Jim Dey: Is it really that bad on campus?
President Franklin Roosevelt told a nation in the depths of the Great Depression that the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
As he prepared to implement his New Deal program with a compliant Congress, FDR was trying to buck up the country that needed an emotional lift.
Now his words bear repeating to some segments of the University of Illinois faculty as they try to cope with their great depression over the non-hiring of former Virginia Tech English Professor Steven Salaita.
Their despondence is heart-rending.
"The firing of Salaita has created an atmosphere of fear and retaliation for unpopular academic, political and personal pursuits," members of the UI's Asian-American Studies Department stated in a no-confidence resolution aimed at Chancellor Phyllis Wise.
"We fear that the reputation of the (UI) as a site of scholarly excellence and diverse viewpoints will suffer permanent damage," the UI's English Department stated in its no-confidence vote on Wise.
The philosophers in the UI's Philosophy Department expressed similar concerns because Wise's decision to withdraw a job offer to Salaita "betray(s) a culpable (palpable would be a better adjective) disregard not only for academic freedom and free speech generally ..." but shared governance.
They are, to borrow a word from Huck Finn, pretty much "afeard" of everything.
Is it really that bad on campus? Are members of an oppressed professoriate really about to be ground under by hard-hearted chancellor, president and trustees determined to punish their "academic, political and personal pursuits"? Or are those claims just so much hand-wringing by a bunch of overexcited drama queens who've been consuming too much of their own rhetoric.
Clearly, it's the latter.
Just by virtue of the peculiar circumstances of this controversy, the Salaita non-hiring really has little to do with anything that has occurred or will occur on campus. Between jobs, Salaita failed to take a leave of absence from Virginia Tech, an ill-advised decision that left him in no man's land when his obscenity-laden tweets drew the disapproving attention of Chancellor Wise.
Who on campus is in such a vulnerable position? If there is someone, what are they saying or doing that would draw administrative disapproval? Assuming those unique conditions are met, what authority would anyone up the food chain have to punish them, given the protections that go with their jobs?
"Faculty members have nothing to fear in an institution like this," said Cary Nelson, an emeritus professor of English. "They are free to express their opinions. They have nothing to worry about in that regard."
So what are they afraid of?
"The dominant emotion coming from faculty throughout the country is fear. I think it doesn't matter what the subject matter is — they're always afraid," said Nelson, who said concerns range from big issues to being "afraid they will lose their parking place."
Nelson clearly isn't afraid. He has been the target of critics who object to his support for Wise's decision on Salaita. But he continues to speak out on the controversy, calling the decision by four departments (English, American Indian Studies, Asian-American Studies and philosophy) to call for Wise's firing short-sighted.
Faculty members can get themselves in hot water. There was the case in the 1960s when a faculty member wrote a letter to the Daily Illini expressing support for pre-marital sex, a stance that conflicted with cultural mores and led to his ouster. More recently, a member of the engineering faculty was fired after years of administrative battles with his department leaders.
Other than that, where is this widespread intolerance manifesting itself?
"I see no evidence of people being punished or silenced," said UI faculty member Nick Burbules, who describes the reaction of some faculty members to the Salaita controversy as out of proportion to what occurred.
Burbules said he understands why some faculty members disagree with Wise's decision and that it's appropriate to discuss and debate the issue. But he said the best place for that is in the open before the faculty senate, of which he is a member, not in closed debates with undisclosed votes in individual departments.
"That is a short map to chaos," Burbules said.
He said the senate will set its agenda Sept. 15 and that he expects representatives of the American Indian Studies Program to ask for a Salaita discussion to be held at a Sept. 22 meeting.
Practical questions arise about these no-confidence votes:
Who would fire Chancellor Wise? The trustees who have publicly backed her decision?
Who would oust the trustees? The governor who appointed them?
More important, how far will these no-confidence votes go? Is engineering going to get aboard? Or business? How about the hard sciences?
"I would say it won't spread out of the humanities," Nelson predicted.
With Christopher Kennedy, the chairman of the board of trustees, reaffirming his support for Wise's decision earlier this week, it's unlikely anything except theatrics will come out of the no-confidence crusade.
Salaita's best options lie in a lawsuit or a settlement to avoid a lawsuit that addresses complicated contractual or constitutional issues.
Until that happens, beleaguered faculty members will to have be content by loudly complaining that they fear their free speech rights are in jeopardy.
Don't be fooled by their rambunctious zeal. They're afraid, very afraid.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.