• November 1, 2014

U. of Illinois Feels Backlash From Scholars Angered by Salaita Case

Phyllis Wise and Steven Salaita

Wise: L. Brian Stauffer, U. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; Salaita: Courtesy of Steven Salaita

Some scholars have canceled speaking engagements at the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to protest its withdrawal of a job offer to Steven G. Salaita (right). Phyllis M. Wise (left), the campus's chancellor, says the institution is "absolutely" committed to academic freedom, but stands by its decision.

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close Phyllis Wise and Steven Salaita

Wise: L. Brian Stauffer, U. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; Salaita: Courtesy of Steven Salaita

Some scholars have canceled speaking engagements at the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to protest its withdrawal of a job offer to Steven G. Salaita (right). Phyllis M. Wise (left), the campus's chancellor, says the institution is "absolutely" committed to academic freedom, but stands by its decision.

Weeks after the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign abruptly revoked a job offer to Steven G. Salaita in the wake of his controversial tweets about Israel, two scholars have signaled their protest by pulling out of speaking engagements at the campus, and a program that was set to host a national gathering there has called its conference off. Meanwhile, the American Indian studies program, which Mr. Salaita had been set to join, is scrambling to make up for his absence.

Mr. Salaita, a former professor of English at Virginia Tech, had been offered a job as a tenured professor of American Indian studies, but his appointment was contingent upon approval by the university’s Board of Trustees. Earlier this month administrators told Mr. Salaita in a letter that they would not bring his appointment before the board after all. An affirmative vote, they said, was unlikely.

The decision, which raised questions about contractual loopholes and academic freedom, almost immediately drew pushback from the academic community. Thousands of scholars in a variety of disciplines signed petitions pledging to avoid the campus unless it reversed its decision to rescind the job offer, and several prominent academic associations urged the university to reconsider.

In the past few days, several people have followed through on promises to boycott the institution. Two scholars declined invitations to speak at the prestigious Center for Advanced Study/MillerComm Lecture Series this fall, and a campus-based project called off a four-day national conference that it was scheduled to host there in October.

Speakers Withdraw

David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy and legal studies at the University of Delaware, notified the Center for Advanced Study on Wednesday that he no longer wanted to participate. His lecture had been scheduled for September 29.

“Instead of choosing education and more speech as the remedy for disagreeable speech,” he wrote to the committee, the University of Illinois “has apparently chosen ‘enforced silence.’ It thus violates what a university must stand for—whatever else it stands for—and therefore I join those who will not participate in the violation. In my judgment, this is a core and nonnegotiable issue of academic freedom.”

Mr. Blacker wrote that he “would be delighted to reschedule my talk” if the university reinstated its offer to Mr. Salaita.

The following day, Allen F. Isaacman, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, also pulled out of the series, offering a similar message. His talk had been scheduled for October 30.

“The University of Illinois’s recent decision to disregard its prior commitment to appoint Professor Salaita confirms my fear of the administration’s blatant disregard for academic freedom,” Mr. Isaacman wrote in a letter to Wayne Pitard, a professor of religion and head of the lecture-series committee. “I do hope that the university administration will reverse its decision before it does irreparable harm to your great institution.”

Conference Is Canceled

Also on Thursday, the Education Justice Project, which is part of the department of education policy, organization, and leadership at Urbana-Champaign, announced that it was canceling the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison, which it had been scheduled to host.

“This decision has not been easy,” Rebecca Ginsburg, an associate professor in the education-policy department, said in an announcement posted on the project’s webpage.

The project’s leaders reached the decision only after speaking with would-be presenters and attendees, she wrote. “We concluded that for EJP to host the conference at this time would compromise our ability to come together as a national community of educators and activists.”

Ms. Ginsburg could not be reached for comment Friday; university administrators also did not respond to calls for comment.

Message From the Chancellor

On the campus, tensions are just as high.

The chancellor, Phyllis M. Wise, said in a message to the campus on Friday afternoon that she and other administrators remained “absolutely” committed to academic freedom and to open debate that welcomes and encourages differing perspectives.

The decision regarding Mr. Salaita was not influenced by his criticism of Israel or his views about the conflict in the Middle East, she said.

“What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois,” she wrote, “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.”

The university system’s president and members of the Board of Trustees also issued a statement reinforcing the chancellor’s comments and saying that she had their “collective and unwavering support.”

On Friday evening, however, faculty members in the American Indian studies program, a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, cast a vote of no confidence in Ms. Wise’s leadership, criticizing her handling of the last-minute withdrawal of the offer to Mr. Salaita.

“In clear disregard of basic principles of shared governance and unit autonomy, and without basic courtesy and respect for collegiality, Chancellor Wise did not consult American Indian studies nor the college before making her decision,” reads a statement posted on the program’s webpage. “With this vote of no confidence, the faculty of UIUC’s American Indian studies program also joins the thousands of scholars and organizations in the United States and across the world in seeing the chancellor’s action as a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech.”

The note goes on to encourage other departments to do the same, and to question whether the chancellor deserves the confidence of Illinois’s full faculty.

‘We’re Really Hurting’

“Our faculty are deeply dismayed at the actions of the campus leadership,” Robert Warrior, director of the American Indian studies program, said in an interview.

With less than a week left until the first day of class, he added, the small program has been scrambling to cover the two courses Mr. Salaita had been expected to teach this fall.

“We are in the process of canceling sections, shifting resources around, and making do,” Mr. Warrior said. “We’re such a small unit that getting from Point A to Point B can be complicated.”

In fact, the program, which has just seven tenure-track professors and one untenured faculty member serving on a fixed term, was already down one full professor: Another scholar had recently left for an endowed professorship. “We’re really hurting, just in terms of the people we have around to shoulder the load,” Mr. Warrior said.

For now, all sections of Mr. Salaita’s classes have been covered by other faculty members in the program, Mr. Warrior said. But in order to assure that those high-demand classes were salvaged, the program had to trim sections of other, less-popular courses instead.

“In the end, it’s a matter of us having to ask faculty to take on some tasks we normally wouldn’t want them to do,” he said. “That means some people are teaching classes they aren’t necessarily prepared to teach. We’re really just trying to fulfill our goal of teaching students. We don’t want to turn them away. And we wouldn’t punish students in order to prove a point.”

Correction (8/24/2014, 12:05 p.m.): This article has been updated to correct the name of the academic unit that sponsors the lecture series. It is the Center for Advanced Study, not the Center for Academic Success.

Correction (9/2/2014, 7:01 p.m.): This article originally reported that faculty members in the American Indian studies program had cast a unanimous vote of no confidence in the University of Illinois’s chancellor. The Chronicle subsequently found that it could not verify the vote was unanimous, so that word has been removed from the article.

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