Cary Nelson, retired University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) English professor and past president of the American Association of University Professors, has been busy.
From the moment that the story broke of Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s underhanded nixing of Steven Salaita’s de facto hiring in my department, Nelson has rushed forward as the administration’s biggest cheerleader and defender against condemnations, protests and what amounts to a growing boycott of UIUC from scholars and academic associations.
In the interest of disclosure, I co-chaired the search committee that recommended Salaita’s hiring.
In live media and in an 8 August essay for Inside Higher Ed, Nelson has argued that Salaita’s case is not about academic freedom after all, but about bad scholarship and poor qualifications. This, I should stress, by an individual who is not himself credentialed in comparative indigenous studies, the area in which Salaita was hired.
But the unqualified Nelson is not merely overreaching, as we might say of certain external letter writers on a candidate’s dossier, but is stretching to the point of perverting and undermining the very meaning of academic freedom. Sloppy and contorted to the point of nonsense, Nelson’s thinking would also be comical were it not predicated on racist, calloused and morally reprehensible views toward Palestinians and toward other indigenous peoples and the political and analytic claims on which they stake their existence and survival.
Certainly when it comes to the issue of criticism of Israel, Nelson cannot be trusted to furnish neutral, dispassionate analyses. If anything, his pretense to objectivity, especially through a forced argument about the “exceptionality” of Salaita’s case, to which I will return shortly, barely conceals his political motives or his zeal to take center stage in this huge story.