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WASHINGTON -- The American Association of University Professors voted Saturday to censure the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and three other institutions, while protesting planned changes -- pushed by Republican lawmakers -- to tenure and shared governance within the University of Wisconsin System. Members also discussed at their annual meeting here how the association might better respond to administrative moves to close troubled colleges in light of the shocking Sweet Briar College announcement earlier this year. They called that decision the first of many coming threats to similar institutions in financially and politically turbulent times.

“These cases are sadly but the tip of a larger iceberg threatening our fundamental values,” said Hank Reichman, chair of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom, which investigates colleges’ alleged violations of academic freedom and tenure before they’re considered for censure. Saying the committee had been unusually busy this year, and that it felt as if there was a “crisis atmosphere” regarding the faculty role in institutional decision making, he added, “Clearly we live in challenging times for higher education and the professoriate.”

The Salaita Case at Urbana-Champaign

Reichman’s comments and those in a similar vein made by other AAUP leaders were well received but, as predicted, one issue proved highly divisive: the censure of Urbana-Champaign, which found itself in hot water with faculty members and free speech advocates last summer after it revoked the tenured appointment of Steven Salaita to the American Indian studies program.

While the university argued that Salaita’s comments on Twitter regarding Israel were sufficiently uncivil to make him unfit for service, and that he was not yet technically an employee -- as his appointment had not yet been approved by the University of Illinois System Board of Trustees -- others said the university had stepped on faculty rights. Not only had Salaita been selected by a faculty committee, they said, a professor’s political expressions on social media are protected speech and have no bearing on his ability to teach or do research. Moreover, they argued, Salaita already was scheduled for courses and ready to start teaching when his offer was pulled at the last minute, making the fact that his appointment hadn’t yet been officially approved by the board immaterial to his employment and tenure status.

“The association has consistently held that aborting an appointment without having demonstrated cause is tantamount to summary dismissal, an action categorically inimical to academic due process,” Committee A wrote in its recommendation to censure Urbana-Champaign, which was based on a lengthier committee report on the case. Such a dismissal violated Salaita’s academic freedom and “cast a pall of uncertainty over the degree to which academic freedom is understood and respected [on campus].”

While the clear majority of attendees were in favor of censure, some were not. Cary Nelson, a professor of English at Urbana-Champaign and former president of the AAUP who typically sides with faculty members in free speech matters but has publicly defended the university in this case, was the only AAUP member to speak against immediate censure -- although a small but audible group of professors said no to censure in a voice vote.

Nelson said there were good legal and academic arguments both for and against the idea that Salaita was already an employee when his offer was revoked, and he said the university acted “clumsily” in its handling of the affair. But there’s sufficient reason to question whether or not Salaita ever should have been appointed in the first place, he said.

He said he’s written a forthcoming 14,000-word article arguing that Salaita’s hire was more political than scholarly, in that “it was about Israel when it was made and it is still about Israel as we move forward to censure.” Nelson, who’s been the subject of intense criticism for his position, said he’d heard too many “conspiracy fantasies” about pro-Israel donors and others pressuring the university into its decision to believe that the entire process hadn’t been “compromised by anti-Israel sentiment.”

Nelson argued that the “rush to censure” was “inappropriate,” and that the AAUP should consider the attention Urbana-Champaign’s administration has paid to the case, in contrast to other colleges and universities that have responded flippantly to the threat of censure. He said the administration typically respects shared governance, and the Salaita case was “extraordinary,” evidenced by the level of international attention it’s attracted.

Reichman, who recused himself from involvement in the motion to approve censure due to his direct participation in AAUP’s investigation, said he felt forced to respond, calling Nelson’s statement about anti-Israel sentiment “an insult” and “totally false.” The issue is not about Israel or even the content of Salaita’s tweets, but rather the principle of academic freedom, he said.

“It’s not my position to judge his tweets or his scholarship or anything else about it -- that is the role of the faculty” at Urbana-Champaign, bodies of which have asked the university repeatedly to redress the situation, he said.

Other speakers strongly supported AAUP’s position, arguing that the organization had to “take a stand” against what one professor called a new McCarthyism. Several speakers drew parallels to the tenure denial of Norman Finkelstein several years ago at DePaul University after his books and public statements were criticized as uncivil attacks on Israel, and said the Israeli-Palestinian debate can’t be censored.

“It’s OK to be controversial,” said Peter Neil Kirstein, a professor of history at Saint Xavier University and vice president of Illinois’s AAUP conference.

Bruce Rosenstock, a professor of religious studies at Urbana-Champaign, said he’d initially been hurt by Salaita’s tweets, especially one he considered to be anti-Semitic: “Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” He said he wanted an apology, he said, but -- upon reflection -- realized Salaita had never been given the opportunity to explain himself or apologize before his offer was pulled. And no other faculty member was given the opportunity to weigh in, he said. For those reasons, he supported censure.

In a statement submitted to the AAUP, Salaita (who was not at the meeting), said, “One can disagree with my viewpoints and still see that [the] administration made a grave mistake it refuses to redress, based on outside interference and a host of assumptions about my pedagogical capabilities entirely bereft of -- indeed, contrary to -- evidence.”

The statement continues: “In fact, even if one deplores my viewpoints, that person cannot reasonably support the conduct of the [campus] leadership. As you all well know, the university’s malfeasance -- and your considered response -- have a lasting effect far beyond this individual academic.”

Phyllis Wise, chancellor of Urbana-Champaign, said in an emailed statement that the institution is “one of the world’s pre-eminent universities, with a longstanding commitment to the principles of academic freedom and shared governance.” (Note: An earlier version of this sentence erroneously attributed Wise's statement to a university spokeswoman.)

Presumably referring to previous attempts to settle with Salaita -- who is pursuing an ongoing lawsuit against the university and the John Doe donors whom he alleges interfered in his appointment -- along with promises to adjust the timeline for approvals of faculty members by the board, Wise said the university has “taken several key steps to address the concerns raised by AAUP. We are disappointed to be the subject of an AAUP censure, and we want to support faculty who are impacted by this censure by demonstrating our unyielding commitment to the principles of academic freedom while remaining focused on the excellence in learning, discovery, engagement and economic development that are at the core of our mission.” 

Additional Censures

Three other censure votes -- regarding the University of Southern Maine, Felician College and MD Anderson Cancer Center -- were more straightforward, as far as AAUP members were concerned.

Summarizing an earlier report on the ongoing academic shakeup at Southern Maine, Committee A’s censure recommendation accused the university of disregarding both AAUP and its own policies regarding circumstances under which programs can be closed down. The university slashed four academic programs -- several of which AAUP and local businesses argued were key to the area’s culture and economy -- and eliminated more than 50 tenured and nontenured faculty positions without declaring financial exigency.

“Also striking was the fact that these programs were canceled in midyear and that no provisions were made for students remaining in the programs to complete their courses of study,” in violation of standards set by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the university’s accrediting body, Committee A said in its censure recommendation.

No one defended Southern Maine’s actions -- which the university has attributed to its desire to become a “metropolitan university” and to significant budget cuts -- and the motion passed nearly unanimously.

In a statement, the Southern Maine chapter of the AAUP said the vote "corroborates longstanding student, faculty and staff concerns about decision making [on campus]. USM-AAUP looks forward to working with incoming President Glenn Cummings to abide by [the university's] constitution -- particularly its mandate for shared governance between faculty and administrators -- and thereby to remove it from the list of censured universities."

Cummings, Southern Maine’s incoming president, said in an emailed statement that his administration still strives to make USM a metropolitan university but will “work collaboratively to seek ideas and solutions that will grow and move [the university] forward to meet the needs of our students and our community, and ensure that [the university] remains an affordable, accessible and high-quality public institution located in the economic and cultural center of Maine.”

All campus constituencies, “both internal (students, faculty and staff) and external (our community, business and government partners) will have a stake in the game and a say in the conversation,” he said.

Cummings added: “The ideals of shared governance correlate with the foundations of a free, democratic and principled society. Shared governance does not liberate us from either civility or reality; it requires all of us to contribute to the common welfare of the university above our individual agendas and personal interests.”

AAUP voted unanimously to censure both Felician College and MD Anderson Cancer Center, both of which have shed long-serving faculty members in recent years without due process, in the view of the association.

Felician let go more than a dozen longtime faculty members last year without declaring financial exigency, and without ever giving them -- or AAUP, once it got involved -- a clear reason why. Administrators argued they wanted to have a higher student-faculty ratio to be more in line with peers and presumably reduce their instructional costs as enrollment slowed, but how it selected specific faculty members for termination remains a mystery. Felician has no tenure system, but AAUP contends that faculty members serving longer than seven consecutive years have the same rights to due process as tenured faculty members. The college also allegedly retaliated against a terminated professor in good standing who spoke out about the cuts to Inside Higher Ed by denying him emeritus status.

Edward Eichhorn, a Felician spokesperson, referred questions about the vote to an earlier statement about AAUP’s investigation, which noted “that AAUP has no formal affiliation with faculty on the Felician College campus and no jurisdiction for investigating our practices. …The procedures we used to reduce faculty positions were fair and undertaken thoughtfully with the faculty impacted by this reduction in force. We agreed to reinstate faculty members as our fiscal situation improved.”

At MD Anderson, two long-serving professors were let go when their “term tenure” was not renewed, allegedly for not winning enough money in external grants. Their appeals processes also were abnormal. AAUP maintains that term or renewable tenure is not tenure at all, and that basing research professors’ employment prospects on grant dollars alone chills academic inquiry, in that “faculty members could be inclined to select lines of research for their fundability and predictable results.”

The committee also questions the circumstances under which a third faculty members had his faculty status revoked. In response to the censure, Ronald A. DePinho, president of MD Anderson, said in a statement that he believed the center’s “time-tested system of offering renewable seven-year appointments to our faculty members not only promotes academic freedom but also fosters exceptional individual achievement and maintains the institution’s global impact on the cancer problem.”

In addition, he said, “years of data demonstrate our consistent pattern of renewing faculty appointments in almost all cases. Our world-renowned physicians and researchers remain committed to accomplishing our mission to end cancer, and together we will continue to forge ahead with our critical work for the benefit of cancer patients everywhere.”

AAUP also voted Yeshiva University off its censure list after 33 years. It was originally put on the list for terminating three tenured faculty members for budgetary reasons that were not in fact exigent, and remained there as it was slow to update its tenure policies to in accordance with AAUP standards. Jordan Kurland, AAUP associate general secretary, said the university was moving forward with its reforms at a pace that was accepted to the association.

Tenure, Academic Freedom Concerns

Members also discussed ongoing concerns about academic freedom and tenure outside of the censured institutions. Attendees unanimously passed a resolution expressing concern about current legislative attempts in Wisconsin to eliminate tenure from state statute, make it much easier to get rid of tenured faculty members and curb the faculty, staff and student roles in shared governance.

The resolution “calls on faculty members in the University of Wisconsin System and their faculty colleagues throughout Wisconsin to work with students, alumni and community leaders to organize resistance to these proposals and to demand that they be rejected.” It also calls on “regents and administrators of the University of Wisconsin System publicly to state their opposition to these proposals and to resist their implementation if they are approved” by the legislature. (A recent statement from a joint scholarly association led by the American Historical Association said much the same.)

Echoing comments made by Rudy Fichtenbaum, a professor of economics at Wright State University and AAUP president, in his address -- namely that Wisconsin is hardly the only place where tenure is facing political threats -- the resolution asks “faculty members throughout the U.S. to support our Wisconsin colleagues to ensure that similar proposals do not gain traction elsewhere.” It also says AAUP leaders will consider organizing “faculty resistance” should the changes become law.

Eric Compas, associate professor of geography and geology at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, said he'd only recently joined AAUP and "wholeheartedly" supported the resolution. He also said he believed the legislative attack on tenure in Wisconsin was part of a "national agenda," and that faculty members at public institutions in his state are merely at "the forefront."

Via email, Ray Cross, Wisconsin system president, said he appreciated AAUP's concerns. "We want all tenure provisions that protect faculty members and academic freedom while keeping the system [aligned] and competitive with its peers. The Legislature has enabled us to craft a Board of Regents policy built on these values."

Members also discussed AAUP’s response to Sweet Briar, saying that national, state and local associations must proactively engage faculty members at other struggling colleges to prevent similar shutdowns. Speakers said Sweet Briar was likely one of many small institutions experiencing declines in enrollment -- especially women’s colleges and historically black colleges and universities -- to face governing board-driven closures in the coming years. And censure can’t be AAUP’s only weapon against unilateral board action with no faculty consultation, speakers said, since censure doesn’t apply to a college that no longer exists.

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