Controversial professor Steven Salaita spoke at DePaul last week regarding the issues of academic freedom of speech as well as his views on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, on the final leg of his Chicagoland college speaking tour.
The controversy surrounding Salaita regards the tweets he posted during summer that focused on Israel’s policy in Gaza. Some people took them as being anti-Semitic, and it ultimately led to his job offer in the American Indian studies department at University of Illinois being revoked.
Students, activists, and people of all ages interested or affected by the conflict in the Middle East, as well as academic freedom, packed the small room in O’Connell Hall. Many in the overflow crowd had to sit on the ground given the lack of available seats.
A DePaul Students for Justice in Palestine member appropriately started off Salaita’s introduction with a disclaimer from the university stating, “We welcome open exchange of ideas with this program, but we also have expectations that such exchanges will be conducted appropriately and finally the views expressed here are not necessarily the views expressed by DePaul University,” which got a few chuckles from the crowd.
Salaita began his talk addressing the problem of academic freedom.
“The board decided I was anti-Semitic in 10 minutes when the hiring process took well over six months,” Salaita said. “Board members have zero evaluations on my teaching skills … let alone how to compose a solid footnote.”
This type of story is not unique to DePaul. In 2005, Professor Norman Finkelstein got into a public disagreement regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2005, which led to DePaul denying his tenure bid.
“A great surprise would be if Mr. Finkelstein came to speak also because he too got vilified for saying his views on Palestine,” said John Dworkin, a man who has attended all four of Salaita’s speaking tours.
Civility was a word that Salaita consistently acknowledged.
“They got Norman Finkelstein on collegiality, which in my case has upgraded to civility,” Salaita said, getting laughter from the crowd.
Salaita continued to speak about tone and how “the very act of criticism is considered collegial. It does not matter if you say pretty please.” Salaita talked about his use of “civility” in his tweets about Israel. “Nothing affected me more than the ice cream freezers,” Salaita said.
He connected his nostalgia of ice cream freezers storing sweets to make children happy, to ice cream freezers in Gaza storing the deceased bodies of children. He concluded his speech with a gruesome image painted in the audiences’ heads and where it all began, “thus I tweeted.”
The issue of academic censorship seems to be prevalent at DePaul according to an anonymous SJP member.
“One time a professor told me there was no basis in writing the occupy West Bank because it is a contested phrase” said the SJP member. “(And) after divestment, I realized a lot of students don’t believe in human rights for Palestinians.”
Posting political views on social media websites such as Twitter is a controversial topic, which started the problems for Salaita, affecting DePaul students as well.
“I am going through a problem now because I will be traveling to the West Bank in December and I have to filter what I say online. I am nervous and hope I will be able to cross,” said the SJP member.
Salaita is currently filing a lawsuit against U of I in an effort to get his job back, not to tweet brash ideas, but because he “deeply misses being in a classroom, a place where everyone has space to speak,” Salaita said.