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The University of Illinois Fails on Academic Freedom and Free Speech: Why the Salaita Case Matters

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees’ decision on September 11 not to reinstate Steven Salaita to the faculty at its Urbana-Champaign campus is a scandal.

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign campus. (Photo: ilovebutter / Flickr)

In many respects, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees’ decision on September 11 not to reinstate Steven Salaita to the faculty at its Urbana-Champaign campus was a foregone conclusion. Despite some mild second-guessing of her own decision, Chancellor Phyllis Wise had not wavered from her position that the Board would not vote to hire Salaita. Nevertheless it was sickening to hear the various trustees pontificate, moralize and in many respects lie about their reasons for dismissing Salaita. And, with the exception of one African-American trustee, James Montgomery, who bravely stood up to both defend Salaita’s free speech rights and talk about racism at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) during his time there as a student, the trustees voted against Salaita. A full report of the hearing, with important links, can be found here.

Here are the basic facts of the Salaita case: In October 2013, after the program in American Indian Studies had conducted a full job search, it made an offer to Professor Steven Salaita, a prominent scholar of American Indian and indigenous studies with six books and numerous articles to his credit. This offer had gone through all the necessary steps of being vetted and approved by a number of faculty and administrative committees and personnel, including the campus Executive Committee and the Office of the Provost. Salaita asked to have his start date pushed back so that he could fulfill his teaching duties at Virginia Tech. The UIUC dean agreed, and Salaita accepted the UIUC offer and resigned his position at Virginia Tech. His wife also gave up her job, and they sold their house and made arrangements for their small child to transfer schools. In his statement to the press, Salaita explains that they looked forward to their new life in Urbana-Champaign.

At that point, all that was needed was the formal approval of the UI Board of Trustees. Since trustees meet after the mandated time of appointment (which is usually in April of each academic year), it is normal in US colleges and universities to make hires assuming that the Board will approve in the summer – their role is administrative, rather than evaluative. If all procedures have been followed, Boards of Trustees simply sign off.

In Salaita’s case, this lag proved fatal. For in the interval, the local newspaper printed several tweets of his that were sharply critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza. Salaita’s expressions were harsh, acerbic, troubling and emphatic in their condemnation of the killing of innocent Palestinian children and others. This report then resulted in the Simon Wiesenthal Center contacting the university to object to Salaita’s hire. At that point, UIUC defended Salaita’s free speech rights. But quickly more complaints were filed, and among those complaining were many wealthy donors. Emails recovered via a Freedom of Information request disclose that these donors threatened to stop their contributions if Salaita were not fired. At that point Phyllis Wise unilaterally halted the process.

The thing to keep in mind is that Salaita’s social media expression is considered by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to be “extra-mural” expression, and therefore inadmissible as evidence for any determination of employment or dismissal. But Salaita’s critics pushed past both Salaita’s constitutional protection of free speech and the AAUP ruling on extra-mural expression to say that his utterances posed a threat to Jewish students. In so doing, they acted as if his tweets were spoken in the classroom, which they decidedly were not. But the Board of Trustees accepted this line of reasoning, saying that: “Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.”

Now what threat did Salaita actually pose? Salaita’s student evaluations from Virginia Tech are spectacularly good, including in terms of “consideration for students.” Indeed, testimony from many students, including Jewish students, has come forward, all attesting to his sensitivity as well as his brilliance as a teacher. One student writes:

As a student, I never felt discriminated against, I was never the victim of anti-Semitism, and even though I occasionally disagreed with Dr. Salaita, I never felt that my opinions were ignored or demeaned. And I never witnessed anything like this happening. In other words, I believe the university is the victim of misinformation. Regardless of whatever is on Twitter or screes from his detractors, Dr. Salaita conducts himself as a professional committed to the “bedrock principles” all academics hold dear.

It is clear that the Board simply ignored evidence it did not want to hear in order to appease the donors and other complainants. All of a sudden, with his job taken away from him, Salaita found himself without a home, and his wife without a job as well. They have no source of income; the family has no health insurance; their child, no school.

Now there is a good case to be made that it was not Salaita’s speech that was in question, nor even its sharpness or supposed vulgarity – it was rather the object of his criticism that got him in trouble. Not a few have ventured the hypothesis that if he had vociferously condemned Hamas in exactly the same language no one would have cared. So the trustees’ evocation of the “civility” standard rings false.

So too does their assertion that they wish to protect all students and groups from demeaning language and symbols – the UI trustees had to be dragged kicking and screaming to finally, after many years of student protest, get rid of the blatantly offensive “Chief” mascot. Only after long and concerted efforts led by American Indian activists and others, and the threat of a NCAA sanction, did their rights not to be offended, and their right to demand “civility,” get heard and acted upon. The specific exceptions carved out by and for the Israel lobby are clear here. As is the sheer hypocrisy of the trustees and Wise as they portray themselves as caring for all others.

What is most troubling about this case is the utter arrogance of Wise and the Board of Trustees. And this arrogance puts the lie to any claim they make toward “democracy” and “community” and, yes, “civility,” which after all regards citizenship and being a member of a society, bound by its rules, customs and shared values. In their actions the Board and Wise effectively and willfully placed themselves outside of decent academic society. They are, indeed, outlaws, and should be treated with disdain, distrust and high contempt, for the contempt they themselves have shown for academic freedom. They placed the emails they received from fewer than a hundred complainers above the following organizations and groups, which taken together form a veritable Who’s Who of US higher education:

Starting at the level of the federal government, the Board and Wise ignored the findings of the US Department of Education (DOE) with regard to complaints that anti-Israel protests are anti-Semitic and harmful to impressionable and vulnerable Jewish students. In its determination letter to the University of California at Berkeley, the DOE found that the kinds of protest events that were the basis of complaint “constitute expression on matters of public concern directed to the University community. In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights defended (and continues to defend) Salaita based on constitutional principles, and wrote Wise a strong letter; law professor Brian Leiter has set forth the First Amendment issues of the case; the Society of American Law Teachers has protested Salaita’s denial of academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors, the organization that in 1940 enshrined the notion of academic freedom in American higher education, has issued numerous protests, and is now starting an investigation of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which may very well lead to censure.

Major organizations across a range of disciplines have issued protests, including the

American Studies Association, the American Historical Association, the American Political Science Association, the American Comparative Literature Association and the Modern Languages Association.

At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign itself a group of Jewish scholars, students, alumni, staff and parents have come out in support of Salaita, faculty from a number of departments have protested, and over a dozen departments and programs have issued votes of no confidence in Wise and the Board.

More than 700 graduate students from across the United States and even from abroad have signed an eloquent petition, arguing that denying academic freedom and employment to Salaita goes against the basic values of education that have drawn them into the profession, over 5,000 scholars from around the world are boycotting UIUC, and over 18,600 have signed a letter of protest over his firing.

By no reading whatsoever can this groundswell of protest be considered marginal, for this case, or should I say, scandal, has offended and angered a global community of scholars and students who see due process, academic freedom and freedom of speech all being defiled in the most crude, self-indulgent manner possible by a miniscule minority of powerful yet dim individuals who have no real understanding of nor regard for the values of higher education.

Ironically, it is people like this who lament the “politicization” of the academy. What they really mean by that is what happens when minorities of all stripes argue for democratic rights and community values that have been denied them. The UI Board of Trustees and Phyllis Wise have thoroughly politicized their university by allowing outside influence to trump the real civic values of the academic community. How dare they portray themselves as speaking for the university?

The Board’s decision should not be considered the end of this case, not by any progressive or even liberal scholar or student. Wise and the Board of Trustees have thrown down the gauntlet – it is up to us to make sure of two things: First, that Steven Salaita finds an academic position worthy of him (and please donate now to his support fund). And second, that we send a clear message to the world that this will never happen to anyone else – tenured or not, professor or not: Every worker in the academy should be treated with respect, with dignity and with honesty, and assured their full constitutional rights and academic freedom. The Board and Wise have made it clear – if we want democracy, we have to fight for it. Here are some ideas – first among them: unionize. What they could not have anticipated is that by their actions they have spurred us to form a community of students and scholars ready, willing and able to take on the task of fighting their ilk.

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