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Why Do We Boycott the University of Illinois?

December 16, 2014

by Manu Vimalassery[1]

As many of us know, thousands of individual scholars and several scholarly associations within the U.S. and beyond have publicly declared a boycott and censure of the University of Illinois, for its firing of Steven Salaita. In its immediate aims – Salaita’s reinstatement, with damages, and sanctions for the Chancellor and Board of Trustees – the boycott has failed. And yet, the boycott continues. The boycott of the University of Illinois has been organized in the name of academic freedom and faculty governance. If the above conditions are met (which would be a huge movement from where things stand now), are we to imagine that academic freedom and faculty governance are now operative (if they ever were) at the University of Illinois? As Jakeet Singh put it, “The university’s largely unprecedented step of violating the autonomy of the hiring unit… is paternalistic and treats the hiring unit as incompetent in their decision making.” Are academic freedom and faculty governance the borders of strategic possibility in our critique of U.S. higher education?

The firing of Steven Salaita, or in another sense, the attack on American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, brings this question to the forefront. What I write here is not justified by any claim to analytic or methodological virtuosity. Much of what needs to be said has been spoken or written already, but I think in this moment of urgency, we’re called to repeat the obvious, and to keep asking questions which we, collectively, have yet to answer definitively.

The Lingering Mascot

The decision to fire Steven Salaita did not occur in an environment existing in any proximity to the gaseous ideal of a liberal university. It occurred in a structural context of acute colonial and racial violence. This is perhaps most visible in the officially retired mascot of the University of Illinois, Chief Illiniwek, the fictional chief of a fictional tribe, which had its first public performance in 1926. Band directors and coaches forged its backstory, and students who used to be Boy Scouts created its costume and dance. Support for the mascot has come from high places. Both the Illinois State Legislature (1989) and the U.S. Department of Education (1995) have answered calls to retire the mascot with their expressed support to entrench its existence. Two years after a 2005 NCAA ban on universities using “hostile and abusive American Indian nicknames,” the board of trustees of the University of Illinois officially retired the name, image, and regalia of the mascot.

Since the Chief was retired, the University has not replaced it with another mascot. In this vacuum, the mascot persists throughout the campus community, and in town as well. A group of alumni organized under the name “Council of Chiefs” organized a “Chief’s Next Dance,” prominently advertised, and held on campus. Chief posters hang on the windows of the campus bookstore, and of many restaurants and shops in both Champaign and Urbana. The logo is ubiquitous on t-shirts, sweatshirts, and other clothing in town and on campus. All of this is in open but unsanctioned defiance of university protocol and university property.

Chief images on campus are joined by paraphernalia associated with the Blackhawks, Chicago’s NHL team, founded the same year that Chief Illiniwek was created. The mascot is known to hockey fans as “Tommy Hawk,” and the team name evokes what Americans call the “Blackhawk War,” which, as Adam Waterman has argued, was foundational to the development of Midwestern control identities.[2] The participation of a young Abraham Lincoln in this ethnic cleansing is memorialized on campus on the English building, as part of a series of murals depicting scenes in Lincoln’s life, a strange kind of American stations-of-the-cross. This is on the main quad, which is the primary green space, and social and political meeting ground on campus. Colonialism suffuses the sights, the sounds, and whatever solidity there is to the campus of the University of Illinois.

The Chief continues to live a ghastly life on campus. This past October 24, the Chief’s current avatar donned the costume and paraded with supporters as part of homecoming festivities. Chancellor Wise has refused to stop performances of the so-called “Three-In-One” halftime medley by the Illinois marching band, the original soundtrack for the mascot’s halftime dance. The generic melody evokes early Western soundtracks. As the band plays, fans chant along, “Chief, Chief, Chief…” To the contrary, Chancellor Wise has recently shared with students her plans to house a “tribute to the Chief” on the third floor of the Student Center at Illinois, which would display the mascot regalia, in an attempt to unite the campus community.

The investments of Chief supporters form part of an everyday climate of racial violence that suffuses the UIUC campus, and life in town. This climate is also reflected in dismal racial demographics at the University. In Fall 2014, out of 43,603 students in the University overall, there were 36 students who self-identified as Native American, and 45 who self-identified as Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.[3] The incoming class at the University this year included 365 African American first-years, part of a consistent downward trend since 2006. The number of African American students enrolled in relation to those accepted is lower than the entering class in 1968. African American students make up 5.3% of the entering freshman class this year, while the African American population of Illinois was recorded as 14.5% of the state’s population in the 2010 census.

The Civility of Colonialism and Racial Violence

The mascot is one example of the larger context of racial violence in the broader Champaign-Urbana community. On the evening of Friday, October 9, 2009, Champaign police murdered 15 year-old Kiwane Carrington. One of the two officers on the scene was Chief of Police, R.T. Finney. The second, who was charged with the shooting, was Daniel Norbits (more accurately, according to the police report “his gun discharged”), a 14-year veteran officer, who nine years earlier had been involved in a back-alley beating death of Gregory Brown, a developmentally disabled man. Champaign Attorney General, Julia Rietz (who has taught courses at the University of Illinois Law School), declined to press charges, on the argument that Carrington’s murder was accidental. Norbits was placed on administrative leave, and as of this October, has collected $423,697 in pay from the city of Champaign.

Carrington’s murder is reported as part of a broader pattern of police hostility and outright violence against young Black people. The colonial pageantry of the Chief, as well as the deeply embedded structures of anti-Black violence and exclusion that suffuse campus and community life in Champaign and Urbana are integral to the baseline of “civility” that Chancellor Wise invoked when she fired Salaita. According to a speaker at a vigil shortly after Carrington’s murder, “All the police are real slick with their badges. You see this on cameras, but you don’t see what we see every day. You don’t see how they come harass us every day on the block. It’s to the point that I get harassed by my first name. I come outside, they follow me to the gas station.” Chancellor Wise justified her action against Salaita on the principles that she needed to protect students from his ideas, and from his vulgar speech. The three police forces, in town and on campus, similarly work constantly to protect the community from young Black men, who are consistently targeted in campus-wide Crime Alerts, and in spaces of nightlife and daytime social gatherings.

Racial violence in this community has also manifested in anti-immigrant forms. On December 11, 2011, Joshua Scaggs attacked Dhammika Dharmapala, who was then a University of Illinois Law professor, at the Champaign Amtrak station. Scaggs approached Dharmapala from behind and said, “This is my fucking country. I’m going to kill you,” before slitting Dharmapala’s throat with a box cutter. Dharmapala survived, and has undergone multiple surgeries, while Scaggs was declared unfit to stand trial, and held in a mental health facility until May 2012. As Dharmapala testified, “While any violent attack is traumatic, being targeted for killing because of the color of one’s skin in exceptionally horrific. This is an immutable characteristic and an attack of this nature gives rise to constant anxiety about the possibility of future attacks.” This past June, Scaggs was sentenced to 20 years in prison. While this prison sentence may appear to offer state protection or some semblance of justice, Dharmapala’s own remarks suggest the irrelevance of individual punishment, if the agenda is about making the University community a livable place for Native people, Black people, and others who are targeted for killing.

According to the “University Mission” page on the University of Illinois website, “At the time of Lincoln’s presidency, the United States was rich in land, and Congressman Justin Morrill’s legislation gave states millions of acres that could be used or sold to fund state universities.” From the Public Engagement page of the university website, “A land grant institution, the University of Illinois has a long record of commitment to public engagement and to the discovery and application of knowledge.” ‘Discovery’ and ‘gifts of land’ are euphemisms for further structures of terrifyingly thorough and ongoing violence as part of the occupation of Indigenous lands. The afterlives of the Morrill Act, passed just three years before Special Field Order No. 15, also point towards the exclusion of Black people from wealth, particularly real estate, as a grounding condition of racial capitalism in the U.S. Robert A. Williams writes in Savage Anxieties, “Alien and exotic, threatening and subversive, the savage has long been imagined as a familiar, diametrically opposed figure throughout the history of the West, helping to define by counterexample and antithesis a distinctive form of Western civilization.”[4] Settler colonial and antiblack violence, as ongoing structures of oppression, are not only excused but celebrated under a guise of civility. These are forms of violence inherent to how the U.S. University knows itself.

The invocation of civility as a standard of political control at the University of Illinois, UC Berkeley, and elsewhere, is closely yoked to the colonial and anti-Black situation that grounds the U.S. academy in place. In the words of Jacki Rand, “Colleagues are grieved to see the University of Illinois AIS faculty undermined in such a disrespectful manner, one that is painfully reminiscent of colonial practices.” It bears noting that this happened at precisely the moment that the American Indian Studies faculty made a hiring decision that situated their field within the currents of global politics, working to connect colonial violences across differences and geographic borders, a decision that exemplifies the intellectual dynamism in American Indian studies, Ethnic studies and Gender and Women’s studies at Illinois.

Anti-Colonial Internationalism

Learning from and supporting Palestinian anti-colonial politics should push U.S.-based scholars to critique colonialism in the places where we live and work. This is precisely the move that Salaita urges us to make in his scholarship. As he writes in The Holy Land in Transit, “To decry what has happened to the Native population in the United States and to support, in theory or application, the comparable practices of Israel is to be sanctimonious and ignorant of the breadth of Western imperialism, and is ultimately unacceptable. By the same token, to denounce the past actions of American leaders towards Indians without also understanding current colonial practices and at least a sampling of Indian politics, particularly that Natives are not objects of the past, is to have severely misplaced sentiments about the nature of modern American governance.”[5]

In its structures of racial and colonial violence and exclusion, the University of Illinois is, of course, not exceptional. It is exemplary.

With this in mind, it is paramount to see the boycott of the University of Illinois, not only within a paradigm of academic freedom, but within a paradigm of decolonization. With decolonization on the agenda, we can proceed from a perspective of the United States, and of U.S. higher education, as impermanent. What can we do to dissolve these institutions, these claims, these rationalities, and this structure of power? With decolonization on the agenda, we might imagine boycott, among other tactics, as more broad and generalized forms of resistance. Now that there is a boycott of the University of Illinois in effect, under what conditions do we lift the boycott? The urgent imperatives of decolonization and Black liberation, on the grounds where we stand, and in the world at large, should guide our collective approaches towards answering these questions. As action, and as critique, this should necessarily take different forms.

Heeding Jodi Byrd’s comments, which she delivered at the University of Illinois this past October 23, might guide us to some of these forms of action and critique: “While everyone knows that this land once belonged to Indians who were, alas, somehow and regrettably removed a long, long time ago, I would invite you each to step out into the night air tonight and really think about what the silence of those who cannot speak means to us now. What words might we have yet to find through which to confront the ongoing implications of that loss on this land and in this community?”[6]


Manu Vimalassery is Term Assistant Professor of American Studies at Barnard College. He is a co-editor of The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013), and he is working on a manuscript entitled Empire’s Tracks: Plains Indians, Chinese Migrants, and the Transcontinental Railroad.


[1] Many thanks to Juliana Hu Pegues and Eric Ritskes for their critical engagement with earlier versions of this essay.

[2] Adam Waterman, “The Anatomy of a Haunting: Black Hawk’s Body and the Fabric of History,” Colleen Boyd and Coll Thrush, eds., Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture and History, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

[3] University of Illinois, Division of Management Information, UIUC On-Campus Student Enrollment by Curriculum, Sex, Race/Ethnicity, and Residency, October 13, 2014.

[4] Robert A. Williams, Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p 9.

[5] Steven Salaita, The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006, p. 18.

[6] Jodi Byrd, “Targeting the Targeted,” October 23, 2014.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2014 2:09 am

    Almost 20 years since I graduated UIUC and still going with that racist tradition.

  2. tschussle permalink
    December 18, 2014 2:56 pm

    Well said, sir, and thank you.

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