A month ago, when I reported that the University of Illinois had apparently hired and then fired professor Steven Salaita because of his anti-Israel tweets, the UI administration wasn’t talking.
It was a matter of university policy, spokesperson Robin Kaler informed me at the time. “We do not comment publicly upon nor discuss generally any personnel matters, including matters involving employment or tenure.”
Case closed. The official mouth was firmly clamped shut.
But a couple of weeks later, something surprising happened. On August 22, after more stories about the tweet-inspired job loss appeared in the press and protests gained steam both on campus and online, UI officials did talk—not just once, but twice.
Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise issued a statement explaining why she’d effectively killed Salaita’s appointment, refusing to forward it to the board of trustees for what was to have been perfunctory approval. And the board of trustees issued its own statement supporting her.
That’s when things really heated up. Instead of damping down the controversy, the pair of official statements fueled a storm of protest.
In her statement, published under the heading “The Principles on Which We Stand,” Wise maintained that her decision regarding Salaita “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.”
Instead the deal breaker, according to Wise, was the way Salaita expressed those positions: “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,” she wrote.
The trustees, led by chairman Christopher Kennedy, vowed “unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights.” UI’s mission requires a “university community that values civility as much as scholarship,” the board wrote, and “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.”
“Tempering” academic freedom and free speech? Valuing civility “as much as” scholarship? Ensuring that the academic environment is “comfortable”?
It was enough to rouse academics of all stripes from their summer lethargy. The Web lit up with incredulous commentary and calls to arms, like this snippet from a Huffington Post piece by U. of C. law professor Brian Leiter: “Chancellor Wise and Chairman Kennedy have made statements that commit the University of Illinois to illegal because unconstitutional courses of action. They should resign, or be removed from office, before doing further damage to one of the nation’s great research universities.”
On August 26, the Champaign-Urbana-based News-Gazette published a letter from 64 UI faculty members asking that Salaita be reinstated, and in the following days a couple hundred more signed a similar letter. The national office of the American Association of University Professors notified Wise that “a very serious issue of academic freedom has been raised.” At least five departments at UI issued votes of no confidence in the administration and the board. Hundreds of faculty members from other universities signed a pledge to boycott UI until Salaita’s situation is rectified. A petition demanding that the chancellor reverse her decision has grown from 3,000 signatures in early August to more than 17,500.
How did UI get into this mess? Salaita was offered and accepted a tenured position in its American Indian Studies program in October 2013, his appointment contingent on board approval. (His scholarship, primarily focused on Palestinian issues, also explores common ground with Native Americans.) He could have started in January, but negotiated a fall start date so that he could complete the school year at Virginia Tech, where he was a tenured English professor.
By August 1, when Wise informed Salaita in an e-mail that his job offer had been voided, he had given up his professorship, put down earnest money on a home for his family in the Urbana-Champaign area, and was in the midst of preparations for the move. His fall courses had already been scheduled. The board’s approval, understood to be a formality, was to have been granted at its mid-September meeting—nearly a month after Salaita would have started work.
Salaita’s anti-Zionist politics were always in plain sight. He’s a West Virginia-born Palestinian-American, a leader in the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement against Israel, and the author of multiple publications on the subject, including his 2011 book Israel’s Dead Soul. None of this appeared to be a problem when the job was offered, or in the spring, when he made a visit to the campus and was hosted at a departmental welcoming dinner. But over the summer, after the war in Gaza erupted, Salaita, a frequent Twitter user, stepped up the pace and intensity of his tweets, drawing the attention of conservative websites including the Daily Caller, which posted a story July 21 that cited examples like this: “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” That was when Chancellor Wise started hearing from students, alumni, and donors who didn’t want Salaita on the UI faculty.
The question of whether Wise was influenced by those letters, phone calls, and meetings is now as much under discussion as her possible infringements upon academic freedom. Hundreds of pages of documents recently released by UI as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests make it clear that the university’s attitude toward Salaita shifted rapidly as the complaints rolled in. On July 21 spokesperson Kaler responded to a News-Gazette inquiry about Salaita by citing the “freedom of speech rights of all our employees.” Eleven days later, Salaita was out, with the university’s position apparently that since the board hadn’t approved his appointment, he’d never actually been hired. By the end of August, that seemed to have shifted too, with Kennedy suggesting, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, that the university would be willing to negotiate a financial settlement.
Meanwhile, Salaita hadn’t uttered a peep, not even on Twitter, until this week, when it was announced that he’d hold a press conference in Urbana on September 9—two days before the board of trustees’ scheduled meeting.
In remarks delivered at today’s press conference, Steven Salaita said he is still committed to joining the University of Illinois faculty, wants to be reinstated, and considers the controversy over his hiring “a teaching moment.” The university’s “policing” of his tweets for civility, he said, “risks eviscerating the principle of academic freedom” and “places any faculty member at risk of termination.”
Salaita’s attorney, Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights, charged that the University of Illinois “has violated the Constitution by terminating Professor Salaita’s appointment based on the content of his speech.”
The full text of Salaita’s statement is here.
Update as of Thursday, September 11:
At its regularly scheduled meeting today, the University of Illinois board of trustees voted eight to one against the appointment of Steven Salaita to a tenured professorship. The vote solidifies the university’s rejection of Salaita, and appears to support a controversial (and now aborted) decision by Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise to block the appointment by not forwarding it to the board for consideration.
Salaita responded in a statement today that he is “disappointed” and is “speaking with my attorneys about my options.”
Attorney Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which along with the Chicago firm Loevy & Loevy is representing Salaita, said in the same statement that the board’s vote “violates both the Constitution and his rights under contract law.”