Letter on Salaita, U of Illinois

I am posting here (with his permission)  a letter by Martin Kavka, who teaches in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. His words represent an alternative and thoughtful response to the Salaita case at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. A boycott of the campus by faculty has spread across social media (I have myself signed on), and I think the boycott is both a smart response and an important one. Martin’s letter outlines a bit of a different response, one that builds a protest into the the talk. Thanks to Martin for permission to post this and for his considered alternative.

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Dear Matti,

In the months since last December, when you and the Program for Jewish Culture and Society at UIUC were so kind to invite me to give the Goldberg Lecture during the 2014-15 academic year, I have excitedly anticipated seeing you, your colleagues, and your students in March 2015. Given UIUC’s recent treatment of Dr. Steven Salaita, I have spent the last few days thinking about whether I need to withdraw my previous acceptance of your invitation.  I remain torn between my desire to engage with the UIUC community and my disgust at the recent actions of your Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, and your Vice President for Academic Affairs, Christophe Pierre.

I am deeply sympathetic to the motivations and principles governing the recent movement on the part of many scholars to boycott UIUC until Dr. Salaita is reinstated.  Indeed, I suspect that the boycott movement has set its sights too low, for I cannot see how any member of the UIUC committee — including any member of its Board of Trustees — can trust in Chancellor Wise and Vice President Pierre’s leadership, for their actions have caused irreparable damage to UIUC’s recruiting ability as long as they hold their administrative positions.  In the recently released letter that they sent to Dr. Salaita on August 1 (available HERE), it is clear that they did not see any need to give Dr. Salaita any reasons for their refusal to submit his appointment to the UIUC Board of Trustees.  What scholar would accept an offer from UIUC, knowing that during all the time she or he arranged for housing, found schools for children, began purchasing equipment for labs, and started to prepare for classes, her or his promise of appointment could be revoked for no reason?

Nevertheless, I believe that I can in good conscience honor my previous acceptance of your invitation.  But I can only do so under two conditions.

First, I need your assurance that I have control over the content of my remarks.  2014 is shaping up as a year when UIUC begins a long and deeply difficult conversation about civility, in the wake of several students’ juvenile use of social media in January, the failure to renew the adjunct contract of James Kilgore in April, and Dr. Salaita’s unhiring.  Yet it strikes me that neither Chancellor Wise’s response to the events of January, nor the response from UI President Robert Easter and UIUC BOT Chairman Christopher Kennedy, has a finely tuned sense of what constitutes “uncivil speech.”  I worry that the rhetoric of “civility” at UIUC might become a simple cudgel by which institutional representatives preemptively defang both justified and unjustified challenges to their authority.  And so I ask myself various questions, including “What is the dividing line, for them, between righteous and unrighteous anger?  Under what conditions is the use of expletives to be shunned?”  (With respect to this latter question, I note that Isaiah 57:3 contains uncivil speech when it hurls at idolators the phrase benei ‘onenah, which has quite a similar force as its close English translation “sons of witches.”  Is that text to be excluded from university curricula because of its uncivil nature?)

I think that various strands of thought in the area in which I research and publish — the Jewish philosophical and theological tradition, primarily in the modern period — have something to contribute as UIUC works out its answers to these and other questions, and I look forward to speaking more about this in my remarks next spring.  If I may indeed speak about these issues, I will be happy to send you a title and a brief description later in the semester.

Second, I need your assurance that I can have some control over the publicity surrounding my talk.  The thought that members of the UIUC community might think that I was endorsing Chancellor Wise’s and Vice President Pierre’s actions by speaking at your institution causes me great worry.  And so, I must insist that all publicity for the Goldberg Lecture — including but not limited to flyers, posters, advertisements in student publications, and emailed circulars — prominently contain the following sentence:

“In solidarity with Dr. Steven Salaita, Prof. Kavka will donate his honorarium to War Child, in support of its work with children in Gaza.”

In addition, I insist that all material that the Program in Jewish Culture and Society later produces that reviews its programs for the 2014-15 academic year (such as an annual report filed with Dean Barbara Wilson, or a newsletter sent out to donors, friends, and members of the Association for Jewish Studies) contain a version of that sentence in the past tense.

Should Chancellor Wise reverse her decision between now and March — or should a new interim Chancellor reverse her decision — my conditions will not change.

This letter is not an ideal response to your hospitality.  But I regret that I cannot visit UIUC if these two conditions cannot be met.  I wish you and your colleagues an easy transition from summer into the beginning of the fall semester, and I hope to see all y’all and many of your students in March.  Please let me know whether or not I hope in vain.

Yours,

Martin Kavka

Department of Religion
Florida State University