News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

A rough weekend for the University of Illinois

The school's stand on controversial hire Steven Salaita earns it an AAUP censure and a losing day in court.



Last week, University of Illinois professor emeritus Cary Nelson was getting ready to travel to Washington for the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors, where he expected to be a minority voice in support of the university's decision to retract a job offer to professor Steven Salaita.

Salaita had accepted a tenured position in the university's American Indian Studies program in October 2013, but was rejected by chancellor Phyllis Wise and the board of trustees 11 months later. The problem? The "incivility" of anti-Israel tweets he issued during the offensive in Gaza.

Nelson, a former president of the AAUP, is a veteran free-speech activist who's defended the likes of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, author of the claim that 9/11 victims were "little Eichmanns" who, as tools of "America's global financial empire," deserved what they got. The difference between the Churchill and Salaita cases, Nelson says, is that Churchill, who lost his job, was already a faculty member; Salaita wasn't.

But there's plenty of disagreement about that.

According to Salaita's contract, his appointment was contingent on approval by the university board of trustees. There wasn't any specified date for that, and as it turned out, the board didn't get around to voting on it until September 11, 2014—nearly a month after he was slated to report to campus. In the interim, Salaita had given up his tenured job at Virginia Tech, been welcomed to his new department, and put on the class schedule for the fall term.

On Saturday, the AAUP voted to censure the UI. AAUP's report to its members noted that Salaita had in effect already been appointed, and was dismissed without "demonstrated cause." This came on the heels of a decision the previous day by a circuit court judge that the university should comply with freedom of information requests by Salaita's lawyers to release all university e-mails related to his employment, including those from donors.

So here's a suggestion: call a halt to this circus now, before any more money is spent on lawyers.

And not with a settlement that would pay Salaita to go away. He's repeatedly said that what he wants is the job. So give it to him. He's not likely to be the worst teacher at UI, and if he's polemical on the Middle East, the university can do what Nelson says should be done in that situation: put balance in the curriculum by offering alternate perspectives in other courses.

There's abundant justification for a do-over reversing the university's decision. Besides the obviously wacky board-approval schedule, the UI's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure weighed in last December with a report that found "substantial" violations of existing policies and procedures, including problems with the chancellor's intervention and her "incivility" rationale. That excuse should be "renounced," the committee said, and Salaita, whom they found to be "more than an applicant and less than an employee," should have the same "academic freedom and liberty of political speech afforded to members of the faculty."

And then there's the most egregious part of the whole scenario: the possible influence of a few donors threatening to withdraw financial support of the university if Salaita were hired. Wise has denied that this was a factor, but the timing of events—she told Salaita the job offer was retracted on the same day she apparently met with one of those donors—and the content of e-mails released so far has raised the question. It's reasonable for the administration to keep an open ear to student and alumni opinion, but it would be outrageous for a public university to kowtow to donors on hiring decisions.

One person on Wise's staff had it right early on: spokesperson Robin Neal Kaler, responding to a reporter's inquiry on July 21, 2014, before the blitz of e-mails fully descended, wrote this about Salaita's tweets: "Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom of speech rights of all of our employees."  v

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