Salaita backlash putting UI in bad light

Salaita backlash putting UI in bad light

URBANA — Wanted: world-class scholar for state flagship university: home to Nobel Prize winners, patent-generating professors, an international student body and a fiery contretemps that has included academic boycotts and votes of no confidence in university leaders.

As fall nears and the faculty hiring cycle begins, University of Illinois departments will soon begin advertising their open positions and the long process of wooing will begin as job candidates visit classrooms, deliver guest lectures and dine with colleagues. Searches are ramping up this year as the campus attempts to rebuild faculty ranks following many recent retirements.

This year, however, the recruiting season kicks off at a time of strife for the campus due to the case of Steven Salaita. Now, in addition to other hurdles to recruiting faculty — concerns about pensions, state funding uncertainty and the topographically-challenged location — there's the Salaita issue and all the questions and concerns surrounding it on academic freedom, freedom of speech, academic employment contracts and more. According to many, it's not clear yet what the short- and long-term effects of the case will be on the university.

UI American Indian Studies faculty offered Salaita, a Virginia Tech professor, a tenured position last year and he was set to join the campus this month. But a few weeks before the start of the semester, administrators did not forward his appointment to the UI Board of Trustees for formal approval following an outcry over his profanity-rich social media posts in which he blasted Israel and its supporters.

But in recent weeks, some academics around the world have signed on to boycotts of the university criticizing UI President Bob Easter, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the board of trustees for their "unhiring" of Salaita, saying the move undermined the academic unit's autonomy, violated academic freedom and denied Salaita of his constitutional right to free speech.

The UI's move was "short-sighted and self-destructive," said Allen Isaacman, a University of Minnesota history professor who was scheduled to participate in the UI's annual Center for Advanced Study's Miller/Comm Lecture Series. The series attracts humanities scholars from around the world and it's considered an honor to be invited. Isaacman said the decision by administrators left him no choice but to cancel and because of what happened with Salaita, he predicted that the campus would suffer "an extraordinary setback" in its ability to recruit faculty.

"Why would an outstanding faculty member with an international reputation agree to leave a position and then face the possibility of her contract not being honored for saying something controversial and losing her job?" Isaacman asked. "What does it tell the rest of the international academic committee? This is not a place that's friendly to competing ideas."

In the short term, the academic boycott has prompted other lectures to be canceled and some faculty have threatened not to write tenure and promotion letters, which are part of a professor's application for tenure. On Friday, the American Association of University Professors sent Wise a letter outlining their concerns with the UI's "aborting" of Salaita's appointment.

"No one really is sure what the long-term effect will be. That's anyone's guess," said UI math professor and department chair Matthew Ando. His department plans to advertise for a faculty position in the coming weeks.

"It's a very complex situation which could have all kinds of implications. It's going to take time to see how that's going to work out," he said.

Michael Rothberg, professor and chair of the UI English department, said he is certain the boycotts will have an adverse effect on his department, home to about 50 tenured or tenure-track faculty.

Rothberg said several faculty at other schools who have written tenure and promotion letters for the department are among more than 250 English professors around the country who have signed a boycott statement.

"Without those kinds of letters of evaluation, we cannot hire new faculty or promote colleagues already on staff. Equally serious is the damage to our reputation: how will anyone trust any job offer we make in the future? Who would want to work at a university that does not respect the free speech of its faculty?"

Over in the philosophy department, a majority of its events for the fall have been canceled as a result of the academic boycotts. Campus administrators approved two faculty searches and department chair Kirk Sanders said he does not know what the effect will be on those searches or the department's ongoing efforts to recruit and retain senior faculty.

"As I wrote to Chancellor Wise in an earlier letter, I am personally at a loss as to how I might honestly assuage the inevitable concerns of potential job candidates regarding the University of Illinois' commitment to academic freedom, fundamental principles of shared governance and the integrity of the established procedures regarding hiring and promotion," Sanders said.

The department's vote of no confidence in Wise followed the move by the American Indian Studies program. The vote of no confidence approved by philosophy faculty not only scolded Wise, but added Easter and the board of trustees to the list. Last week, the Department of Asian American Studies also cast a vote of no confidence in the chancellor and the trustees.

'Completely out of control'

But not everyone on campus has lined up against the administration.

Given the university and campus' history of administrative turnover (President B. Joseph White resigned in 2009 and Chancellor Richard Herman followed soon after due to the admissions scandal and President Michael Hogan resigned in 2012 after 1.5 years after butting heads with faculty), what would getting rid of another chancellor accomplish, asked UI education professor Nicholas Burbules.

And going department by department to gather votes of no confidence is an "ill-considered strategy, if it's a strategy at all. It seems more like a lashing," he said.

"I know there are big arguments about this (Salaita) decision, and ... those arguments deserve an airing. Those arguments are legitimate. But lashing out against the chancellor, who has been a supporter of inclusiveness on campus, who has been unusually effective ... who is being painted as a Joe McCarthy, a killer of the first amendment, a violator of the constitution ... it's gotten completely out of control," Burbules said.

As for the boycott, who's punished by it? Primarily, faculty in departments who, on the whole, are relatively sympathetic to Salaita, Burbules said. He wondered: Is the best way to resolve these issues through a boycott — or any action that draws sharp ultimatums?

And what would happen if the decision was reversed and Salaita came here?

"We would be having just the argument we are having now, over and over and over again. The divisions, on campus and off campus, wouldn't go away or die down in intensity. We would just be dealing with the consequences for a much longer period of time," Burbules said.

"I never thought, and I'm not sure anybody ever thought we'd be at this point, at this time, following the initial decision. I've personally been through a lot of issues and conflicts, and have been in the middle of a lot of them, and I never felt as discouraged and disappointed about how people are acting. And I don't know how we get out of it," Burbules said.

Robert Warrior, director of the American Indian Studies Program, said his time on the Urbana campus has always been made difficult by administrative decisions, "especially surrounding ways in which Native American voices have been largely treated as unimportant, as being shrill and unreasonable by so many people around the upper administration and among high-powered donors and alumni around university. And because of the former sports mascot, this has never been a friendly place to me.

"But one thing that has always made me very thankful for being here has been the tremendous quality of faculty, the power of the ideas that we generate together, the things we achieve by being here as faculty and colleagues."

That includes the way many faculty came together in the wake of the admissions scandal in 2009, how they continued on in their work, he said.

"My colleagues worked tremendously hard to make it better place ... Now we're paid back through this terrible result," Warrior said.

Wise on Monday told The News-Gazette she believes the way the campus recovers is by meeting with faculty and students across campus. And as for the boycott's effect on recruiting, she said she hopes it won't have any.

President search

The Salaita case and the ensuing publicity have come while the university is in the middle of the search for its next president.

The search committee has indicated the university will name Easter's successor before Thanksgiving. The reason is that the next president would participate in the selection of a new chancellor for the Chicago campus. (UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares plans to step down in January 2015. Easter retires at the end of June 2015.)

Doug Beck, UI physics professor and co-chair of the search committee, declined to say specifically whether he and other members have spoken with candidates yet.

"We're really in the middle of the process. That's really all I can say about the presidential search," he said.

Beck also declined to discuss any ramifications of the Salaita case on the UI's search for its next president, saying only, "We're trying to find a president for the whole university."

At a recent meeting of the Board of Trustees' personnel and governance committee, trustee and search co-chair Pam Strobel said there's been lots of interest from potential candidates.

"We continue to give them more reason to be interested," she said.

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yates wrote on August 31, 2014 at 1:08 pm

These are supposed to be students of higher learning but they can't seem to tell free speech from hate speech. I bet Salaita never expected to have so many useful idiots at his disposal.

all for civility wrote on August 31, 2014 at 1:08 pm

I am surprsed that the director of Indian studies, who has stated that he has felt unwelcome due to the former university mascot, and has said that the culture at the university is unwelcoming and hostile to Native Americans, is not concerned that Steven Salaita's comments would create a hostile environment for students of Jewish and/or Israeli descent.    If he had the same concern for all students, he would have rescinded the employment offer himself.  

Bulldogmojo wrote on August 31, 2014 at 5:08 pm


The former mascot wasn't dropping bombs in Gaza...

I think Israel has clearly abandoned it's experienced empathy of victimization from the holocaust and has chosen to use religious rationalizations for homicide in a grossly disproportionate bombing campaign that obliterated entire nieghborhoods and whole families. If Salaita had chosen to use cautious terms about Netanyahu's murderous actions within that open air prison that IS gaza, then we would not be having this clarifying dialogue about free speech, academic freedom and their roles in our University. This matters because once you punish people for speech YOU don't like then one day it's YOUR speech on the issues YOU object to that becomes punishable.

Video: Remember once the heated war of words is over, everyone is alive to tell the tale, with bombs, not so much.

Netanyahu said "No international pressure will prevent us from acting with all power", so he's not listening either.



spangwurfelt wrote on August 31, 2014 at 9:08 pm

And so ends today's episode of Buzzword Bingo. 

all for civility wrote on September 01, 2014 at 2:09 pm



You make my point perfectly.   The mascot issue is inconsequencial compared to the situation in the mid-East.   Some UofI faculty have been outspoken about surpressing free expression about that mascot on campus.   Why would that be?   Your words:This matters because once you punish people for speech YOU don't like then one day it's YOUR speech on the issues YOU object to that becomes punishable.


Bulldogmojo wrote on September 01, 2014 at 5:09 pm


But who was fired or had their offer recinded for speaking out against the chief? No one

This "it's hate speech" crowd is dressing up their arguments in the so called greater cause of "civility" when in fact it's a ridiculous cover for punitive blasphemy policy. They practice a lot of anti-blasphemy oppression in Pakistan too. Doesn't mean we should aspire to that. As an atheist I find the coddling of those who exercise religious rationalization for homicide repugnant. Where was your cry for civility when those four little boys were blown up on the beach in gaza? And don't give me the human shield argument.  If those children were Israeli children Netanyahu would have never allowed those bombs to be dropped. It's religion's poisonous apocalyptic view manifesting itself as holy war with both sides to blame and I for one am speaking out against this insidious scourge on humanity that the "godly" adorn themselves with as religious freedom. Freedom for everyone except the deceased from the bombs and guns that is. Israel is practicing apartheid in Gaza...

“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” Nelson Mandela

Don't kid yourself folks these religious zealots are implementing blasphemy law and hitting you right in the face with it right here at the University.


SaintClarence27 wrote on September 02, 2014 at 8:09 am

Can't both be wrong? Or is everything black and white?

captaintaco wrote on September 02, 2014 at 10:09 am

I'm surprised at you.  In your comments you seem to imply that truth is relative (i.e. "This matters because once you punish people for speech YOU don't like then one day it's YOUR speech on the issues YOU object to that becomes punishable.").  Yet you condemn Israel for blowing up four little boys.  You state that truth is relative yet assume absolute truths in condemning Israel.  It can't be both.

oramahi wrote on August 31, 2014 at 2:08 pm

The problem with the chancellor is that she is not the product of UIUC and her loyalty to the overall long term wellbeing of UIUC is most likely limited.  So if the long term effect of her firing of Salaita is detrimental to UIUC, the effect on her personally is limited. Those who graduated from UIUC and those who teach at UIUC are the ones to lose the most.  The Chancellor has to come out clean and transparent and tell the UIUC community in particular and the academic community at large if donors in any way, shape or form had an effect (partially or otherwise) on her decision. Only then will we be able to tell if academic freedom is truly a bedrock principle at UIUC or it is another commodity (with relative value) in the market place of corporate America.

It is very sad how an outsider (i.e., chancellor Wise) can do so much damage to the great work of the faculty and students of UIUC. Work that took many years to accomplish!!!

jlc wrote on August 31, 2014 at 3:08 pm

It's not the backlash that's putting the university in a bad light. It's the fact that no prospective faculty member should even think about accepting a job offer unless it has already been approved by the Board of Trustees. Since that approval usually doesn't come until after the fall semester has started, that would mean no new faculty for next fall. Or the year after that, or the year after that...

Jam wrote on August 31, 2014 at 4:08 pm

What these esteemed academics do not want is the loss of their being able to say what they want, when they want,  to whom they want, and how they want.  That is the loss of academic freedom in my humble opinion.  They want the privacy of the class room to propagandize liberal thinking to the unsuspecting students coming onto the campus.  This is how liberalism has grown in America.  Professors in the liberal arts colleges are the guilty ones.  Thus the outcry.

Chancellor Wise and President Easter have basically said that some of these communications by this applicant crossed a line of decency that even they could not rationalize to be fair.

Sid Saltfork wrote on August 31, 2014 at 5:08 pm

A complete, transparent accounting of the e-mails to the chancellor from those angered by the professor's hiring should be made available to the public.  Put all of the information out there for viewing. The U of I has been known in the past for only leaking information favorable to it's image.  Given all of the recent past scandals, the university should let the citizens who fund the university know ALL the facts.  If not; the citizens will speculate on the influence that donors have on hiring.  If the professor's tweets are available, and open to interpretation; the e-mails from the donors should be also.

Rocky7 wrote on August 31, 2014 at 5:08 pm

My personal view is that the Salaita incident won’t impact faculty hiring that much.  Here is why:

1). The administration at UIUC strongly fosters and facilitates research in a way that few places do.  That’s a major drawing card and always will be. It makes UIUC a great place to be.

2). For that reason, if a candidate is weighing offers from UIUC and “East Overshoe State College,” UIUC will win regardless of the Salaita incident.

3). It is my understanding that a faculty senate committee has been assembled to resolve problems in the UIUC hiring process that will speed up the review and approval process, including early Board of Trustee review. 2014 likely will be the last year that board approvals occur in September for Fall semester faculty hires (But admittedly, one never knows).

4). In many scholarly fields, academic jobs are almost non-existent. If a candidate receives ONLY an offer from UIUC and no other offers, who would decline UIUC’s offer because of the Salaita incident? Likely the UIUC offer would be accepted.

5). Most of the new hiring involves junior faculty who arrive untenured.  Their tenure has to be earned through their performance as a member of the faculty. Many of these people will make their careers at UIUC, but some will move on for a variety of reasons, including having used UIUC as a springboard for another opportunity elsewhere. (NB> It is unclear if such junior faculty appointments require Board of Trustee review. It is likely that individuals being appointed with tenure must be reviewed by the Board of Trustees).

6). As for the threat by some faculty elsewhere not to write letters of recommendation for their graduate students or colleagues applying for a faculty appointment at UIUC, are they really going to deny a job opportunity to those with whom they supervise or work with closely and are honor-bound to try to help place them in a job? Moreover, there are other ways to assess a candidate’s credentials, track record and performance to make an evaluation at the junior level without the need of a reference letter.

7). And just how many departments at UIUC would be negatively impacted by a reference letter boycott?  If only three departments out of nearly campus 200 units voted no confidence in the chancellor, it is likely that the negative impact will be experienced at very few departments, and for the above reasons, probably none.

8). More than 50 years ago, I was offered a junior faculty appointment at an un-named university and was advised by many people that it was a mistake to go there.   Nevertheless, I took it, started publishing research papers and when it turned out badly as others predicted, I found a better opportunity and was hired because of my publication record.  That’s not uncommon in academe, and likely, some of the junior faculty hired at UIUC now and in the future, will experience something similar.

Last, it is likely, after the Salaita experience that new hires will refrain from incendiary, profanity-laced tweets and other social media posts and were probably doing so already based on plain common sense.  That’s the kind of person who likely will do well at UIUC.

In short, likely this will blow over in two months.

rsp wrote on August 31, 2014 at 10:08 pm

Suppose you want to do research, do you now have to get donor approval first? Different departments are just starting to put out notices for jobs, for next fall and getting laughed at. But it will probably blow over.

wayward wrote on August 31, 2014 at 6:08 pm

No matter what you think of Salaita, it seems naive (or perhaps disingenuous) to be surprised by the backlash. Anything the administration did in a situation like this was probably going to get a significant reaction both from inside and outside Ul.