Professors write open letter to Killeen on academic freedom

By Abigale Svoboda

The University’s president-elect Timothy Killeen received an open letter Tuesday from 34 University faculty members, which began with congratulations but moved quickly to serious matters.

The letter, from University chairs, heads or directors of departments, warned Killeen he is walking into the University at a difficult and crucial point in its history, after the Board of Trustees rejected Steven Salaita’s appointment, sparking conversation of academic freedom and shared governance across colleges. 

Kirk Sanders, chair of the philosophy department, said the goal of the letter was to help University officials, faculty and staff find common ground on Salaita’s case. 

“The aim is to find a way forward for the University by focusing on shared values and principles, regardless of how particulars of the Salaita case play out,” Sanders said. “Certain signatories of the letter would like to see it play out one way, and certain members would like to see it play out another way and the important thing is we’re trying to find the common ground.” 

The letter states that the words and actions of University officials regarding Salaita’s case have done “genuine damage” to the University, specifically on the Urbana campus. The authors of the letter note while the program in American Indian Studies, in which Salaita was offered a tenured position, has evidently suffered the most, other University units have been and will continue to be affected.

In an interview with The Dailiy Illini, Salaita said he read the letter and called it a “really impressive feat.” Although he and Sanders have yet to meet, he shared his thoughts with Sanders via email Wednesday afternoon.

“My initial reaction was that I’m very glad to see that the unit heads and the other administrators are concerned with the way that faculty governance and academic freedom are going to function on campus both in the near and long-term future,” Salaita said.

Sanders said he has not yet heard a response from Killeen.

In the letter, the authors reminded Killeen that at least seven external academic associations have issued statements and letters critical of the University and more than 5,000 academics nation and worldwide have boycotted the University to demonstrate their disapproval of how Salaita’s case was handled. Additionally, upward of 36 scheduled talks and conferences in a multitude of fields have been cancelled as a consequence of the University’s actions.

The letter continues, stating tenure and promotion cases may be affected as well as successful faculty searches. The authors attribute this to scholars lack of confidence in the University.

“We cannot hope to recruit excellent senior faculty to this campus, or to retain many of those already here, when they can no longer trust that this university will honor the principles of faculty decision-making, free speech, and freedom to conduct research,” the letter states.

In the letter, the authors expressed their fear that the University could be placed on the American Association of University Professor’s censure list, as Chancellor Phyllis Wise received a letter written on Aug. 29 from Dr. Anita Levy, associate secretary of the AAUP, warning the University’s standing is at risk. 

The letter stated it seems probable the AAUP’s committee on academic freedom will recommend the University is placed on the “Censure List.” This list is composed of educational establishments where “unsatisfactory conditions of academic freedom and tenure have been found to prevail.” 

In the letter to Killeen, the authors said the statements issued by Wise, President Easter and the Board of Trustees regarding Salaita’s employment were broad and concerning, asserting the statements are “directly at odds with the AAUP’s own declarations on academic freedom, to which the University of Illinois professes to subscribe.”

The letter also claimed that the decision to repeal Salaita’s offer of employment disregarded core principles of shared governance and University policies regarding hiring, promotion and tenure. 

The authors concluded the letter by stating they believe in the University of Illinois’ mission, the integrity of its faculty and the principles of free academic speech as well as in shared governance.

“As the next president of the University of Illinois,” the letter tells Killeen, “it is imperative that you do everything possible to ensure UIUC’s reputation and good standing among major research universities.”

Abigale can be reached at [email protected]