Middle East studies in the News
A Movement of One [on Steven Salaita]
by Christopher Evans
As movements go, professor Steven Salaita's hiring debacle over at the U of I left us locals with little progress toward anything.
Initially, it was disquieting for the number one employer to fire a guy for what he spouts off online. Many of us could be called into the principal's office for a discussion about our online manners. It was easy to side with Salaita's right to a life outside of work, no matter how profane or politically incorrect his thoughts may have been. Institutional paranoia shrouded the Salaita case. Questions were raised about how much influential donors control the faculty hiring at the property-tax exempt state university. This paranoia cost Chancellor Phyllis Wise her job, as she reluctantly took the fall for whatever administrative secrets needed to be kept hidden.
It was easy to favor a David vs. Goliath narrative. It was easy to yell, "Damn straight!" to freedom of expression. And lucky for Salaita, there were many academics who were not going to tolerate a firing for expressions of political thought. Salaita's dis-hiring became cause-celeb bringing a reign of censure upon the prestigious campus. Salaita's labor dispute was elevated to a fight for the right to speak one's mind.
Crowds carrying protest signs, brandishing duct tape over their mouths came to the University YMCA's event for Salaita. Somehow a fired professor was able to hire some of the finest lawyers from Chicago to sue the university. The unemployed Salaita was given massive media exposure, speaking tours, and these Chicago lawyers racking up billable hours. Salaita's name will forevermore be associated with draconian universities stifling the brilliance of its faculty.
And then the settlement came.
$600,000 for Salaita.
$275,000 for the Chicago lawyers.
Salaita's lofty principles seemed to cascade down to, "If you aren't going to hire me, then pay me."
Salaita's settlement is three times what the Kiwane Carrington family received for their unarmed 15 year-old getting gunned down by police. No one is holding protest signs in front of Kraft as the gigantic food manufacturer is closing it's cheese-making operations, while not even doing the courtesy of telling the community how many residents are headed to the unemployment line. Compare the amount of media bestowed to the locked out workers at the Clifford-Jacobs plant, who are getting equally screwed out of a job as much as Salaita. There are no Chicago lawyers filing motions on their behalf. There is no government penalizing IMT Forging for the mistreatment of their loyal workers.
The Salaita case is a stark reminder that professional academics; or more broadly, those of the professional class, have access to lawyers and media the rest of us do not enjoy. Salaita's "victory" is a case-study in privilege and status. There are many in this community who are wronged by their employer, yet have not near the voice Salaita was given.
It's deceptive to suggest Salaita's case now protects free expression. We know the only thing the university learned from the Salaita case was to change how it hires faculty. The university will do its ugly check for political orthodoxy behind closed doors, before a job offer is extended. As for Salaita, he will be famous, and with fame, Salaita will parlay his comfortable life somewhere else.
The rest of us must make damn sure our employers never see our online activities.
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