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Crisis at the University of Illinois

Bombs in Gaza Wound Academic Freedom in Urbana-Champaign

by BEHROOZ GHAMARI TABRIZI

I write as a professor of History and Sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I have long taken pride in the University of Illinois as a highly respected public university in the country, as a place in which Noble Prize winners work, pathbreaking early computers were built, award-winning research is conducted, and world-class scholars teach and sustain a highly vibrant world of ideas. I used to see the name of my institution in light of these significant grounds. Not anymore.

I write also to appeal to all those who care about and appreciate the significance of academic freedom because they understand how this precious value contributes to the wellbeing of our society. I hope that by reading this you will feel as outraged and troubled as many of us at the University of Illinois feel. This is not a highbrow predicament of the intellectual elite. This is a crisis of one of the most important foundations of our increasingly deteriorating democracy, that of freedom of expression and the right to have an institutional voice against the corporatization of American universities.

I recently came back from Jakarta where I was participating in a scholarly conference. On several occasions during my short trip my Indonesian colleagues asked me whether I was from the same institution that “fired” that English professor. I was shocked by how fast the embarrassing news of our administration’s misconduct travelled half the world and turned an institution to which many of us proudly belong, into from the subject of the most depressing academic news cycles.

Alas, this is not the case these days. From a piece in Haaretz to an editorial in Inside Higher Education , from the Illinois AAUP committee to a whole host of bloggers from across the  country, academics have denounced the Chancellor of  University of Illinois’ decision to rescind the hiring of the Professor Steven Salaita for his incendiary tweets against the Israeli attacks on civilians in Gaza. Chancellor Wise has reportedly informed Prof. Salaita that the university has voided a job offer that was extended to him earlier this past year. The news came nearly 10 months after Professor Salaita had signed an offer letter, at a time when he had already resigned from his position as an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech with the understanding that he was to move to Urbana-Champaign with his family. His courses were already enrolled and he was to begin teaching with a few weeks. (See the fact sheet)

Salaita Fact SheetIt is also now revealed that Chancellor Wise made her decision in response to outside pressures. The university responded to an open records request from Inside Higher Ed for communications to the chancellor about the Salaita appointment, prior to her action to block it. The communications show that Wise was lobbied on the decision not only by pro-Israel students, parents and alumni, but also by the fund-raising arm of the university. The communications also show that the university system president was involved, and that the university was considering the legal ramifications of the case before the action to block the appointment.  According to Haaretz, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a letter to Robert Easter, President of the University of Illinois, protesting the appointment of Salaita. The letter characterizes Salaita as a “misguided academic” who “spews venomous and mendacious analogies” about Israel and raises the question “What possible prestige can Salaita add to the UI faculty?” An op-ed piece in Urbana-Champaign local newspaper, The News Gazette, also published a series of decontextualized inflammatory posts from Salaita’s personal twitter account (see Phan Nguyen for the context of the tweets) and echoed other conservative lobbyists in calling on the University’s Board of Trustees to block his appointment.

More than 16,000 people have already signed a Petition asking Chancellor Wise to reconsider her decision and to reinstate Prof. Salaita’s appointment. In a strong statement, the American Association of University Professors argued on behalf of Steven Salaita that his and the faculty of the University of Illinois’ academic freedom has been violated. More than 3,000 scholars have so far boycotted the University of Illinois, cancelling lectures, refusing to write letters of recommendation or participate in peer review.

Chancellor Wise claims that by her decision she was merely protecting the dignity and interests of students whose sensibilities Professor Salaita disregarded by his inflammatory tweets. Had she consulted with the search committee and others who carefully vetted his dossier, she would have known that Salaita’s teaching record is exemplary by any standard. The record shows that his pedagogical approach and his classroom presence has by no means been compromised by his political commitments and ethical imperatives which motivate his public engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The teaching record in his file shows that in the category of “concern and respect” for students, according to documents posted on Mondoweiss, “Salaita has earned an incredibly high evaluation from the students in the last six courses he taught in his former institution.  Here is where students evaluate their professor for professional empathy, respect for diverse points of view, and sensitivity to student opinion and student lives.”

Here is a sample from Professor Salaita’s official teaching evaluation:

30 Total: 28 Excellent  2 Good

30 Total:  30 out of 30 Excellent

10 Total: 10 out of 10 Excellent

29 Total: 28 Excellent 1 Good

28 Total: 28 out of 28 excellent

28 Total: 25 out of 28 excellent, 2 good, one No Response

The Salaita affair has exposed a larger trend in the corporatization of American universities. Many of us might disagree with Salaita’s comments and tone in which he delivered them. But the general public as well as university presidents need to be concerned about the ominous precedent that is being set by the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois. What makes American institutions of higher education distinct, intellectually vibrant and academically rich, lies exactly in the principle of the separation of scholarly affairs from business and political considerations.

Universities have always struggled for inclusion, for diversity (of ideas and people), for deeper thinking and wider outreach. It has always been the faculty and students who have pushed for change against the resistance of a variety of higher education administrations. It has always been the faculty and students who pushed to hire women, to hire African-Americans, to hire other minorities, to hire Jews without prejudice, to defy the stigma associated with sexual preferences, to include and give significance to ethnic studies, to protect unpopular and controversial ideas. There is not a single case that any of these changes was instituted top-down by any university administration, no matter how progressive and open-minded they were.  There is a long history that emerging ideas and the outspoken advocates of those ideas were characterized as “uncivil,” “subversive,” or “incendiary.” It is unfortunate that Chancellor Wise and her supporters have yet again introduced “civility,” a worn out, racially charged and gendered device of exclusion in justifying the decision to void Professor Salaita’s appointment.

All that could be done precisely because universities operate based on the principle of shared governance. Shared governance checks the Administration’s authority over substantive issues of merit and scholarship and protects the independence of academic units and departments. This is where the difference lies between a university and a corporation. The Chancellor of a university cannot and should not exercise the authority of her office in the same vein as the CEO of a company. Shared governance means that she must abide by and respect faculty deliberations and decisions regarding academic matters. The determination of what is acceptable discourse and how it furthers or hinders discussion in a field is not the responsibility of the Chancellor or the Board of Trustees. These are offices that are readily susceptible to and swayed by outside political pressures and donors’ proclivities.  As the Salaita affair demonstrates.

By rescinding Salaita’s appointment, in effect, Chancellor Wise has turned a pro forma step in the process of hiring new faculty (and potentially in faculty promotion) into an active vetting procedure. Such scrutiny at the managerial level inevitably undermines the integrity and autonomy of faculty governance. This is a serious issue for all university campuses to confront with diligence and care. Under the existing order, the administration shares and communicates any grave concerns about new hires or promotions with the relevant departments or units. If the new order persists and spreads to other campuses around the country, it will inevitably transfer authority and discretion away from faculty and endow the already growing class of administrative managers with unprecedented oversight and veto power. In addition to its political context, as Timothy Burke eloquently argues, the Salaita Affair is about restructuring university governance and facilitating the migration of practical authority and decision-making upwards.

There are two precedents being set at Illinois: One by the Administration and the other by the faculty and students. The former will make the universities increasingly vulnerable to the demands of private donors and political ambitions of its administration. The latter intend to uphold hard fought and earned right of free expression, academic freedom, and the institutional autonomy of scholarly inquiry. Let us hope that the latter wins. Universities must be defended! Please do your share!

Behrooz Ghamari Tabrizi is Associate Professor History, Associate Professor of Sociology, Associate Professor of Global Studies, and Conrad Humanities Scholar (2014-2019) at the University of Illinois.