Jim Dey: Salaita controversy not slowing down
With the philosophers, the Indians and the Asians putting University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise in the crosshairs, she could use some help.
On Sunday, Wise, under fire from some academics for vetoing the hiring of a controversial professor, got it.
"Chancellor Wise has chosen to stand up for the students, and we stand with, and for, her," stated "An Open Letter to the Community and Campus" published in The News-Gazette.
Local businessman Peter Fox said he and Champaign lawyer David Sholem put the statement and 140 signatures together late last week "to show (Wise) that there is a lot of support for her."
Fox said that "everybody we contacted was happy to sign" and that he expects to run a couple more ads with similar expressions of support.
"We got another couple hundred (signatures) that came in since. I think we'll end up with a couple thousand before we're done," he said.
Meanwhile, the controversy over former Virginia Tech English Professor Steven Salaita has morphed into bigger disputes.
The pro-union Campus Faculty Association is using the controversy to persuade faculty members that they need union protection while anti-union professors say union advocates' statements are illusory.
"With a union we would be having exactly the same arguments over whether academic freedom protects Salaita, over whether 'civility' is a campus value that can legitimately enter into hiring decisions." according to "No Faculty Union at Illinois" blog authors Joyce Tolliver and Nick Buburles. "... The one thing that could be different is that a union might threaten to strike over this issue. Is that what CFA means when it says a union would solve this problem? If so, (it) should say it."
At the same time, the politics of the Middle East also have been broached.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel has announced it stands "in solidarity with the (UI's) Campus Faculty Association" in support of the ongoing academic boycott of the UI until Salaita is given a faculty post.
Salaita, a Palestinian-American, is a supporter of the academic boycott of Israel and a vigorous opponent of Israel. It was a string of obscenity-laden anti-Israel (some say anti-Semitic) tweets following the recent invasion of the Gaza strip that prompted Wise to withdraw the job offer.
Having resigned at Virginia Tech, Salaita was scheduled to join the UI faculty and begin teaching in late August. However, Wise objected to the uncivil tone of his tweeted statements and informed him in an Aug. 1 letter that the UI was withdrawing his job offer.
The Palestinian Campaign also stepped up its rhetoric on Salaita's behalf, pulling the "R" word out of its arsenal.
"The university's actions in this case are racist," said the campaign.
The use of language shows the different perspectives on the issue.
The American Association of University Professors has called for the UI to pay Salaita his salary during his period of suspension while the Palestinian Campaign seeks his "reinstatement."
The UI's position, of course, is that since Salaita was never hired, there's no reason to treat him as an employee facing discipline.
That dispute, of course, is the nub of the issue.
His supporters insist he has an enforceable contract, even though Salaita was informed UI trustees' approval of his contract was required. His supporters also suggest he's entitled to compensation because of the contractual concept of "promissory estoppel," relying on promises of employment to his detriment.
University of Chicago Professor Brian Leiter said it's his opinion that Salaita has an enforceable contract.
"That the offer was conditional on board approval doesn't mean the board can decide on a 'whim' not to approve it," he writes, concluding that Salaita was "at the time of the purported revocation a tenured member" of the UI faculty.
But what is a "whim" and what is good cause for Wise to decide that a person of Salaita's character is not suited for the UI? If a court decides his contract offer entitles him to the equivalent of tenured status, Salaita would be golden — free to continue to call for the murders of as many individuals as he wishes.
Although UI faculty defenders have expressed fears about their free speech rights, they continue to approve no-confidence votes against Wise and UI trustees. The Indian Studies, Philosophy and Asian-Studies departments all have condemned the Salaita non-hiring.
The Asian Studies resolution said it has "created an atmosphere of fear and retaliation for unpopular academic, political and personal pursuits." Of course, if the faculty members are not afraid to tell their bosses to take a long walk off a short pier, it's unclear just what it is that has them hiding under their desks.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 217-351-5369.