policies have been happening not only in classes, but also in informal seminars and reading groups on the UIUC campus. We see the Salaita case as not just a local case of bad university hiring practices, but part of a complex set of opposing forces around the Israel-Palestine issue.

However, for those of us on the ground at UIUC, the national boycott of UIUC has brought to the surface tensions between ideal goals and everyday life on campus. One huge difference between the BDS and the UIUC boycott is that the boycott of Israeli academic institutions was well thought-out over the past decade. There are clear guidelines.  It came from calls from within Palestinian civil society. The UIUC boycott, in contrast, was decreed by outsiders with no previous stakes in UIUC and without much practical consideration. It was not formed as part of a bigger strategy.

Nearly a year after all this began, we are waiting, still waiting. We can wait, as a mode of resistance; they (the administration) can wait, as an exercise of power (see Javier Auyero, Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012]). As we wait, we ask: What’s the next move? Who will refuse to come to campus? What now, after the definitive censure vote from the national AAUP? What are the latest rulings in the lawsuit for breach of contract and violation of free speech rights that Steven Salaita filed in federal court (against campus leaders and “unknown donors”)? When will we be able to plan an event on campus without feeling ethically compromised? Inevitably, how can we create long-term critical pedagogical and research goals during this impasse?

So: “This is how a boycott works,” as a prominent fellow anthropologist repeated several times last year at the American Anthropological Association meetings, explaining that rather than going to Urbana, people invite UIUC faculty to their campuses. Most of the UIUC faculty involved in the internal efforts to oppose our administration, to fight for academic freedom and faculty governance, are still waiting to be included in various discussions of the Salaita case across the nation. Some of us have used other invitations as an opportunity to talk about the boycott, and more broadly, the fragility of faculty governance in a moment of neoliberal revanchism. Most of us have never claimed that this is simply a liberal individual “academic freedom” issue. Instead, we see this as part of a larger effort designed not just to silence critics of Israel or censor critics of powerful monied interests, but also to remake the (public) university in a neoliberal corporate framework.

When talk of the UIUC boycott first began, at least a few of us were skeptical. The idea came entirely from outsiders. No one consulted with any of us: not with Steven Salaita, not with the AIS faculty, not with anyone on campus affected by our administration’s end-run around established procedures. Still, many of us in the humanities and social sciences wanted to consider the movement one of solidarity, and one that would pressure the administration to reverse its decision—or at least embarrass it a little. But the terms of the boycott were never clear. How long will the boycott be enforced? What is the scope? Some people from other universities threatened to not write tenure reviews. There has been fear that UIUC graduates will not fare well in the academic job market.

In the meantime, in our everyday lives, we forge on. Sometimes, we forget, if just for a moment, that we are waiting. We teach, grade, write, conduct research, review manuscripts, write tenure letters, attend faculty and committee meetings…  Then out of the blue, something brings us back to the terra firma of the boycott. For example: In April a top recruit for the Anthropology graduate program wrote emails to several faculty members who had hoped to work with him, saying,  “I do not see myself thriving socially in Urbana-Champaign at large. I take very seriously the effects the boycott has had on the stability of the American Indian Studies program.”

It is important to note that the boycott has not harmed the vigorous exchanges in the STEM departments and colleges. Instead, the boycott has hit hard on vulnerable humanities and humanistic social sciences, especially those in the interdisciplines such as gender, women’s and ethnic studies. Now the former university system president Bob Easter has forecast new austerity measures, telling us: “Some programs will not survive.”

The UIUC boycott has become unwittingly complicit with the planned dismantling of these interdisciplines by the neoliberal university and the revanchist state. If ongoing events in Wisconsin and North Carolina are any indication, the unintentional crippling of these fields becomes part of the eventual undoing or weakening of these critical knowledge sites where vital critiques of local and trans-national landscapes emanate. Will ethnic studies and other interdisciplines be the necessary collateral damage in the boycott such that we lose the very sites and people that think critically about why we need to act ethically in a political world, whether within the BDS or in other movements?

We urge allies across the country to go beyond the Illinois boycott. It is no longer just about Steven Salaita’s un-hiring, the administration’s view of the disposability of AIS, the racist battle against the BDS movement, and/or academic freedom. Progressive people behind the boycott should gather to fight not only for justice for Steven Salaita, but also for the very survival of the university outside the state’s neoliberal purview of producing laborers for the service economy. We cannot just stand and wait while various state legislatures and national institutions decry and demolish tenure, academic programs, and shared governance.

These days, many of us on campus feel demoralized, frustrated, and even silenced. Most of the external “support” of the boycott has come to feel like a great emptiness. In the meantime, the UIUC administration and the Board of Trustees have not moved or even shown much distress over the cancellations and refusals, even after the AAUP censured the university. They are waiting it out, waiting for the outcome of the lawsuit Steven Salaita has filed against them, undoubtedly ready to make their settlement. But we, politically progressive members of universities and college should no longer wait. We should step up our game and move to other more effective modes of action.

We suggest the boycott of UIUC be superseded by an expansive coalition and a multi-stranded set of actions to oppose the virulent and revanchist state apparatus and the increasingly imperial/neoliberal university. Concerned citizens of higher educational institutions in this nation must now fight directly and more forcefully with clearer agendas and goals. Waiting is no longer an option.

*Both authors are associate professors in anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Manalansan has a joint appointment in Asian American Studies. We thank Jessica Winegar for her encouragement and suggestions.