The role colonialism has on the education at universities in the US and whether academic freedom is really freedom at all was discussed by Dr. Steven Salaita and Dr. Piya Chaterjee at the Civil Discourse & Social Change Initiative’s first event of the Spring.
Students and faculty filled up the Oviatt Library Presentation room to hear both Salaita and Chaterjee talk about their own experiences with the university system and just how the imperialism of the university system has roots in western colonialism.
Both Salaita and Chaterjee discussed how the history of colonialism has shaped what students learn and just what truth they are subjected to.
Salaita, professor of Native American studies, brought his own experience to the topic of academic freedom. In 2014, Salaita lost his job at the University of Illinois after he posted comments about Israel’s role in the Gaza conflict on social media.
Salaita explained that what happened to him has happened to others before.
“If you read a little bit of the history of academic freedom and the American universities and you sort of read the cases of people who have been fired or seriously harassed then what emerges is a distinctive set of strategies and discourses that are still in use today,” said Salaita.
What happened to Salaita, he explains, was an example of what happens when professors speak out about Palestinian human rights or any other topic that is non-normative.
Those who have spoken on such topics have been fired, denied tenured or harassed. Salaita also made it a point to mention that in most cases the person is a person of color.
“Academic freedom wasn’t necessarily designed to protect those sorts of analyses and you can see in the past 60, 70 years, just how many people have been effected by the version of academic freedom,” said Salaita. “It has no ability and sometimes no desire to sort of protect a type of systematic critique that doesn’t buy into the liberal ideals of a colonial or imperial system.”
Dr. Piya, professor of gender and women’s studies and also Salaita’s mentor, added to the discussion of colonialism and how it affects society by telling them what they should know instead of what is really going on in the world.
Finance major and junior, Randy Liera, learned from Salaita and Chaterjee that in order to get the truth about events, society needs to gather information from other sources in order to get the whole story.
“We only believe in one part of the media, we need to explore more than what we hear, because sometimes what we’re hearing isn’t always the truth” said Liera.
Although the lecture and panel discussion mentioned academic freedom in a system that has a history in colonialism and how that translates to education today, some of the audience members did not feel they covered enough.
Joey Reynoso, gender women studies major and senior, thought that not only were many topics not discussed but some could have been explored deeper.
“It was almost like trying to take on too much. I feel like if they focused more on specifically southern colonialism or academic freedom, we would have had more quality conversation,” said Reynoso. “But I think it’s a good start to dealing and discussing and unpacking these issues.”
During the informal portion of the event where audience members could talk to Salaita and Priya, Priya elaborated on the overall message of the lecture.
Priya said that what they are trying to communicate is obvious because it’s history.
“What we’re saying is, before you can really talk about academic freedom within the academy we need to understand that history that this is a secular colonial state,” said Priya. “This is a place where people from Europe came and took over. So if we’re then going to talk about freedom, it gets very difficult because the entire premise is based on colonization.”