Salaita in Urbana

Steven Salaita spoke at the Independent Media Center (IMC) in Urbana on the night of  Tuesday the 13th to a crowd of at least 200 people.

No fireworks.  In fact the conversation was so academic it was hard to listen to the man and believe he incurred (and continues to incur) such controversy.  Appearances may be deceiving, and ongoing litigation may be an inhibitor of more emphatic statements, but I and, I think, many in the audience, were by and large left wondering what the fuss was all about.

Of course the deeper picture is exactly that the fuss was manufactured, but by whom and for what reasons we still don’t know, however many months we are into the multi-million dollar litigation, however many months we are into UIUC’s nonproduction of the Salaita documents they were required under court-order to produce.  However many months we are into a continued stream of grotesque examples of deceit and indifference to the community and the law by UIUC top administrators and staff.

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Listening to Salaita I kept waiting for the bomb to drop, and kept hearing no bomb’s boom.  Again it’s tempting to think he’s tight-lipped because of litigation; but, having read far too many of the Salaita emails, and having spent far too much time already on analysis, I’m really pretty convinced he knows as little as the rest of us.

I should say that I’m not giving Salaita a pass on his own actions, some of which were certainly at least intemperate; also I’m not judging his dangerousness (or lack thereof) in terms of his larger statements about BDS, Israel, and etc.   Salaita may well be intemperate, unqualified, and dangerous … but none of those characteristics were at all in evidence on Tuesday; instead Salaita came across as a pretty academic guy, spouting pretty academic talk.

Those reverberations of the academy extended to his interlocutor, Robert Warrior, as well as to the sponsor of the event, the Campus Faculty Association (CFA).  Considering the media coverage and the crowd this could easily have been a watershed moment for outrage and organizing; instead, it played far more into that whole “civility” think that (former) Chancellor Wise has recommended to the community as the way to live one’s life.

Was that purposeful?  Perhaps, but I think the likelier truth is that reports of organizing and hot-headeness have been wildly exaggerated. The fuss was manufactured, and the fuss about the fuss has been overblown – at least as it applies to Salaita and his supporters. However unreasonable and untrustworthy they may be, they’re not nearly as calculating as they’ve been made out.

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The Tuesday talk leaves me wondering what comes next.  More dispiriting revelations no doubt — I wonder if anyone in the UIUC administration realizes how destructive that festering of undisclosed truths is? Listening to Salaita and reading the (to date revealed) emails I’m left with this great sense of the overall stupidity and incompetence of everyone involved; but the longer there’s no openness on UIUC’s part about what went on, and no calls to accounting, the more that sense of dismay at the bungling turns to justifiable anger and outrage.

And that’s hardly surprising since the larger context for the Salaita Affair is the duty of a university to act with openness, a bedrock principle of the academy.  Honestly it’s amusing to hear people claim that universities are drawn to secrecy on the corporate model of non-disclosure, since that corporate model is largely discredited, albeit still too prevalent.  Many corporations have figured out that it’s altogether better not to dissemble at all rather than to be caught in the lies later on.  Not all by any means, but enough that no university can claim with a straight face that they’re only doing what’s standard practice for corporations.

And if UIUC thought they were following a corporate playbook here or, worse, if they continue to think they can just claim that “ongoing litigation” precludes full-discussion and truthfulness … then Salaita will have far more consequence than he ever intended, or the university ever wanted to happen.

And that might be a good thing, at least if it brings about change.

(Note I’d sent this to Academblog in case they wanted to put it up.  They didn’t, so I’m putting it up here.  It may or my not be my finest work (I make no claims to it being so), but I thought it worth noting that reports of Salaita’s incendiary nature have been greatly exaggerated, at least if that talk was any indicator.)

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