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Virginia Tech professor's 'troops' remark stirs up anger

If Virginia Tech English professor Steven Salaita were to be deported, as some in the social media world have suggested in recent days, they might be dissatisfied with the outcome.

The writer of a controversial Salon.com commentary titled, "No, thanks: Stop saying ‘support the troops,'?" was born in Bluefield, W.Va., and raised in Bluefield, Va.

Salaita's commentary, which critiques the ubiquitous "support the troops" meme as a barrier to questioning of American foreign policy and treatment of returning war veterans, has caused a social media firestorm this week that has pulled in Virginia Tech, too.

For his part, Salaita said his central message has been misunderstood as anti-military, when in fact he meant to argue for better treatment of veterans.

Salaita is the son of immigrants from Nicaragua and Jordan, and a graduate of Radford University. Since 2006, he has worked as an English professor at Tech and holds tenure.

Over his career, Salaita has published six scholarly books that examine Middle East politics, Arab-American literature and culture, and American treatment of Arab-Americans.

The commentary was published at a tumultuous time: U.S. officials are considering military action in Syria over allegations of chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Also, the piece was posted in the days between the sentencing of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to life in prison for the 2012 killing of 16 Afghans, and the death sentence for Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan — a Virginia Tech graduate — for the 2009 killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas.

In the commentary published Sunday, Salaita tells the story of a trip to a convenience store to buy a snack for his son. When the clerk asked Salaita to donate his spare change to "support the troops," he shocked her by politely but firmly declining.

"In recent years I've grown fatigued of appeals on behalf of the troops, which intensify in proportion to the belligerence or potential unpopularity of the imperial adventure du jour," Salaita wrote.

"Such troop worship is trite and tiresome, but that's not its primary danger," Salaita wrote.

He goes on to criticize corporate influence on and profit from war, arguing that companies exploit the troops and genuine citizen support for them for monetary gain, while soldiers benefit little from it.

"Numerous veterans have returned home to inadequate medical coverage, psychological afflictions, unemployment and increased risk of cancer. The free market and corporate magnanimity are supposed to address these matters, but neither has ever been a viable substitute for the dynamic practices of communal policymaking," Salaita wrote.

Response began small, with a handful of minor conservative bloggers picking up the story and responding with varying degrees of outrage. But within days, Facebook and Twitter postings became vitriolic at times, and calls, emails and social media postings were directed at university officials as well.

University spokesman Larry Hincker said numerous calls and emails had been directed to President Charles Steger, university admissions, the English department and Tech's press office.

Some inside the university have called for Salaita's censure. Outside commentators have called for his firing, and even his death.

Salaita said in an interview that university officials have assured him his rights will be protected.

At Tech, campus police "have investigated responses that have come in. I can't speak to the severity of them," Hincker said. "We take everything seriously."

Salaita said he has received some threatening messages, but said he is not afraid because Tech police do a "fantastic job" keeping the campus safe.

The controversy has some people criticizing Tech as anti-military for employing Salaita and refusing to discipline him.

In a statement responding to Salaita's article, Hincker wrote that however much the university administration may "disagree with associate professor Salaita's opinions, we also recognize one of this nation's most cherished liberties ensconced in the [F]irst [A]mendment to our nation's Constitution and embedded in the principle of academic freedom. He has a right to his opinions just as others have a right to disagree."

In a phone interview, Hincker — himself a Vietnam War-era Navy veteran — called accusations that the university is anti-military "extremely hurtful."

He emphasized that Tech takes pride in its 1,000-strong Corps of Cadets, in its efforts to hire veterans and in its expanding support for student veterans.

Upholding academic freedom can be a difficult and even embarrassing thing for universities, Greg Scholtz of the American Association of University Professors said. "But we find that the most reputable institutions give the most latitude."

Scholtz argues that academic freedom is a system that protects the broader public good.

If professors and researchers can be controlled by college presidents, boards of trustees, legislators or others who may disagree with findings or seek to silence certain viewpoints, education and therefore the public good suffers, he said.

The principles of academic freedom ensure that any censure or dismissal of a faculty member be approved by a committee of professional peers, who review accusations of misconduct to determine the competence of the accused and the action or speech in question.

The protections afforded by tenure and academic freedom are not absolute, Scholtz said. If a committee of experts finds misconduct or professional incompetence, a professor can be sanctioned or dismissed under the system.
 

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