Chancellor says UI must fix 'errors' in hiring process
Chancellor Phyllis Wise said Wednesday that the university is moving to correct "errors" in the hiring process that contributed to the uproar over the Steven Salaita case.
Wise also said she plans to continue meeting with faculty across campus to try to heal the rift created by the decision not to act on the appointment of Salaita, who'd been expected to start teaching American Indian Studies courses this fall.
Meanwhile, the Department of History became the latest unit on campus to declare its lack of confidence in the UI Board of Trustees, President Bob Easter and Wise, calling on them to reverse the decision and reinstate Salaita.
Salaita was offered a full-time position as an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the UI last October, subject to trustee approval. But last month, Wise and Vice President Christophe Pierre said Salaita's appointment would not be forwarded to the board for formal approval.
The move followed an outcry over Salaita's profanity-rich social media posts in which he blasted Israel and its supporters in the wake of Israel's invasion of Gaza.
Wealthy alumni, students, parents and others wrote to Wise to object to his hiring, with some threatening to withhold financial support of the university if he joined the faculty. Salaita was a Virginia Tech professor until he resigned last year after he accepted the offer from the UI.
Wise had said her decision was based on concern for the students, campus and community. The board, as well as President Bob Easter, expressed "unwavering support" for Wise.
But the statement sparked outrage among some faculty on the Urbana campus and at other universities. Some scholars canceled their talks as part of an academic boycott of the university.
Wise told The News-Gazette she has no plans to alter her decision, but said "there have been some errors in the process. People are on campus and working before their appointments are approved by the board. We need to correct that."
Addressing critics at the Illinois Student Senate meeting Wednesday, Wise said allowing the decision to go to the board of trustees was one choice, but informing Salaita that his appointment was not likely was the more "humane" choice in the matter. He was due to begin the school year in August, and the next trustees meeting was not until September.
But she admitted she wished she had sought more consultation before writing that letter.
"I think we need to go over the processes that I should go through in instances like this," Wise said.
She also thinks university officials should review and consider spelling out what is and is not in the realm of academic freedom.
"There's no hard and fast policy, and I think that one of the good things that can come out of that is a really active discussion, symposia, workshops, seminars on what is considered academic freedom and what is considered freedom of speech in light of digital media," Wise said.
Wise said she's been surprised by the extent of the reaction to her decision.
"I want to bring the campus back together," she said.
Wise said she'd been planning to conduct a new "Listening and Learning" tour this fall to discuss a number of issues, as she did after being hired in 2011. The Salaita case, she said, "is the elephant in the room."
Wise has already met with several professors and students to discuss the case, and she spoke with college deans on Wednesday about attending upcoming faculty meetings in their units.
"So far I've been welcomed," she said. "I hope the conversation will be open and fair. ... I hope faculty will embrace the idea that this is not an easy issue."
In the end, she hopes those of different viewpoints can find some middle ground in the vigorous debate.
"I certainly hope that these kinds of discussions will make people realize that there's some very different opinions," Wise said at the senate meeting. "It would be really, really good if we use this challenge as an opportunity to really bring people's voices together so that we can understand each other even better."
The History Department's resolution follows votes by several other departments voicing concern about administration overriding faculty decisions and violating principles of shared governance, academic freedom and freedom of speech.
The resolution said that academic freedom and "a commitment to fairness and transparency in all academic procedures and practices, including faculty hires, form the foundations of the American public higher educational system."
It said Wise's explanation of her action in the name of civility threatens to "undermine the protection of tenure and the right to free speech, and obscures the role played in this decision by political pressure."
Department Chairwoman Diane Koenker declined to discuss the vote. The department has almost 50 full-time faculty members, plus lecturers, visiting professors, emeritus professors and affiliated faculty, according to its website. It was unclear how many took part in Wednesday's vote.
UI trustees did not address the issue at two committee meetings Wednesday dealing with budgetary and hospital matters. Board members attended via videoconference from Chicago and Rockford.