On the Case of Steven Salaita

Don’t know who Steven Salaita is? Read this for background. And this, as well.

Done? Good. And now, for my own take: Tablet Magazine has been on a roll with its coverage of the war between Israel and Hamas, and how big media news outlets have reported on the war. But in this editorial, I think they are off base. As reprehensible as Salaita’s tweets are, they are likely covered by the First Amendment, and unless the decision of the trustees at the University of Illinois really means something substantive in the hiring process–as opposed to being a pro forms affair–Salaita can likely pursue a breach of contract claim against the university based on the principle of promissory estoppel. (I will note that when I first made these comments in a Facebook posting, one friend referenced Waters v. Churchill as a counter to my claim that Salaita’s First Amendment rights were violated. For my part, I think the facts of the Salaita case differ, but it will be interesting to see if courts use Waters to benefit the University of Illinois’s case in the event that litigation occurs–as it likely will.)

But gee, isn’t it interesting that no other colleges or universities are stepping up to offer Salaita a job–thereby striking a blow in favor of academic freedom, and being lauded by Salaita supporters for doing so? I recognize, of course, that this may be because the academic year has started already at a number of institutions, and those institutions may be in no position to hire anyone at this time. But are all institutions really in this boat? How many people want to bet that there are oodles and oodles of college and university administrators who are looking at this case and saying “there isn’t a sand castle’s chance in an earthquake that we want to associate ourselves with Steven Salaita”? The way I figure it, thanks to his tweets, Salaita has made himself completely radioactive to numerous institutions that might be looking to hire someone in his field of study. Oh, I imagine that he will get a job eventually. But it is going to take a long while, and for that, Salaita has no one to blame but himself.

Equally precious, of course is the sudden, horrified realization among academics that their social media content might determine their employment prospects, and that as a consequence, they have to be–gasp!–careful about what they write for public consumption. Somewhere, Heather Armstrong chuckles and says “welcome to life in the twenty-first century, folks. About time you got here.”


  1. A brief note. This happened in the summer, and it is nearly impossible to obtain a tenured appointment in the summer. The budget’s been set up already. The best you can do is get someone in for an interview in the Fall. So the fact that no job has been offered says nothing. But you are correct, few deans or chairs will stick out their neck for this guy.

  2. Another possibility that occurs to me (although the seasonal argument made above seems more pertinent), is that by offering a position, such another school might be seen as supporting the validity of the “firing” (or whatever it should be called) in the first place. Now, one might temper that by making the offer conditional on the firing actually becoming permanent. But such nuance seems likely to be lost in at least some coverage.

    It also seems to me that if such an offer were made, it would be almost a slap in the face to applicants who underwent a full round of interviews, campus visits, and so on and yet were rejected. Unless we were talking someone really, truly, indisputably top-tier, I’m not sure I’d want to dispense with the normal process, or substantially curtail it, out of respect to all considering it. And even then I’m still not sure I’d do it.

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