News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Toward a quieter, gentler campus

Northeastern Illinois University pursues some chilling legal strategies



Northeastern Illinois University is on the hunt for a new provost. The last one, Lawrence Frank, stepped down late last year after an earlier faculty vote of no confidence in the school's two top administrators—himself and president Sharon K. Hahs. Hahs remains, but the job description posted for Frank's replacement suggests the turmoil she continues to face. NEIU's looking for a provost who will "move the culture of the institution to one that is more collaborative and collegial."

According to the job description, NEIU has an environment rooted in "the ideals of the 1960s," with many "activist" faculty who have "voiced dissent in regard to the university's administration." Now it's searching for a leader who can tame them, "focusing [the faculty's] most passionate voices in a constructive, progressive direction . . . "

In other words, as the activists might say, a school with a proud history of free speech, however unruly, is aiming for a faculty of Stepford wives.

The culture makeover has been in the works since Hahs was hired in 2007. In her second year on the job she attempted to put in place a free-speech-zone policy that would have severely restricted the times and locations of demonstrations (political or otherwise) and required administrative approval for nearly any public expression of opinion. The proposal elicited an uproar, and Hahs withdrew it before it was implemented, but it's become a symbol of what many see as a top-down administration determined to put a lid on free speech and dissent.

Most recently, an unusual case of tenure denial for well-regarded linguistics professor John Boyle and a pair of decisions in two high-profile lawsuits brought by justice studies professor Loretta Capeheart have the American Association of University Professors and other academic-freedom watchdogs on the scene.

Boyle, a University of Chicago PhD who specializes in Native American languages, has an impressive research and publication record and high student ratings for his teaching. He was recommended for tenure by his department chair, the department personnel committee, the dean, and the university personnel committee—all the usual channels, which generally would make it a done deal—but denied by Hahs, who offered him a terminal teaching contract for this year.

Hahs cited what appear to be technicalities: a missed deadline for submitting a document (Boyle had sent it to the wrong office) and a complaint (contested by Boyle) that in the course of his six-year probationary period he'd suggested to a student that she switch her minor from another department to linguistics. The AAUP's Illinois Committee on Academic Freedom advised Hahs in July that her rejection, "without . . . substantive and specific reasons for reversal," was unacceptable.

The larger context for Boyle's rejection includes a nasty departmental split that left linguistics and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) vying for some of the same students and that embarrassing faculty declaration of no confidence, which began with a vote in the faculty senate championed by members of the linguistics department, one of whom was then the senate chair. The vote was taken by voice, with both Hahs and the provost present.

Both Boyle and the linguistics department faculty have filed complaints with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, alleging retaliation against them for whistle-blowing and for leadership in the no-confidence vote. (The university declined to comment on the case, saying that it's "a personnel issue.")

Meanwhile, NEIU has been carrying on a four-year legal battle with Capeheart, who sued in both federal and state court, charging defamation and retaliation toward her for publicly criticizing NEIU's faculty hiring practices and for antiwar activities, including speaking up for students arrested during a military recruitment event on campus. In the course of that battle, NEIU has employed two legal arguments that looked like they could seriously chill free speech on campuses and beyond.

In the federal suit NEIU drew on a 2006 decision in a nonacademic workplace case, Garcetti v. Ceballos, arguing that it was permissible for the university to retaliate because Capeheart's statements had been made in the course of her work, and were therefore not subject to free-speech protection. The district court ruled in NEIU's favor on this, setting off fears that faculty everywhere could lose virtually all their free-speech rights, whether in or out of the classroom. But late last month a mixed decision from a federal appeals court vacated that ruling, though it also dismissed Capeheart's request for an injunction against retaliation as "unripe."

Capeheart's state case charged, among other things, that former NEIU vice president Melvin Terrell defamed her by announcing at a faculty meeting that a student had leveled a stalking complaint against her, an allegation that was unfounded. Defending Terrell, lawyers for the university cited the Illinois Citizen Participation Act, passed in 2007 to protect whistle-blowers and other citizens exercising their right of free speech from punitive defamation suits trying to shut them up. In June, Cook County judge Randye Kogan agreed that Terrell, in his official capacity as a university vice president, was immune from prosecution for defamation.

Capeheart's lawyer, Tom Rosenwein, says that in his opinion "the judge completely misinterpreted the ICPA," applying it to defend the "defamatory speech of a government official who's trying to shut down an employee-citizen-activist."

"That's the reverse of what that act was supposed to protect," he says. "It's supposed to protect the citizen-activist who's confronting government, raising questions about how government functions. Here it's used to stop the activist from raising these questions."

Capeheart has filed an appeal.

On another front, this summer the administration abruptly shut down NEIU radio station WZRD over the protests of its student staff (see Reader contributor Leor Galil's Three Beats item in this week's B Side). The WZRD takeover—along with Boyle's tenure struggle and Capeheart's legal battles—will be discussed at an inaugural forum hosted by NEIU's new AAUP chapter on Thursday, September 27. It's at 3 PM in the lower-level seminar room at NEIU's Ronald Williams Library, 5500 N. Saint Louis, and is open to the public.

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