Censure Threat

AAUP report on Steven Salaita case at U of Illinois says the institution summarily dismissed him for protected, extramural speech. University could face formal vote of censure.

April 28, 2015
Steven Salaita

There’s been no shortage of criticism, both formal and informal, of how the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign handled the withdrawn faculty appointment of Steven Salaita last summer. (The university has a substantial number of supporters who say it was right to reject Salaita for the tone of his anti-Israel remarks on Twitter, but detractors have been numerous and vocal.) The latest disapproving report, out today from the American Association of University Professors, offers familiar complaints and also paves the way for the organization to hold a censure vote against the university later this spring.

The AAUP isn’t a regulatory body, but institutions generally hope to avoid landing on its censure list for alleged violations of academic freedom and sometimes work hard to remove themselves once on it. So any vote could amount to the biggest consequence yet for the university, since Salaita’s First Amendment and breach of contract lawsuit against the institution and the financial donors he alleges forced its hand is still pending.

“If nothing changes, [a censure vote] is most likely something that will happen,” said Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which issued the report. Of the report more generally, he said, “This is a reminder of what the AAUP has essentially been advocating for 100 years, which is that faculty expressions of their political views as citizens should not be used as a criterion for whether they should be hired or fired, unless of course those views can be shown to be part of a broader case against their fitness for teaching and research. And that is very visibly not the case here.”

Salaita’s case also demonstrates that faculty members should enjoy free personal expression even on social media, and that universities should align their hiring and appointment policies with institutional norms, Reichman said.

Members of the AAUP committee visited Urbana-Champaign in February to meet with administrators and drew heavily on a previous internal, faculty-led investigation to come to its conclusions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, AAUP -- which has vocally opposed the university on the Salaita case all along -- says in its report that Urbana-Champaign and the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois System violated association and university standards for academic freedom and tenure in rejecting Salaita’s appointment without demonstrating cause, after he’d already been assigned classes.

The report also says that Urbana-Champaign’s stated reasons for the withdrawn appointment -- that Salaita’s remarks were not “civil” -- “have cast a pall of uncertainty over the degree to which academic freedom is understood and respected.” (The committee also mentions past skirmishes over academic freedom between University of Illinois faculty members and chancellors and board members, such as the suspended employment of ex-convict James Kilgore at Urbana-Champaign and blocked emeritus status for William Ayers, a onetime member of the Weather Underground who retired from the Chicago campus.) It says that Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s decision to oppose the appointment without notifying faculty members and others involved in Salaita’s hire “contravened widely accepted standards for the conduct of academic governance.”

All that amounts to “summary dismissal,” the committee says, “an action categorically inimical to academic due process.”

AAUP’s report takes a slightly more pro-Salaita view than that of the earlier, faculty-led report from Urbana-Champaign’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The latter maintained that Salaita was a kind of intermediary employee prior to the board’s official approval, planned for several weeks after the start of classes. The AAUP report, meanwhile, says that Salaita already was a tenured professor and deserved the full due process a tenured faculty member would receive.

Maria LaHood, one of Salaita’s lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, noted that the new report highlights attempts by the university to stall AAUP’s investigation, both by saying it was trying to settle with Salaita and then by pointing to pending litigation. (LaHood said the university has not tried to settle since the lawsuit was filed. (Note: This sentence has been updated from an earlier version to clarify that the university has not tried to settle since Salaita filed.) “It’s no wonder, given AAUP’s findings,” she said of those alleged attempts.

Echoing comments in the report, LaHood said she and Salaita “hope the university accepts this debacle as a teaching moment and proves to students and faculty that it learned from this, and does the right thing and reinstates Professor Salaita.”

In the meantime, she said, the university has filed a request to dismiss the lawsuit. An oral ruling on that motion is expected next month.

Robin Kaler, a spokesperson for Urbana-Champaign, said via email that the university would be "very disappointed if the AAUP chose to censure" it, "given the many the positive steps we have taken to bring our campus together and move forward." Kaler said that Wise, the chancellor, has told faculty members that the Board of Trustees will make decisions on proposed new hires "well in advance" of their arrival on campus and that she is creating a Chancellor's Faculty Fellows program to facilitate "frequent and rapid guidance around critical campus issues." Additionally, Kaler said, Wise has made "absolutely clear" that her August statement was not intended to establish a policy on speech or a campus speech code. Rather, Wise was using the term "civility" in reference to Salaita's comments in the context of AAUP policy, including the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Committee A makes recommendations for what should be up for a censure vote at AAUP’s annual meeting. Reichman said Urbana-Champaign could avoid such a recommendation by resolving the Salaita case somehow, possibly through a settlement. If not, Reichman said he expected “some debate” at the meeting, given how controversial the Salaita case has been so far. Many members of AAUP have strong beliefs about the Israel-Palestine issue, he added, further fueling internal discussions.

Reichman stressed, however, that AAUP takes no position on Israel and Palestine, and that the committee would have arrived at the same conclusion had Salaita’s views been pro-Israel.

“We would have defended Steven Salaita had it all been reversed,” he said.

The committee’s decision wasn’t unanimous. Cary Nelson, a professor of English at Urbana-Champaign who has defended the university’s right to consider matters of civility in hiring decisions, sits on Committee A and said he disagrees with a number of the report's conclusions. Nelson said he thought that the investigation on which the report was based failed to answer key questions about the case, such as whether the American Indian Studies program had any warning that Wise perceived problems with the appointment, as faculty members have alleged they did not, and whether Salaita’s tweets can truly be separated from his academic oeuvre. While the committee report references Salaita’s “impassioned” tweets in response to the fight “raging between Israeli troops and Palestinians in Gaza” last summer, Nelson said Salaita’s vociferously anti-Israel tweets started at least months before that violence broke out, and parallel thoughts in some of his previously published works.

Robert Warrior, head of the American Indian Studies program at Urbana-Champaign, was not immediately available for comment.

Kirk Sanders, chair of the philosophy department at Urbana-Champaign and a Salaita supporter, said he wasn’t surprised by some of AAUP’s conclusions, and worried that AAUP censure would only worsen the lasting academic impacts of the Salaita decision for the faculty -- namely a long list of scholars to boycott the university.

At the same time, Sanders said via email, the central campus administration “certainly deserves it, and, as an AAUP member myself, I would certainly vote for it. Chancellor Wise in particular has only compounded her initial mishandling of the Salaita case by doubling down at every opportunity.” 


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