Critics of Wise, Easter off base

Critics of Wise, Easter off base

The campus community should feel free to discuss the Steven Salaita controversy, but no-confidence votes on top administrators are not justified.

Accepting the view of their recent critics requires a decidedly low opinion of University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise and President Robert Easter.

We share no such opinion.

Quite the contrary; while we may see some issues differently, both Easter and Wise seem clear in their dedication both to the best interests of the university and to the most honorable traditions of the academy. As recently as a few weeks ago, it might have been hard to find anyone who felt differently.

The difference is the odd case of Steven Salaita, a little-known English professor from Virginia Tech who propelled himself onto a national stage with a series of outbursts denouncing Israel on the social media platform Twitter. The terse broadsides were notable not for the opinions they represented so much as for Salaita's crude manner of expressing them. At best, Salaita seemed a foul-mouthed polemicist preferring the crude invective of the alley to the rational debate of the academy. At worst, some saw them as anti-Semitic, even threatening.

Moreover, they became widely known after Salaita had been recommended for the tenured faculty position teaching American Indian Studies at the UI and before that recommendation had been accepted by the school's board of trustees. Wise was deluged with objections from alumni, donors, faculty and students.

Wise concluded the board would reject anyone given to violent and obscene expression to castigate those who do not share his views, that such rhetorical devices are not just insulting and disrespectful but inconsistent with the university's goal of pursuing reasoned and civil exchanges of views. The UI ought to be better than that. She decided not to forward the contract to the trustees, explaining later that she was certain of the board's intention, and she thought it best to inform the candidate as soon as possible rather than wait for a board vote after classes already had started.

Cries of foul erupted first among those who had selected Salaita and subsequently among like-minded faculty and students. Wise, they said, had trod upon academic freedom, the right of free speech and the principles of shared governance — all central tenets of higher education. At last count, six university departments had expressed votes of no confidence in their chancellor.

Their cause went national, echoed by academics at other schools who share Salaita's views on Israel and the Palestinians, an increasingly chic cause among the far left.

It matters not that this is still a very small percentage of the university community, and that equal numbers have stepped forward in support of Wise — including Easter and the trustees.

The charges are serious, and they merit serious discussion on a college campus and elsewhere.

But as applied to Salaita's case, they seem wanting.

That certainly is the case with regard to the professor's right of free speech. He was and remains free to speak as he chooses. But there is no right to speak with impunity. Free speech comes with consequences — from reasoned debate to a punch in the nose. Journalists lose jobs for exercising free speech. Authors lose publishers. Entertainers lose audiences. All risk civil litigation. Salaita spoke, and others spoke back, persuasively, to express both fear and disdain.

And what of academic freedom? Central it may be; clear it is not. How far does it extend beyond the classroom? Salaita wasn't teaching anything to anyone anywhere when he chose to unleash his outburst. He was between jobs. Are academics protected prior to their hiring, somehow — in the name of academic freedom — absolved for all they may have done in the past?

Then what of shared governance, the unique tradition of higher education that the faculty share a full seat in institutional decision-making? At the height of their rhetoric, Wise's critics claim neither she nor the university's trustees are entitled to a voice in faculty hiring decisions, despite their specified, formal roles in the process. That hardly seems shared governance. In fact, a faculty search committee can recommend; a chancellor can recommend; but only the trustees can sign an employment contract. In Salaita's case, each played the proper role.

Some like the outcome; some do not. Many could not care less. There is room to disagree, to discuss, to debate. That all is likely to continue among the cooler heads on campus, and this is as it should be.

If Salaita himself is to receive any satisfaction, it will come in a courthouse as intricacies of contract law — not academic privilege — are debated and ultimately decided.

The attacks on Wise and Easter — that they are somehow unfit to serve — will do nothing for him and nothing but sap the credibility of those who advance them. They are thoughtless, not thought-provoking, emotional knee jerks not so very much different, really, than the foolish outbursts that started the entire affair.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion

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Sid Saltfork wrote on September 07, 2014 at 8:09 am

"an increasing chic cause among the far left"?  Do the growing numbers of Americans who are critical of Israel's actions in Gaza now constitute the "far left"?   Does the current United Nations investigation of war crimes by Israel in Gaza qualify as instigated by the "far left"?   According to the one, and only newspaper in the area with ties to some of opponents of the professor, this controversy involves "the far left"?

Sadly, the "flagship university" of the State of Illinois has continued the unsavory reputation of the State of Illinois.  To non-residents of Illinois, it is just another scandal involving Illinois.  One which will end in a financial settlement to the professor.  Sadly, it will be the taxpayers of Illinois who were not involved in this fiasco paying out the settlement.  If the donors, parents, and students who orchestrated the campaign against the professor would donate the money for the settlement or court case; it would help heal this current scandal. 

A state university cannot remain creditable when wealthy donors use their influence in the university's administrative workings.  Perhaps, the best option would be for the state to allow the U of I to go independent as a private university.  This would allow the rest of the taxpayers to not bear the expenses of the university, and allow the donors to run it however they choose.

ChampionSparkPlug wrote on September 07, 2014 at 10:09 am

Please, please, please.  Going back at least to the 1973 Yom Kippur War (you remember, don't you, when Egypt, Syria and Jordan attacked Israel for the umpteenth time?), the left-wing in this country, and even more so in Western Europe, has characterized Israel as the greatest evil in the world and put themselves in the service of the Palestinian cause - the Palestinian-as-victim narrative.  The academic left in Europe and increasingly over time in America have been mainstays of that movement.  For the "left", no act of Palestinian terror against Israelis and others, including Americans, could not be excused on the basis of the Palestinian victimhood narrative.  The left simply blamed Israel for the terror perpetrated by the Palestinians.  At root, the left, furthering the Palestinian victimhood theme, simply desired a reversal of the result the 1948 War of Independence (six Arab armies frustrated in their attempt to push the Jews into the sea).  The left focuses on the Palestinian narrative to the exclusion of other peoples in this world who endure a miserable daily existence and lack of hope.  Where are the boycott movements directed somewhere other than Israel on behalf of these peoples?  Get the picture?  Their focus is on Jews.  Yes, even lefties who are Jews love to take on Israel.  Go figure.  Simply peruse the pages of "The Nation" or "The Progressive" to see this phenomenon at work.

So, please don't be surprised by this opinion piece's reference to the left and the left's preoccupation with only one place on earth where there is conflict among peoples sharing the same space. 

Finally, your reference to the UN is humorously ludicrous.  The UN and all of its various bodies, especially their Human Rights hypocrites, hate Israel.  They find it impossible to conduct an honest impartial investigation of anything involving the State of Israel.  Just look at the UN agency that administers the camps in Lebanon and Gaza.  In Gaza, they are Hamas' subsidizers and government administrators - financed mostly with US taxpayers' money.

dlgreen50 wrote on September 07, 2014 at 12:09 pm

The 1973 war was the one and only time that Arab countries actually initiated the war. In 1948, 1956, 1967, 1982, etc. it was Israel.

In 1971, Sadat offered to Israel everything that was ultimately achieved at Camp David in 1979. Israel (and Kissinger) rejected it. Egypt did not attack Israel, but Israeli forces in the occupied Sinai region of Egypt. Israeli and Amerian rejection of Sadat's offer ultimately caused the risk of nuclear war.

The U.S. has consistently vetoed or ignored UN efforts to bring a just settlement. -- David Green



dlgreen50 wrote on September 07, 2014 at 9:09 am

Sid, I appreciate your general perspective, but I could not care less about "reputation." Every public university in this country has a well-deserved reputation of doing the bidding of the 1%. This high-tech lynching is just one manifestation of that. -- David Green

sgdavis wrote on September 07, 2014 at 10:09 am

The op-ed writers says "And what of academic freedom? Central it may be; clear it is not. How far does it extend beyond the classroom?"

Has the writer read  the Statutes of the University of Illinois?  Read anything on academic freedom at all?  Like the statements of the American Association of University Professors, which  UIUC claims to adhere to and follow?

Or are you just shootin' from the hip here? 



CZI wrote on September 07, 2014 at 10:09 am

This is an ignorant editorial which betrays complete lack of knowledge of the process of hiring at the UI even though that process has been covered in the News Gazette's own report.

It is not a single hiring committee that makes a decision about a tenured hire: that committee gathers external expert opinion from outside the university and then, based on those opinions and the unit's own vote, makes a recommendation to the College (in this case Liberal Arts and Sciences).  After a multidisciplinary Promotion and Tenure committee approves it for the College and the Dean of LAS looks it over, the case moves on to a similar committee for the Provost's office.  It is only when approved by the Provost--the chief academic officer of each UI campus--that an offer is made.  An offer is made at that point because it's at this point that due diligence has been done.  The process by that point has involved the scrutiny of dozens of faculty members including outside experts--people who are the closest to the merits of the case in question.  The rest is purely formulaic which is why for years the Chancellor/President's forwarding of the approved case to the Board of Trustees has taken place *after* the faculty member has already begun to teach and get paid.  

No one wants to attack Wise or Easter or the Board.  But Wise manifestly broke the rules and--thanks to the documents that your own paper FOIAd--appears to have done so becasue of outside pressure and in dialogue only with people involved in fundraising.  She herself now regrets not having consulted more widely.  She interfered with an academic decision and did so, apparently, without consulting any of the people who are responsible for making academic decisions.  The President and the Board wrote a massmail publicly upholding her actions and putting forth a silly doctrine about "civility" trumping speech in order to preserve debate which has made the university a laughingstock.  Their mails did not even mention shared governance because, had they done so, the mails would have been even more ridiculous.  

Let's put it this way: either you support academic freedom as defined by the AAUP (as the UI's offer letters state that it does) or you do not.  Officially, UI does support it but the Chancellor has disregarded it.  

Same goes for shared governance: either you support it or you don't.  If there's a thorny question about academic freedom then the principles of shared governance dictate that you resolve the question through the shared decision-making of the faculty and the relevant (academic) parts of the administration: not the Chancellor, not the President, not the Board.  

Anyone who simply "supports Wise' or supports Easter for supporting Wise yet claims to care about the university's avowed commitments to shared governance and academic freedom is just ignoring the facts of the case.  Your editorial is ignoring the facts of the case.

Do the people who write editorials for the News Gazette actually read the News Gazette?  One could not tell for this morning's editorial.




rsp wrote on September 07, 2014 at 11:09 am

From what I've read elsewhere the "civility doctrine" is more about trying to dodge prior court opinions. Some of the emails appearently were to lawyers and some of the names blocked out were lawyers. Legal consults don't have to be released. Too bad they gave bad advice.

Good advice might have been to look into are the emails telling the truth. Some cited The Daily Caller, the same guy there who also ran a column on the best looking teacher to sexually assault their student. In fact, the News Gazette also refered to The Daily Caller. That's like trolling the Enquirer for news stories.

freedomofspeech wrote on September 07, 2014 at 2:09 pm

If Salaita is not reinstated, the University of Illinois will find it more difficult to hire senior professors from other universities. Here's what the "Salaita affair" looks like to many academics outside of the University of Illinois:

Salaita gave up a tenured position at another university and moved across the country with his family on the assurance that the trustees' approval of his appointment was a rubber stamp. Before the vote took place, he made some strongly-worded comments about a controversial war, and some students and wealthy alumni complained. The University decided that the rubber stamp approval was not a rubber stamp after all. Salaita is now without a job and without health insurance for his family.

The message of the decision to "un-hire" Salaita is that the University of Illinois cannot be trusted when it says that the trustees' approval is pro forma. When the University makes an offer to a senior professor at another institution, it is asking that professor to spend close to a year (the time between the resignation of their current post and the trustees' vote) with no job security. The future of their career and the well-being of their family will be up to the whims of wealthy donors, who may decide they don't like the professor's political views.