Letters oppose, support Wise on Salaita issue
CHAMPAIGN — More than 260 professors at the University of Illinois have signed a letter of support for Chancellor Phyllis Wise in response to recent no-confidence votes over the Steven Salaita hiring controversy.
An opposing letter demanding that Wise and other UI officials reinstate Salaita has gathered almost 200 professors' signatures, according to a faculty blog, and more than 17,000 people have signed a national petition along the same lines.
Meanwhile, about 40 Jewish students, faculty, staff and alumni wrote a separate letter to Wise and the UI Board of Trustees Wednesday protesting the decision not to hire Salaita, who had accepted a tenured job in the American Indian Studies Program last October and planned to teach classes this semester.
Wise last month declined to forward his appointment to trustees after Salaita posted angry and inflammatory tweets about Israel's invasion of Gaza. The chancellor said the tone of his comments were a threat to the "traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built."
Protests soon followed, with faculty groups saying the UI's actions violated academic freedom, shared governance and free speech protections.
A half-dozen UI departments have approved no-confidence votes in Wise or UI trustees; scholars have canceled scheduled appearances at the UI; professional associations have written to Wise in protest; and Salaita supporters say several thousand faculty across the country have joined a boycott of the Urbana campus.
An open letter to Wise, President Robert Easter and UI trustees, initiated last week, noted that Salaita's hiring was reviewed by American Indian Studies, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the provost's office. Their decision was overturned "without consultation or due process," violating principles of shared governance, it said.
"Recent reporting on this issue suggests that particular donors may have had an impact on this decision and that a task force will soon be charged to 'develop a new process' for situations in which the chancellor 'does not agree with a hiring decision,'" the letter says. "This seems to represent a radical departure from principles of shared governance which have been the bedrock of academic excellence on this campus."
It calls on the board and Wise to fulfill their commitment to academic freedom by "affirming that a faculty member's extramural political opinions have no place in the evaluation of that individual's scholarship, teaching, or collegiality."
The new letter backing Wise doesn't address the Salaita decision per se but is written more broadly to express "unequivocal support" for the chancellor's leadership. It's addressed to President Robert Easter and UI trustees.
Computer science Professor Roy Campbell, who chairs the campus academic senate's executive committee, drafted the letter, said Professor Michael Leroy, who helped publicize it. The online letter had 40 signatures as of Wednesday morning and 262 by 5 p.m. Thursday. The campus has about 1,800 faculty.
Some professors who signed it said they disapproved of Salaita's comments, but others who question the campus' decision say it nonetheless is "not an issue to call a no-confidence vote," said Leroy.
"My hope is that strong and broad expression of support will take the no-confidence issue off the table," he said, noting that the list includes many of the campus' most distinguished faculty who hold endowed chairs or positions of academic leadership. They include music professor Nathan Gunn; Neal Cohen, director of the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Initiative; Paul Kwiat, Bardeen professor of physics; and Carla Caceres, director of the School of Integrative Biology and professor of animal sciences.
The faculty span several colleges, many of them in engineering, physical sciences, agriculture, applied health sciences and business.
"We support Chancellor Wise because of her sense of duty, her measured judgment and her principles of collegiality, inquiry and inclusiveness. She has dedicated herself to the challenges of leadership of a land grant, public university of reputation and impact that reach beyond the boundaries of our state, to the nation and to the world," the letter says.
It concludes: "We trust her judgment and recognize that she often must make difficult decisions based on information and perspectives that cannot immediately be shared with all of us. In those extraordinary events, she always strives to help the campus community understand the context and reasoning behind decisions, and she always takes responsibility for her decisions."
Leroy said he thinks the chancellor "made the right call," but added, "More fundamentally, this university has a history over the past five years or six years of sacking leadership," referring to the resignations of presidents B. Joseph White and Michael Hogan and Chancellor Richard Herman.
"And so my concern is that if Chancellor Wise, who has proven to be a very visionary and adept leader, is somehow pushed aside, I'm concerned about what kind of individual would want to walk into this situation.
"At some point, we just have to work through our problems as a community and not throw people overboard every time there's a problem," Leroy said. "Because there will be problems going forward. Higher education is in a state of great flux and turmoil and we need a better mechanism for resolving our differences and disputes."
The letter entitled "University of Illinois Jewish Community Letter in Support of Professor Steven Salaita" was sent Wednesday to Wise and UI trustees.
"As Jewish members of this campus community, we insist that you do not speak for us in your unjust actions. In no way do Professor Salaita's words, tweets, or presence on campus make us feel unsafe, disrespected, or threatened, as your public letter indicated," the letter said.
By equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, the letter said, the administration is "disregarding a large and growing number of Jewish perspectives that oppose Israeli military occupation, settler expansion, and the assault on Palestine. We did not survive ethnic cleansing and carry on the legacy of our people to have our existence used to justify the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, or their unethical treatment when they speak out against the murder, violence, and displacement of their own people."
The UI's action deprived the campus of "an invaluable scholarly voice to help lead this community in a conversation about why as well as how to stop this from ever happening again," the letter said.
English Professor Lauren Goodlad said she signed it because "it's important that people understand that Jewish opinion is not monolithic on this topic."