AAUP officials release report stating Salaita’s rights were violated

Student activists stand at the back of the Illini Union Ballroom, protesting the rejection of Salaita and censorship.

The climate of academic freedom at the University is “at best uncertain.”

After months of investigation, the American Association of University Professors released a report Tuesday stating the University violated principles of academic freedom and tenure in the rescindment of Steven Salaita’s appointment.

Salaita was hired as a tenured associate professor in the American Indian Studies department in October 2013. In August 2014, weeks before Salaita was to begin teaching at the University, Chancellor Phyllis Wise emailed Salaita to inform him that the Board of Trustees would not approve his appointment to the University faculty. He had recently posted tweets regarding the conflict in Gaza.

The finalized report stated members of the association’s Committee A found the University’s rescindment of Salaita’s job offer to be in violation of the association’s 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.”

“I think it summarized a lot of the problems with the dismissal of Steven Salaita and both the procedural issues about the failure to follow due process, as well as the substantive issues about the danger of using civility as a criteria for firing faculty,” said John Wilson, co-editor of the AAUP blog “Academe.”

The Committee A will discuss whether to recommend censure at the end of May, Rudy Fichtenbaum, AAUP president said. Fichtenbaum said he believes it is “pretty certain” the committee will recommend censure. If recommended, the AAUP will vote on whether to censure the University at its annual meeting in Washington D.C. on June 13.

Wilson said that based on the report, censure is likely. To be taken off the censure list, Fichtenbaum said University policies would have to be changed and there would have to be “clear redress for the individual who was harmed.” However, Fichtenbaum said, currently it does not seem as if the administration is concerned or interested in avoiding censure.

According to the report, “The stated reasons for the rejection of the Salaita appointment by the chancellor and the board of trustees violated Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and have cast a pall of uncertainty over the degree to which academic freedom is understood and respected.”

The report also stated Wise’s decision to dismiss Salaita’s appointment before contacting those who recommended him was in violation of “widely accepted” standards of academic governance.

According to the report, investigators sought to answer five questions about Salaita’s dismissal.

In drafting the report, investigators questioned: the sequence of events leading up to Salaita’s dismissal; Salaita’s status with the University at the time his appointment was rejected; the relevance of extramural expression; the role of “civility” in assessing faculty qualifications; and the overall climate of academic freedom at the University.

Members of the committee found that although Salaita’s tweets were related to his field of study, they were addressed to the larger public and had “social, political, economic or other interest,” and therefore fit the definition of extramural speech.

The AAUP’s “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” asserts that extramural speech is not grounds for dismissal.

Fichtenbaum and Henry Reichman, vice president and Committee A chair, originally issued a statement about Salaita’s appointment on Aug. 7.

Fichtenbaum and Reichman responded to media reports about the dismissal stating if the reports were accurate, it was very possible Salaita’s rights were violated. However, the recently released report is the first official AAUP statement asserting that Salaita’s rights were indeed violated.

Salaita and his legal counsel filed suit against the University in the federal court of the northern district of Illinois, on Jan. 29.

Specifically, Salaita is suing the Board of Trustees, Wise, President Robert Easter, Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre and unnamed donors.

In the suit Salaita claimed the University, and those mentioned in the suit, violated his constitutional rights, including free speech and due process. Additionally, he sued for breach of contract and for intentional emotional distress.

Salaita is seeking monetary relief and the job for which he was originally hired.

The committee likened Salaita’s dismissal to a similar 1963 University case involving Professor Leo Koch. Koch was a biology professor who was suspended and later dismissed after writing a letter published in The Daily Illini defending trial marriages and premarital sex.

After evaluating Koch’s dismissal — which led to the University being censured from 1963 to 1967 — the association stated it hoped the University would take a broader view of its function in the world and the value of academic freedom.

It stated the University must act in the community in which it is located but consider the national and global implications of its actions, as well. The 1963 censure led to serious revisions of University policies and procedures on academic freedom and speech.

The report states, “More than half a century later, the undersigned subcommittee expresses its similar hope that the current controversy will ultimately yield a similar result.”

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