Academic freedom cannot be settled

By Stephanie Youssef

The infamous chronicle of Professor Steven Salaita began over a year ago, when his job offer to join the American Indian studies program at the University was rescinded following a series of controversial tweets he sent out regarding violence in Gaza.

After Salaita filed a lawsuit against the University claiming his constitutional rights were violated, Salaita’s attorney Anand Swaminathanss, said the University was reaching out for a settlement early on in an effort to “buy him off”. https://www.dailyillini.com/article/2015/01/salaita-files-lawsuit-against-board-of-trustees-university-administration-donors

Apparently it worked.

On November 12, the University and Steven Salaita reached a settlement regarding the legal claims made in the lawsuit, with Salaita to receive payment of $875,000 without reinstatementss. Though the settlement got the courts off the back of the University, there are still many unaddressed questions surrounding the University’s policies regarding academic freedom, freedom of speech and the AAUP censure.

A university exists to educate students, foster discussion of ideas and advance knowledge through research and dialogue. The principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech entail that it is not the responsibility of a university to censor the beliefs of their students or faculty in an attempt to protect individuals from opinions they disagree with or find offensive.

The AAUP’s decision to censure the University administration occurred because the University failed to fulfill this exact purpose with regards to Salaita. The censure states that the academic freedom environment at the University is unsatisfactory, and acts as a sanction on the University.

Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson addressed the AAUP censure in an email about the settlement stating, “This agreement represents an important step forward in our efforts to see the AAUP censure lifted — a goal President Tim Killeen and I are both committed to achieving as soon as possible.”

Allow me to point out a discrepancy between the actions of the administration in the settlement and this claim.

In the censure report, the AAUP stated that, in order to remove the censure, it is recommended that the University administration “withdraw statements justifying the decision not to appoint [Salaita] that relied on civility as the relevant standard of conduct”.

With the settlement, the University administration has failed to directly address how their actions toward Salaita amounted to a violation of the widely accepted standards of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Rather, the administration stated that the settlement “stipulates that it does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the University.”

Before the settlement, a federal court had ruled in Salaita’s favor on important claims made in his lawsuit, including that his employment was terminated after he had been officially given a contract of employment by UIUC, and that Salaita’s tweets were protected by the First Amendment. As it currently stands, the University is still on the censure list, prominent speakers and academics continue to boycott the University and the campus’s reputation as an institution for higher learning remains tarnished.

Over 900 academics across the country have signed a statement declaring that the settlement with Salaita’s case doesn’t adequately address the University’s violations of freedom of speech. Given this overwhelming evidence against the University, we should be well beyond the point of admitting wrongdoing.

To have the censure removed, the administration has to admit their termination of Salaita was a breach of academic freedom and take back their initial reasons for not offering Salaita the position. With the current administration’s stubbornness against coming to terms with its transgressions, it seems their so-called commitment to having the sanction lifted promptly isn’t all that accurate.

Soon after the Board of Trustees voted to approve the settlement, Wilson sent out an email to the University students stating, “I hope this settlement also brings some closure to a difficult and challenging time for our entire community. . . I think we have the chance now to focus our collective energy on bringing the campus back together and on the choices we must make for our future.”

To introduce a bit of a reality check, as of today, Salaita has left the country with a lump sum of taxpayer money to compensate for his tumultuous year, the University is still on the AAUP censure list, the University was ranked in the list of “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech in 2014” by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the campus is still in search of a permanent chancellor.

The University administration’s ongoing denial of its past mistakes allows the continuation of the ambiguity surrounding how freedom of speech is applied and valued on campus. To say that this settlement brings any closure is wishful thinking that oversimplifies the current, abysmal state of academic freedom at the University.

Stephanie is a senior in LAS.

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