Cash shouldn’t rule everything around the University


By Boswell Hutson

You’d have to have been living under a rock lately to not have heard about the controversy taking the University by storm. A professor who had previously been offered a job in American Indian studies named Steven Salaita was denied employment before the start of the semester due to his slew of violently acidic tweets regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This column, however, is not about the offer termination of Salaita. Although details of the dismissal and the administration’s handling of the dismissal seem more than fuzzy, what is perhaps more troubling is the heinous intrusion of financial-based threats into the realm of public higher education. 

Any well-versed hip-hop fan knows the classic Wu Tang Clan lyric “cash rules everything around me.” While I would normally hope this attitude would have no place in academia, some have attempted to use their cash to manipulate our University and this situation. Earlier this week, a Freedom of Information Act inquiry revealed that Chancellor Phyllis Wise was contacted by many donors after Salaita’s tweets, telling her donations would end if Salaita was not fired. Not only did it confirm that the Wu Tang Clan’s mantra from the ’90s is still present, but also that it is readily invoked by people in places it shouldn’t be. 

We’re a University. Cash shouldn’t rule everything around us — ideas should. Donors’ threats seemed like a blatant attempt to strong-arm our University into terminating a professor’s employment. Perhaps what Salaita said was a fireable offense, but the decision was the administration’s alone. 

Although the documents obtained by the News-Gazette’s FOIA search do not explicitly state Salaita’s position was terminated due to Wise’s fear of backlash from donors, it’s clear those donors were trying to exert some sort of influence over the University administration, which they should not have been afforded. One of these benefactors even mentioned that he had been a six-figure donor and stated, “I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach (Salaita) espouses.” This exact threat, and the use of money to (hopefully unsuccessfully) coerce Chancellor Wise into terminating Salaita’s contract, is absolutely inappropriate.

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The University, and academia as a whole, should be above partisan politics when it comes to the education of its pupils. Although true impartiality is nearly impossible in such a vast and complex realm with explicitly competing ideas, impartiality, for the good of education, should always be pursued. While Salaita’s tweets may have violated this concept, donors threatening to pull funding from an already financially crippled institution is, in my opinion, an equivalent, if not more extreme, violation of the same kind.

I’m not implying that these donors should be forced to give money to the University. That’s clearly not plausible. But donors should realize that the University is a microcosm of the world. Students converge on Champaign-Urbana from 118 countries, and the chances there is a partisan group to conflict with any other is not only likely, but encouraged. One has to look no further than Quad Day, where the Republicans are placed next to the Democrats, to see that the University values diversity of opinion. Wealthy donors who seek to flex their influence by eliminating this diversity are out of line. Of course there are going to be conflicting ideas on campus. If the administration feels one of its professors acted out of line, they have the ability to deal with it. They probably don’t need the help of Mr. Six-Figure Donor.

Personally, I don’t see how these donors, responsible for providing hundreds of thousands of dollars, could not have had an influence, and I feel they more than likely did affect the University’s decision. And I find that appalling. I’d much rather attend an institution with less funding that stands up for itself and doesn’t bow to the selfish demands of the North Shore elite than one that doesn’t. 

Threats from essential donors could not be more misguided. Education is beautiful because it’s diverse and aims to better society and its members. Once it is corrupted by money and politics, the integrity of an entire institution is undermined, and that’s something I can’t stand for.

If the price we have to pay for academic integrity involves standing up to bullies who seek to extort, I think most would be willing to pay. The decision whether or not to terminate the employment of Salaita’s or any other professor belongs to the University, and the University alone. Attempts to corrupt that should not be tolerated, no matter how powerful the objecting party is. I hope these donors’ threats truly had no influence on Chancellor Wise’s decision, but in a world where cash rules everything around us, I can’t be sure.

Boswell is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected]