UI board quiet on Salaita issue

UI board quiet on Salaita issue

URBANA — In their Aug. 1 letter to Steven Salaita, university administrators told the would-be professor his appointment would not be recommended to the board of trustees in September and that an affirmative board vote was "unlikely."

Were University of Illinois trustees polled prior to the letter being sent? How did they or would they have voted? What were the exact reasons behind the decision to rescind the offer?

The News-Gazette reached out to the board members in an attempt to answer these questions; only one responded.

UI trustee Tim Kortiz declined to take a public position on Salaita's case or say how he would have voted on Salaita's appointment if it had come before the board at its September meeting.

"All that pertains to discussions in executive session since it's a personnel matter. I don't want to compromise anything," Koritz said. However, he did say he anticipated a resolution soon.

The board chairman, Chris Kennedy, declined comment through a university spokesman, who referred to the UI's previous statement — that officials do not comment publicly on personnel matters.

With the start of the school year fast approaching — classes begin Monday — members of the board's executive committee will huddle once again behind closed doors this afternoon to focus on what has been described as "personnel." The executive committee includes Kennedy, Pam Strobel and Ed McMillan.

At the conclusion of the executive committee's closed meeting on Monday, President Bob Easter said discussions were ongoing. The board is grappling with a number of thorny cases, including Salaita's, which in recent weeks has drawn national attention.

The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences last October offered Salaita, then a professor at Virginia Tech, a tenured position in the American Studies Program.

On Aug. 1, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre informed Salaita that his appointment would not be forwarded to trustees for formal approval. Their letter came not long after conservative bloggers drew attention to Salaita's angry tweets about Israel's invasion of Gaza.

As the final say on appointments, per university statutes, the board of trustees regularly receives notice of faculty and academic professional appointments prior to their meetings, which are held six times a year. Trustees tend to approve them, without any discussion, as part of their regular meeting agendas.

"The caveat would be if something unusual or controversial would come up. Or if someone wanted the board to look into it either by an administrator or constituent or taxpayer. I've never known our board to shy away from looking at an issue if requested to do so," Koritz said.

During Kennedy's tenure as board chairman, the governing body has become involved in academic personnel decisions beyond just approving them by voice vote and without discussion.

In 2010, trustees denied emeritus status to retiring UI-Chicago education Professor William Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground antiwar group from the late-1960s and '70s. In his 1974 book "Prairie Fire," Ayers includes a dedication to a long list of people, including Sirhan Sirhan, the man who killed Kennedy's father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Faculty offer letters, like the one sent to Salaita, include language that says the appointment is pending board approval. It's not uncommon for the formal approval to come weeks or months after the employee starts working and collecting a paycheck.

But what occurred with the Salaita case — in which an offer is made by the campus, then rescinded before going to the board for approval — is unusual.

"I haven't had anything like that ever crop up in all years I've been here," said UI aerospace engineering Professor Harry Hilton, who has been a faculty member at the UI since 1949.

Hilton has been active in the American Association of University Professors and is currently the local chapter president. He was on campus in the 1960s when the university fired assistant biology Professor Leo Koch after Koch wrote a letter to the Daily Illini in which he advocated for premarital sex. The national AAUP subsequently censured the university for lack of due process.

The local AAUP chapter has not taken a position on Salaita's situation, but its officers are expected to discuss it next week. A committee of the Illinois AAUP was quick to criticize the university's action and said it stood by his "right to engage in extramural utterances."

As for the UI Board of Trustees, university spokesman Jan Dennis said he did not expect any action to be taken at the conclusion of today's meeting.