Students voice contrary views on Salaita controversy
URBANA — In Chancellor Phyllis Wise's presence, University of Illinois students on Wednesday night jumped into the tug-of-war debate over administrators halting the appointment of would-be American Indian Studies Professor Steven Salaita.
Gathering on opposite sides of the Illini Union's Pine Lounge, some called for his reinstatement while others backed the decision to keep his appointment from going to the university's board of trustees. Meanwhile, Wise expressed regret not in the decision, but how it was made.
Wise informed Salaita last month that his appointment was not likely to be approved. The decision came after the University of Illinois professor-to-be posted profanity-laden messages on Twitter regarding the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza.
"I, in hindsight, wish I had been a little more deliberate and consulted with more people before that decision," Wise told the Illinois Student Senate and members of the campus community who had gathered for the meeting.
The student senate is working on taking their official stand in the matter. Student body President Mitch Dickey presented his statement to the other senators, which heavily favored the administration's decision.
"We support the chancellor's decision," Dickey said in characterizing the statement he asked other students to support. "We support the decision of the revocation of the hiring of Steven Salaita for the core reason outlined in the Inclusive Illinois statement: creating a respectable work and learning environment for all our identities on campus."
Dickey said the debate at hand goes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issues that have been at the center of this particular controversy, and "it applies to any identity that could have possibly been attacked or made statements about in a derogatory way."
That being said, he understands the students are very split.
"It's really a polarizing issue," Dickey said. "There's some students who believe that it was in poor taste, the decision was in poor taste and also against his freedoms, his academic and speech freedoms. And then there's other students who agree that this is creating an environment for students that would be unsafe for a respectable work environment. It's really a mix between the two."
That dichotomy was both visibly and audibly apparent during Wednesday night's meeting, where dozens of students gathered to voice their opinion to the chancellor and the student representatives.
"This issue is extremely clear," said senior Josh Cooper. "This is not about politics, donors or academic freedom. ... This is an issue concerning hate speech, bullying and the incitement of violence toward others."
Cooper said students admire Wise's courage and leadership.
"When you stand up, we stand up with you," he said.
Other students, however, disavowed Wise's decision.
"You do not do this in our name," said doctoral student Alicia Kozma.
She cited dozens of campus faculty and thousands who signed a public petition condemning Salaita's dismissal and said that shutting students out of global conversations does them no good.
"I know UIUC students are willing to participate in the contentious conversation you pay only lip service to," Kozma said.
Supporters of Steven Salaita have organized a "National Day of Silence" on Tuesday, including a classroom walk-out, to protest the university's "un-hiring" of the American Indian Studies professor.
Organizers posted information on Facebook asking students to join in a silent protest "of this attack on students' academic freedom and free speech." Participants are encouraged to stage a "civil" walk-out from their classes and gather on the UI Quad from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday.
They're asked to cover their mouths with a sideways Illini "I" with one of the following hashtags on it: #ReinstateSalaita, #Salaita, #UIStudents4Salaita, #BoycottUIUC or #RestoreAcademicFreedom.
Stephanie Skora also said challenging viewpoints are important in academic settings, and that "comfort and personal views must be something that can be checked at the door of a classroom."
She also suggested that the university board of trustees' apparent unwillingness to approve of Salaita's appointment was a political decision.
"When the politics of 11 extremely wealthy individuals are allowed to dictate who and who cannot teach us as students at a world class university, something needs to change," Skora said.