Stain removal

Stain removal

It ain't over till it's over. But the Steven Salaita controversy sure looks like it's over.

The University of Illinois can finally put to rest another meaningless controversy. Fortunately, it didn't amount to a hill of beans outside the world of academe and not very much inside it either.

But UI officials nonetheless were pleased when the American Association of University Professors recently removed the school from its censured list. The unflattering appellation was pinned on the UI in 2015 as punishment for the university's decision to withdraw a job offer to Steven Salaita, a tenured professor of English at Virginia Tech who had accepted a similar tenured position to teach American Indian Studies program here.

The prospect of Salaita joining the UI faculty created a substantial controversy after it was disclosed that Salaita frequently tweeted insulting, profanity-filled statements that grossly demeaned Israel and those who support that embattled Middle Eastern country.

As an American of Palestinian descent, Salaita has great animus for Israel, and understandably so. A 1947 war led to the establishment and recognition of Israel, displacing many thousands of Palestinians who included Salaita family members.

That controversy seems long ago now. But it was just in August 2014 when former UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise, urged on by UI trustees who included Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christopher Kennedy, withdrew the job offer to Salaita. It occurred shortly before Salaita was scheduled to join the faculty for the fall semester. It was particularly bad timing for the professor who resigned his job in Virginia and was in the process of moving to Illinois.

That set off a campus controversy over Wise's decision that included considerable public hand-wringing by some members of the UI.

Salaita ultimately filed a lawsuit against the UI over what he described as his termination. He alleged the UI violated his right to freedom of speech and academic freedom. At the same time, UI officials contended that they had second thoughts about hiring someone of Salaita's character and judgment and withdrew a contract offer that had not yet been approved by the trustees.

The legal question — was the dispute a question of contract law or a constitutional issue of a professor's right to free speech — was never resolved in the courts. The UI and Salaita agreed to settle the issue out of court for $875,000.

In reaching the decision to recommend withdrawal of the censure, the AAUP sent Illinois Wesleyan philosophy Professor Mark Criley to conduct a campus review.

Based on Criley's "exhaustive" report, Anita Levy, the organization's senior program officer for Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, found the academic climate for academic freedom to be "robust." That was no great surprise. It almost always is.

There are glaring exceptions, of course.

One recent blot on the UI's reputation, one that received statewide attention, was the disgracefully successful effort by a faculty ideologue to block a planned speech on cancer research by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Alas, the faculty members who were so agitated by the Salaita episode were conspicuously silent about the cancellation of a talk by Dr. James Watson, an esteemed 89-year-old molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist.

It seems that some people believe in free speech and academic freedom right up to the minute when they don't. At the same time, others believe in it all the time, unless, of course, they decide to knuckle under to vociferous blocs of the faculty who think they should get to pick and choose who gets to say what.

But that issue is a bit off the topic, which is repeal of the Salaita censure.

The UI has taken a step to ensure that an episode like this does not happen again. That includes, most notably, taking steps to ensure that faculty hirings are approved by the UI board before prospective employees begin work.

Why it was ever done otherwise — approving employment after they begin work — is hard to fathom.

So the Salaita matter is officially over. It will live on in university lore.

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