WASHINGTON -- After delaying the measure last year over lingering concerns about academic freedom at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the American Association of University Professors voted here Saturday to remove the campus from its list of censured institutions. The campus chapter of the AAUP urged the national body to lift censure, as recommended by AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, but others challenged the idea, saying UIUC hadn’t done enough to move past the Steven Salaita debacle.
Members also voted to impose censure on the administrations of the Community College of Aurora in Colorado and Spalding University in Kentucky. Spalding is accused of terminating a longtime professor who questioned why faculty members of color in her department weren’t notified of a report of an armed, potentially dangerous student. Aurora, meanwhile, allegedly retaliated against an adjunct faculty member who said he wouldn’t lower academic requirements in his course just because the college had adopted weaker academic standards as part of a plan to promote degree completion.
Fight to Remove Censure
The AAUP censured Illinois two years ago for alleged violations of academic freedom and tenure after Salaita was infamously “unhired” for a tenured faculty position in the American Indian studies program days before the start of classes, in 2014.
The university backed Salaita’s right to free speech and academic freedom when first faced with complaints about the tone of his anti-Israel tweets, but later revoked his contract, saying he wasn’t yet a faculty member.
That was technically true, but many professors -- even those opposed to Salaita’s views -- accused the university of caving to external pressure to dump Salaita and using an absurdly delayed faculty approval process to do so; the university system’s Board of Trustees ultimately rejected his hiring weeks into the academic year -- well after most professors would assume they already had a job. He had been listed to teach courses before the university told him not to come.
Institutions are sometimes blasé about censure, since the designation is essentially symbolic. There are no fines and it’s not a legal action, for example. Other administrations are quick to work with the AAUP to lift the label, seeing it as a reputational blemish affecting their ability to recruit or retain talented professors whose work requires a commitment to free inquiry and job security.
Harry Hilton, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at Illinois and head of its AAUP chapter, joked that he was in the “very uncomfortable position” of defending his administration, but “strongly encouraged” those present to remove censure. A new campus chancellor and other leaders, he said, seemed sincere in their desire to improve the conditions that contributed to the Salaita decision, and the university has met the three obligations AAUP assigned to it upon censure: ensuring board approval for faculty appointments prior to their effective date; requiring the board to send back any faculty appointment trustees question to the department or program, to allow it the opportunity to respond to concerns; and getting the board to satisfactorily reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom. The university also reached a financial settlement with Salaita.
Peter Neil Kirstein, professor of history at Saint Xavier University and chair of the state-level AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure in Illinois, voiced reservations about letting the institution off the hook so soon, however.
Reading a statement from members of his committee, whom he said hadn’t been consulted on the recommendation to lift censure, Kirstein called for UIUC to make a “public apology” for its treatment of Salaita, who still hasn't been able to secure a tenured job. He was most recently a visiting professor at the American University in Beirut, but was blocked from a permanent position there over procedural concerns about his appointment process. Kirstein also said it isn’t enough that Illinois's board now approves faculty hires prior to a semester’s start. Salaita gave up a tenured position at Virginia Tech to move there, and a much faster board approval process is needed, he said -- two or three weeks from hire at most.
Moreover, Kirstein said, Illinois’s American Indian studies program, once growing, has been decimated since the Salaita controversy. The program had seven core faculty members and was about to add two more, including Salaita, when controversy broke out. All core professors have since left the university or moved to other departments on campus.
“Illinois Committee A demands the full restoration of the American Indian studies program now,” he said. “The AAUP must not remain silent. A university must not, with impunity, destroy an academic program because of a controversial, idealistic professor. There are no core faculty, only affiliate faculty. The interim director is not a Native American area specialist but a Latino, African-American and baseball scholar. The website tersely states a director’s statement is coming soon.”
John K. Wilson, an independent scholar of academic freedom and co-editor of AAUP’s “Academe” blog, also opposed lifting censure due to the state of the American Indian studies program. He read a statement on behalf of Robert Warrior, the former chair of American Indian studies at Illinois who is now at the University of Kansas, saying, “my move involved nothing but push from Illinois insofar as there was nothing there for me to do other than lay low and hide out. Putting aside the affront of what happened with the Salaita appointment, the institution demonstrated zero capacity to take [American Indian studies] seriously as an academic enterprise.”
Illinois has previously said it's attempting to revitalize the American Indian studies program, and that it did what it could to try to retain scholars who were aggressively recruited by other institutions in the wake of the Salaita case. It has noted that recruiting new professors takes time, even under ordinary circumstances.
Wilson expressed additional concern that while administrators in some cases appear to regret the Salaita decision, the board as a whole does not. Members who voted to block Salaita's hiring are still sitting, he said, and there have been no real assurances they would act differently if faced with a similar situation today. Wilson also noted that AAUP’s campus visit demonstrating restored faculty faith in academic freedom on campus has been described as thorough,but few have read the resultant report. The visit and report, which hadn’t been completed by last year’s AAUP meeting and thus delayed the vote on lifting censure at that time, was deemed confidential to encourage frankness among on-campus interviewees.
During some debate on the matter, a number of AAUP members said they, too, remained concerned for Salaita’s career and the fate of American Indian studies at Illinois. But most said that to raise those issues now, after the university had worked to meet stated conditions on lifting censure, would be -- as one commenter put it -- to “move the goalposts.” Others said the state AAUP chapter should defer to the will of the campus-based chapter, which has the best vantage point on improvement.
Donna Young, a professor of law at the Albany Law School and a member of AAUP’s national Committee A, said she was pained by challenges to smaller, critical theory-based programs -- such as American Indian studies -- across the country, since some of her best students graduate from them. But that is a “separate issue” from the Salaita case, she said, and to conflate them would compromise the integrity of the censure process. Beyond that, she said, some institutions -- including the entire State University of New York System -- remain on the censure list with no apparent motivation to get off it. With Illinois so willing to work with AAUP to lift censure, she said, “we have to grab this. This is a win for us. We need to keep this.”
AAUP briefly considered a proposal from the floor for a secret-ballot vote, based on concerns that a significant minority against lifting censure would feel more comfortable that way. That was ultimately deemed incompatible with parliamentary procedure, however, and a voice vote showed significant majority support for lifting censure.
Salaita did not respond to a request for comment. Robert J. Jones, Illinois’s new chancellor, said in a statement that he was “pleased to learn that AAUP recognizes our efforts and is taking this positive action.”
He added, “Ideas can be dangerous … and even threatening. They have the potential to rewrite history and disrupt governments. Sometimes they just lead us down dead ends and even are deemed failures. Still, we must be a place where our students and scholars alike have the freedom to pursue them all. Academic freedom is a bedrock principle at Illinois. But these ideas also lead us to knowledge, practices and discoveries that improve the lives of billions across decades.”
One far less controversial, unanimous vote to remove censure concerned Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, which was censured in 1978 over the summary dismissal of a faculty member with 10 years of full-time service. While Phillips resolved the matter with the former professor decades ago, it was slow to adopt policies that in AAUP’s view remedied the situation over all -- namely awarding indefinite tenure to long-serving faculty members. In 2015, however, a member of the University of Arkansas System began working with AAUP to lift censure. The college has since adopted a policy of presumed indefinite retention for faculty members after six years of full-time service. Termination after that point must be for cause, demonstrated in a hearing.
A member of AAUP visited the campus this year and called its climate for academic freedom “healthy.” A college spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
New Additions to Censure List
The association’s list didn’t get any shorter over all, however, as AAUP also added two new institutions to its censure list. Both motions were passed unanimously with little to no discussion, though members heard letters from the professors central to each case thanking AAUP for its assistance and encouraging censure.
In the Spalding case, AAUP found that the university last year terminated Erlene Grise-Owens, a longtime professor of social work, for repeatedly questioning administrators as to why professors of color in her department were the only ones who were not warned about a potentially dangerous student. The student, who allegedly had a history of making inflammatory comments about race in class, reportedly showed another student a gun in her car and made a vague threat of violence. AAUP has said the case matters because Grise-Owens felt she was obligated to speak for her untenured colleagues of color because she had tenure. Yet in the end, it wasn’t enough protection.
The university responded to AAUP’s initial report about the situation by saying that Grise-Owens is someone with an “agenda” and a long history of antagonism toward colleagues. It also said the student in question was examined by health professionals and found not to be a threat to herself or others. Spaulding offered no additional comment on the censure vote Saturday.
In a significant case for non-tenure-track faculty members, AAUP found that the Community College of Aurora likely retaliated against philosophy adjunct Nathanial Bork, firing him just days after he said he planned to alert a state education body of administrative requests that he “dumb down” his course last year. The college was trying to boost passage rates to demonstrate increased student success, but Bork said he’d been asked to cut 20 percent of his introductory philosophy course content; require fewer writing assignments, with a new maximum of eight pages per semester; offer small-group activities every other class session; and make works by women and minority thinkers about 30 percent of the course.
Aurora, which has denied claims of retaliation against Bork and instead blamed his termination on concerns about his teaching, in a statement called the censure vote “unfortunate and unwarranted.” The college “will continue to address the needs of our adjunct instructors with a focus on communication, professional development, recognition and remuneration,” it said. “We value our faculty and our instructors, and we are committed to working together to create the educational conditions that will help our students succeed.”
AAUP at its meeting also voted to amend its constitution to allow payments equal to one course per semester to adjunct faculty members who become association officers. Current association regulations prevent paying faculty leaders directly for participation, but AAUP has a longstanding practice of sometimes paying their institutions to buy out officers' courses to give them time to attend meetings and perform other association duties. Because non-tenure-track faculty members typically can’t buy out of courses, AAUP payments may now go directly to them to compensate for lost working time.
The association also approved a resolution calling upon Illinois lawmakers to end the "political stalemate" over its state budget and immediately restore "full higher education funding." Educational appropriations per full-time equivalent student in the state declined by 80 percent in 2016 from a year earlier, from $10,986 to $2,196, as enrollment at public institutions dropped 11 percent.
AAUP members also backed a last-minute motion to oppose dramatic cuts to higher education in Puerto Rico.