Revisiting issues in handling of Salaita situation

In late December, the Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) issued its report on the Steven Salaita case. The report repudiated the way Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees had violated academic freedom in withdrawing its offer of a faculty position from Dr. Salaita last summer, and it criticized both of them for threatening free speech again in major public statements that they had then issued in justifying their conduct. The CAFT report called on both the board and the chancellor to rescind those dangerous statements and recommended that the College of LAS revive and review the Salaita case as a whole. In early February, the Academic Senate strongly and clearly endorsed that Committee’s report.

What response have we received from the board and the chancellor?

The board has spurned the CAFT report, publicly refusing to reconsider its abusive treatment of Dr. Salaita. And in her MassMail of Feb. 26, the chancellor similarly rejected the recommendations of the Academic Senate, a rejection which she repeated March 9 at the Senate’s monthly meeting.

I find the chancellor’s response evasive, dishonest and dangerous to the future of academic freedom and faculty rights on this campus.

First, the chancellor falsely claims that a second Senate committee — the committee on hiring and appointment — has called for the board to intervene in the hiring process “much sooner” than it does now (and than it did in the Salaita case). And she promises that in the future the board will do just that, as though this change will materially improve things.

In fact, however, the Senate committee she refers to has recommended just the opposite: That the trustees should stop trying to micro-manage faculty hiring and instead delegate the task of giving final approval of faculty appointments to the president, chancellor and provost. Having the trustees intervene in the process earlier will only make it easier for them to repeat their disastrous conduct in the Salaita case more often and more easily in the future. We don’t need more and quicker trustee intervention in faculty hiring; we need much less.

Similarly dishonest and dangerous is the chancellor’s promise to create “new Chancellor’s Faculty Fellows” in the humanities and arts. She tells us these new positions (for which she welcomes “nominations,” not elections) will enhance “frequent and rapid faculty guidance around critical campus issues.” But she says so in the same message in which she rejects the recommendation of the existing, elected institution of faculty representation, the Academic Senate, concerning the most critical issue facing the campus in years: the Salaita case. In this context, an appointed group of “Faculty Fellows” will not “enhance” what is called “shared governance.” It will simply give the chancellor cover for continuing to ignore the Senate in the future.

Third: Chancellor Wise justifies her dismissal of the Senate’s recommendations in the Salaita case with a typically vague claim to having conducted “broad consultation across campus” on her own and by citing the trustees’ refusal to reconsider its shameful initial decision on this matter. So, here, once again, is a refusal of the Senate’s right to speak for the faculty. And here, once again, the chancellor is abdicating her responsibility to advise the board to respect academic freedom, choosing instead to allow the trustees to dictate what she should and should not say to them. This amounts to helping the trustees to ignore the faculty and bury this case.

Fourth: The chancellor implies that Dr. Salaita’s lawsuit against the University prevents any further action on the case by the University while the case is in the courts. This claim is just more sleight of hand. Dr. Salaita’s utterly justified attempt to have the courts force the University to do the right thing hardly prevents the University from doing the right thing right away. In fact, giving Salaita his job back could remove one issue from before the courts and thereby reduce the severity of the judgment that the courts will likely impose upon the University.

Finally: The chancellor’s latest comments about her alarming Aug. 22 MassMail to the University are also evasive and misleading. That August statement (entitled “The Principles on Which We Stand”) announced that “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” Beneath a veneer of seeming tolerance, that declaration threatened everyone on this campus who expresses opinions about other viewpoints in a manner that she and the board find “uncivil.”

Both the CAFT and the Senate (as well as the AAUP) have pointed out the threat to academic freedom and free speech rights generally contained in that August announcement and have called on the chancellor to explicitly withdraw it. Did she do that in her latest MassMail? No. Instead, she simply tries to justify herself, pretending that the August message didn’t imply a policy (so it was a “principle,” but not a “policy?”) and that she wrote that message in the spirit of the AAUP’s stand on such issues. These claims, too, are transparently false and unacceptable.

So: We’re faced with a chancellor and a board of trustees who have made it painfully clear that they simply do not care what the highest elected body of the faculty thinks about academic freedom, free speech and this flagrant attack upon both. They have also, I believe, demonstrated that the claim that the University is run through some sort of truly “shared governance” between faculty and administrators is a sham. Faculty, staff and students rightfully alarmed by this situation will now have to consider what to do about it.

Bruce Levine, J. G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History