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On Friday, 22 August, officials at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) broke their silence regarding the firing of Steven Salaita (for more background on the case, see here). In a mass email to the university community, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise claimed that Salaita’s firing “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.” Instead, the implication seemed to be that the case revolved around the question of “civility,” with the suggestion that somehow Salaita’s statements would affect his capacity as a teacher (in spite of published reports attesting to the excellence of Salaita’s previous performance as a teacher).
“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,” Wise’s statement declared. Her statement went on: “A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful, and mutually respectful manner.” A statement released the same day by UIUC President Robert Easter, Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy, and other top university officials was even more startling in its statements regarding the standard of “civility” as trumping even the standards of academic freedom and scholarship: “we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship….Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty, and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education.…There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.”
Also on Friday, UIUC responded to an open records request for communications to Chancellor Wise regarding Salaita’s hiring prior to her action to deny his appointment. In an article published today, Inside Higher Ed reported about emails she received: “The communications show that Wise was lobbied on the decision not only by pro-Israel students, parents and alumni, but also by the fund-raising arm of the university. The communications also show that the university system president was involved, and that the university was considering the legal ramifications of the case before the action to block the appointment.”
The rationales offered in the statements by Wise and the Board of Trustees on Friday were immediately seen by many academics and scholars as heightening the attack on academic freedom that the Salaita case already represents. University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter gave perhaps the strongest point-by-point refutation, arguing that beyond merely attacking academic freedom, “It is not an exaggeration to say that the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees have now declared that the First Amendment does not apply to any tenured faculty at the University of Illinois.” Against Wise’s statement, Leiter argued:
as a matter of well-settled American constitutional law, the University of Illinois must tolerate "words...that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them." The University has no choice, both as a matter of constitutional law and as a matter of its contractual commitment with its faculty to academic freedom. Scathing critiques of both viewpoints and authors abound in almost all scholarly fields; it would be the end of serious scholarly inquiry and debate were administrators to become the arbiters of "good manners." More simply, it would be illegal for the University to start punishing its faculty for failure to live up to the Chancellor's expectations for "civil" speech and disagreement.
As University of Illinois officials have dug in their heels, resistance to the decision and support for Salaita continued to grow among scholars, academics, students, and many others. As the Chronicle of Higher Education has noted, UIUC is feeling an increasing backlash from scholars announcing their decision to boycott the campus until the firing of Salaita is reversed, as well as from senior figures who have already cancelled appearances for the coming semester. In the past week, two scholars—David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy and legal studies at the University of Delaware, and Allen F. Isaacman, Regents Professor of History at the University of Minnesota—declined invitations to speak at UIUC’s prestigious Center for Advanced Study/MillerComm Lecture Series this fall to protest Salaita’s firing. Lisa Kahaleole Hall, Associate Professor and Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Wells College, and Bruce Robbins, Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, have also refused invitations to UIUC until the decision regarding Salaita’s firing is reversed.
In what could only be more troubling news for the university administration, the day before Wise’s statement was released, the Education Justice Project, which is part of the department of education policy, organization, and leadership at UIUC, announced that it was canceling the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison, which it had been scheduled to host at the university in October, in response to Salaita’s firing. Also within UIUC, the American Indian Studies program, the department that had hired Salaita in October 2013, announced a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Wise on 24 August. “In clear disregard of basic principles of shared governance and unit autonomy,” the statement declared, “…Chancellor Wise did not consult American Indian Studies nor the college before making her decision….we believe that Chancellor Wise's decision was in fact made in response to external pressures that sought to block Prof. Salaita's hire, coupled with her objection over the content and tone of his personal and political tweets over the subject of Israeli bombing of Palestine. With this vote of no confidence, the faculty of UIUC's American Indian Studies program also joins the thousands of scholars and organizations in the United States and across the world in seeing the Chancellor's action as a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech.” Meanwhile, UIUC students who attended the public portion of the UIUC board of trustees meeting on 22 August demanded Salaita’s reinstatement, and then held a sit-in in a hallway outside the meeting room after the board went into closed session. Students are planning another action in support of Salaita in the coming week.
[UPDATE: On 26 August, The News-Gazette published an opinion piece entitled "UI Precluded Any Honest Debate," signed by sixty-four members of the UIUC faculty. The signatories "call upon all members of the UI community and concerned Illinois citizens to join us in urging Chancellor Wise, President Easter, and Chair of the Board of Trustees Christopher Kennedy to reinstate the offer to Professor Salaita. Decisions of such weight require diligent consultation with the relevant faculty experts, open dialogue, transparent procedures, and adherence to established protocols."]
By the weekend, more than 3000 scholars had signed statements pledging to boycott UIUC until the firing of Steven Salaita was reversed, with more than 1500 scholars signing a general boycott statement, and others signing discipline-specific pledges (see below for more information and links to sign and support). A more general petition demanding that Salaita be re-hired has now been signed by nearly 16,000 people. Salaita’s friends and colleagues have also started a campaign to support him, noting that after being fired only three weeks before the beginning of the semester, “Salaita now has no job nor does his wife who quit her job in Virginia to support the family’s move, no personal home to live in, and no health insurance for their family, including their two year-old son.”
In a letter to Chancellor Wise, political theorist Bonnie Honig spoke for many when she raised the ethical implications of Salaita’s case, drawing attention to the issue of “empathy” and bringing home the personal nature of his situation:
This is what I thought at the time this story first broke: Here is a man of Palestinian descent watching people he may know, perhaps friends, colleagues, or relatives, bombed to bits while a seemingly uncaring or powerless world watched. He was touched by violence and responded in a way that showed it. In one of the tweets that was most objected to (Netanyahu, necklace, children’s teeth), Salaita commented on a public figure who is fair game and who was promoting acts of terrible violence against a mostly civilian population. I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist….It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way—awakened to thinking.
That is what I thought. I also, though, felt something. I felt that whoever wrote that tweet was tweeting his own pain. And I felt there was something very amiss when he was chided for his tone, by people who were safely distant from all of it, while he was watching people he maybe knew or felt connected to die as a result of military aggression. This, frankly, seemed evil. And then to have the major charge against him in the UIUC case be that he lacked empathy: now that seemed cruelly ironic. The real charge, it seems to me, is that he suffers from too much empathy.
What kind of a person would Prof. Salaita be if he did not respond more or less as he did? What kind of a teacher? What kind of community member?
As Honig concludes, “I stand in solidarity with the thousands of academics worldwide who, regrettably, cannot accept invitations henceforth to speak at UIUC or to do any other sort of support work…for your institution….Simply put, to act in any other way would be wrong.”
If you are a scholar or academic and wish to sign a statement pledging to not speak or participate in events at UIUC until the university honors its contract to hire Steven Salaita, click here.
To sign a general statement calling for Steven Salaita to be reinstated (open to all), click here.
To donate to a campaign to raise money on Steven Salaita’s behalf, click here.
If you wish to sign a boycott statement that is specific to your discipline, click one of the links below:
More information and analyses on Steven Salaita and UIUC:
Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill V. Mullen, “Salaita’s Stellar Teaching Record Exposes Political Motivation Behind His Firing”
Timothy Burke, "On the Salaita Decision"
Campus Faculty Association of Illinois, “CFA Statement on Steven Salaita and the University of Illinois”
Canadian Association of University Teachers, “University of Illinois Urged to Respect Academic Freedom”
Nick DeSantis, “Scholars Sound Alarms About Being Judged on Their Civility”
Christine Des Garennes, “Wise Explains Salaita Decision, Gets Support from Trustees”
Scott Jaschik, "The Emails on Salaita"
Robin D. G. Kelley, “Why Did You Fire Professor Steven Salaita?”
Claire Potter, "Could I Have Been Steven Salaita? Could You?"
"UI Precluded Any Honest Debate" [Letter signed by sixty-four members of the UIUC faculty)
John K. Wilson, “Chancellor Phyllis Wise Explains the Firing of Steven Salaita”
Phyllis M. Wise, “The Principles on Which We Stand”
If you prefer, email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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