Prof. Nelson on hiring & de-hiring Steven Salaita

Prof. Nelson on hiring & de-hiring Steven Salaita

Cary R. Nelson is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Among his extensive bibliography of published works, he has written or edited numerous titles with political themes, including:

  • Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, New York: New York U Press, 1997
  • Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left, New York: Routledge, 2001
  • Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1988
  • The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poetry About the Spanish Civil War, Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 2002
  • The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, Wayne State University Press, 2015 (reviewed at this blog by Peter Eisenstadt).
Steven Salaita

Dr. Steven G. Salaita

In the current issue (2015 Volume 6) of the Journal of Academic Freedom (published by the American Association of University Professors), Prof. Nelson has an extensive scholarly critique of the decision to hire Steven Salaita — whose body of work engages polemically with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in the American Indian Studies Program at his institution, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

While the case can (and probably should) be made that Dr. Salita was treated shabbily in the circumstances of his de-hiring by higher university authorities (after he had already given up another tenured position), there is strong evidence that he was hired for ideological/political reasons rather than his scholarship.  This is from Prof. Nelson’s abstract of his 31-page article (including 46 footnotes), “Steven Salaita’s Scholarly Record and the Problem of His Appointment”:

. . .  Salaita’s first book—and the book that was the main justification for his appointment at Illinois—asserts that Palestinians are the one truly indigenous people of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Although Salaita does not give serious attention to the scholarship that would dispute such a claim, he is not alone in staking out that polemical ground. His more distinctive argument is that Israelis were a European colonialist power who actually modeled their nation building on the strategies used to suppress the Indian peoples of North America. For that claim there is no persuasive evidence. And yet it underlies his effort to treat Native Americans and Palestinians within a framework of “comparative indigeneity.” Support for the Palestinian people and unremitting hostility toward the Jewish state are the paired commitments that underlie most of Salaita’s published work. This paper attempts to show that sympathy with Salaita’s politics, rather than appropriate expertise about Middle East history, was the determining factor behind the effort to appoint him at Illinois.  . . .

Again, Prof. Nelson’s entire article can be accessed in pdf format at this website:–JAF6_0.pdf

By | 2015-09-25T10:44:28-04:00 September 25th, 2015|Blog|6 Comments


  1. Ted October 5, 2015 at 7:44 pm - Reply

    That’s great Ralph, you and Cary Nelson can be the last two people defending the firing of Steven Salaita. It’s actually fitting, though it should be a source of embarrassment for your colleagues.


  2. Ralph Seliger October 6, 2015 at 11:14 am - Reply

    Actually, both Cary Nelson and myself believe that Salaita was treated shabbily in this episode. The point Nelson makes in his lengthy article is that Salaita’s preliminary hiring was more about politics and ideology at the departmental level than the merit of his scholarship.

  3. Ted October 6, 2015 at 2:24 pm - Reply

    As birds of a feather, Ralph, you and Cary Nelson, who has been thoroughly exposed as a hypocritical ideologue throughout this whole affair, can happily remain as two holdouts, finding rationalization after convenient rationalization for your positions, along with the rest of the right-wing “pro-Israel” community.

    From the get-go “academic freedom supporter” Cary Nelson spoke out loudly and publicly in defense of the firing of Salaita, if you’d care to go back and read the record (one example):

    I’m sure many are concerned with the merits of your and Cary Nelson’s opportunistic critiques regarding Native American Studies, given both of your deep understanding of that field. You undoubtedly carefully read Robert Warrior’s response to Cary Nelson:–JAF6.pdf

    And of course this essay by Salaita today, which certainly you read, again attests to his lack of academic qualifications for the post:

    I’m sure that yet another example of reactionary opportunism will win for Partners the “progressive” membership that it claims to seek.


    • Ralph Seliger October 7, 2015 at 1:20 pm - Reply

      Putting aside Ted’s sarcasm and gratuitous nastiness, I want to thank him for sharing these references. The first, written in August 2014 by Prof. Nelson, takes a somewhat different position than he does today, noting the viciousness of Salaita’s infamous tweets.

      I have it in first-hand communication with him recently that Nelson thinks that the then-chancellor was wrong on process grounds in rejecting Salaita’s appointment. In his new article, Nelson questions the wisdom of his appointment at the departmental level, based on a scholarly critque. But from Nelson’s Inside Higher Ed post, I certainly see that there are other grounds to oppose him as a classroom teacher, and I’m inclined to agree with Nelson.

      Still, Prof. Warrior’s response to Nelson’s current AAUP journal article is well argued. I’m not equipped intellectually to say much else, having neither the background nor the time to delve futher into this. And I don’t have a subscription to the third publication Ted links us to.

      Prof. Nelson sees different universities as applying different standards in hiring and tenure decisions. For example, he believes that DePaul University should have retained Norman Finkelstein, given his publications record in comparison with his colleagues. But he would not see NF as deserving appointment to first-rate research universities, because his works are polemical in nature, without due consideration given to alternative views and sources, and they are generally critiques of other works and personages that rely on secondary sources, rather than original research.

      This is a complicated issue. Where does scholarship end and activism begin, or vice versa? What of the question of tone? How respectful should instructors be of the values and heritage of their students. Who should have the final word in hiring decisions?

  4. Ted October 7, 2015 at 5:42 pm - Reply

    Dear Ralph,

    Following on Nelson’s ridiculous comments re Finkelstein and Salaita, as a prevaricator and polemicist who adapts his arguments and “principles” as necessary to “defend” Israel, I believe that by his own standards Cary Nelson does not deserve an appointment at a first-rate research university.

    Additionally, I suggest you also go to a university and check out the research done by other professors and the polemics on display, and then judge. By Nelson’s “standards” Alan Dershowitz certainly should not be at Harvard, at least not any more.


    • Ralph Seliger October 7, 2015 at 6:41 pm - Reply

      Dershowitz is retired from teaching, as is Prof. Nelson. Ted should very well know, as an avid reader of this blog, that I consider Dershowitz to be outrageous in his antics on Israel, including his unseemly vendetta against Finkelstein. If his extracurricular activities on Israel had anything to do with his (long ago) Harvard tenure decision, they might well have merited being taken into account.

      But of course, Ted is too blind to see any common ground between us. I thank him nonetheless, for those additional references.

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