A Mixed Report on Salaita Controversy

Faculty review of the way U. of Illinois blocked a controversial hire sharply criticizes the chancellor and how she and trustees invoked issue of civility, but finds there may have been legitimate reasons to oppose the appointment.

January 2, 2015
Steven Salaita

The University of Illinois violated key principles of shared governance and academic freedom in its review -- and rejection -- of the hiring of Steven G. Salaita, a faculty panel has found. The faculty panel's report, released in December was particularly critical of the use of civility as a standard in making hiring decisions. But the panel also found that there may have been legitimate reasons to reject Salaita's appointment with tenure to the faculty of the American Indian studies department at the Urbana-Champaign campus.

The university's August decision not to hire Salaita -- just weeks before he and his would-be faculty colleagues thought he would start teaching in the fall semester -- set off a huge national debate over academic freedom, civility and the role of trustees and administrators in reviewing hiring and tenure decisions.

The university acted in response to a series of comments on Twitter that Salaita made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- tweets that were harshly critical of Israel's government and supporters. Salaita's defenders have said he was punished for political speech -- and that denying him a job was a violation of academic freedom. His critics have said that the tone of his comments suggested a lack of civility and tolerance for other ideas that raised real questions about whether he would be a good colleague.

The report was prepared by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at Urbana-Champaign, and the analysis was produced in response to grievances from faculty members who said that the university's refusal to employ Salaita violated their rights.

While the committee recommended a new review of Salaita's suitability to be a professor, it is unclear whether that will happen, and whether it would result in Salaita's appointment. The university has indicated that it is trying to reach a financial settlement with Salaita.

Was Salaita an Employee?

One of the key issues considered by the panel was whether Salaita -- at the time the job with withdrawn -- was an employee (as Salaita's defenders say) or a would-be hire (as the administration has argued). The distinction is crucial because Illinois, like most colleges and universities, gives considerable leeway to departments on hiring decisions, but has strict rules in place (and all academic freedom protections) for those who are already on the faculty.

Salaita was in the position that many faculty members find themselves in when switching institutions: He had an offer letter that noted the need for board approval. He thought that was a sure thing and thus resigned from his prior position on the faculty of Virginia Tech.

The faculty panel found that Salaita had an "in-between status (more than an applicant and less than an employee)." But the panel then noted all the reasons that Salaita had reason to believe he had been officially hired: The department at Illinois announced his arrival, announced that he would be teaching specific courses, discussed with him details about computer needs, office space, moving expenses, and so forth.

Given the totality of the university's interactions with Salaita, and the norm at the university of the chancellor and the board not rejecting hires that had worked their way (as Salaita's had) through many stages of review, the faculty panel said that there were "compelling reasons to grant Dr. Salaita the academic freedom and liberty of political speech normally afforded to a member of the faculty."

The Civility Factor

University officials issued a series of statements about Salaita and the tone of his social media commentary. Phyllis M. Wise, the chancellor at Urbana-Champaign, sent an email message to the campus, for example, in which she said 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. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals." She also criticized statements that demean others and said that discussion must take place in ways that are "scholarly, civil and productive."

The board of Illinois then followed with a letter in which it argued that the university "must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multi-cultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship."

The statements from the chancellor and the board have left many at the campus believing that civility is a new factor in hiring and tenure decisions -- a standard that many professors believe will make it hard for those holding controversial views to have full academic freedom.

The faculty panel interviewed Chancellor Wise and reported as follows: "The chancellor informed [the committee] that her conclusion was not based on the substance of these messages – criticism of Israel, of the U.S., of American Jews and others insofar as they supported Israeli action, and the like – but on the manner of the criticism, the language in which it was couched. The chancellor deemed it 'hate speech,' characterized variously as 'inflammatory', 'harassing', or 'intimidating'. The chancellor stressed that in no way was she walling off controversial subjects from public discussion. It is rather that, in her view, the university has an obligation to provide an atmosphere 'welcoming' to students, where critical and controversial discussions can take place in an environment allowing multiple viewpoints to be exchanged. Dr. Salaita’s tweets gave concern that his classroom environment would not be a 'safe' or welcome one, that students would be placed in a position inimical to learning."

The idea that civility would be used as a basis for evaluating faculty members so upset members of the faculty panel that they created an appendix to their report solely on this issue. After summarizing the statements of the chancellor and the board, the report said their statements were "quite mistaken." The report notes that civil rights protesters in the 1960s were accused of incivility when they were merely asserting their civil rights. And because civility is a vague standard, the faculty panel said, it can be used in ways that are unfair and random.

"The consequences of the vagueness of the prohibition have specific historical purchase here. Civility has served to ostracize individuals or entire social groups on the grounds that they are savage, barbarous, primitive, infantile, ill bred, or uncouth," the report said.

Lack of Consultation

The report was particularly critical of Chancellor Wise for first blocking Salaita's appointment and then recommending that the board consider and reject the appointment without first consulting relevant faculty members.

Administrators do have a legitimate role in reviewing faculty appointments and tenure, according to university statutes, the report said, although intervention should be rare.

But the panel said that there was no basis for the chancellor to go against the recommendation of a hire that had been approved at the department level, the college level, and other levels without talking to any of those who made the hiring recommendation. The faculty panel noted that Wise said she didn't even consult the provost, and that she regretted not consulting faculty more widely before making her decisions.

"The chancellor’s, the president’s, and the trustees’ disregard for the principles of shared governance and the very specific policies and procedures of the university and the campus is a serious matter," the faculty report said. "It violates the foundational arrangements designed to assure excellence as well as the trust necessary for a complex web of interdependent relationships to function well and with integrity."

A Legitimate Reason?

While the faculty report dismissed most of the reasons offered for not hiring Salaita, it also said that part of Chancellor Wise's rationale might have validity. She questioned -- in part based on his public statements -- his "professional fitness" for the position.

The faculty panel said that this issue is complicated to start with, and is made more complicated by Salaita's own statements on his view of his role as a professor.

"He has stated that his address to the subject of his appointment, Indigenous Studies, is informed by certain critical ethical tenets, one of which is, for example, a 'proactive analysis of and opposition to neoliberalism, imperialism, neocolonialism, and other socially and economically unjust policies, which not only affect Indigenous peoples most perniciously, but rely on Indigenous dispossession to fulfill their ambitions,' " the report said. "This tenet -- almost indistinguishable from a political purpose -- is taken by Dr. Salaita to be an intrinsic part of his work. Nonetheless, Dr. Salaita’s conception of his professional mission does not absolve him of meeting the academy’s standards of professional care."

The report said that "political speech, though rarely in itself evidencing professional unfitness, can give rise to legitimate questions -- for example, whether Dr. Salaita’s passionate political commitments have blinded him to critical distinctions, caused lapses in analytical rigor, or led to distortions of facts. These are questions that have arisen in the present controversy."

And the report recommended a way to resolve this issue. "The chancellor, in providing the committee with her judgment of the trustees’ reasons for rejecting the appointment of Dr. Salaita, conflated political speech with professional speech. The former, we have concluded, is beyond the university’s remit to regulate. But the latter raises legitimate questions....  We recommend that the matter be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for reconsideration by a body of qualified academic experts. Dr. Salaita should be provided the opportunity to respond to any proposed findings of professional unfitness before the body concludes its proceedings."

The Reactions

Via email, Salaita declined to comment on the report. But his lawyers issued a statement praising it.

"The committee’s report affirms what Professor Salaita has been saying all along. First, that the university had clear contractual obligations to Professor Salaita and that the board’s final sign-off was nothing more than a formality.... Second, that the chancellor’s and board’s 'disregard for the principles of shared governance and the very specific policies and procedures of the university campus is a very serious matter' that 'violates the foundational arrangements designed to assure excellence.' Third, that principles of academic freedom and constitutional protection of political speech apply to Professor Salaita’s speech."

Chancellor Wise, via email, said she was studying the report and would discuss its findings with faculty members and other administrators.

While not expressing regret over her decision on Salaita, Wise said that she did regret the way her statement on civility was viewed, and she pledged support for academic freedom.

"I strongly believe that shared governance, academic freedom and freedom of speech are foundational to the missions of all universities. I know that my July massmail has been interpreted by some as creating a speech code policy. That was not my intent at all," Wise said "To the extent that it can be read as elevating civility above academic freedom, I want to make clear that I understand that my message was incorrect, and I apologize for that. I look forward to further discussions on this topic with the faculty and to the clarity those conversations can provide to the campus community."

Cary Nelson, a professor at Illinois who to the dismay of many of his one-time allies has been among the most prominent academic defenders of the decision to block Salaita's hiring, issued a statement Monday criticizing the faculty panel's report. "In ruling that Salaita was 'more than an applicant and less than an employee,' the UIUC Campus Academic Freedom Committee has essentially punted, characterizing his employment status as undecidable and thus placing him in employment limbo. I disagree, since the fact he was not yet an employee in my view is decisive," Nelson wrote.

"I also believe a standard of professional care applied to his comments on social media because they were in the exact area of his research. In the course of his six books, one paired subject — the plight of Palestinians and the actions of a Jewish state Salaita regards as an example of European settler colonialism — is at the center of everything he writes. The tweets merely condense and dramatize the views expressed in his books. My own reading of those books persuades me Salaita did not exercise appropriate professional care in them either. His standards for evaluating evidence and accounting for the work of other scholars are unsatisfactory."


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