Guest commentary: Salaita report unconvincing, inconsistent

Guest commentary: Salaita report unconvincing, inconsistent

By Peter N. Kirstein

I would like to respond to your article on Dec. 23 on the recently released undated University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure "Report on the Investigation into the Matter of Steven Salaita."

The report fails to confront directly the violation of academic freedom and viewpoint cleansing on the Urbana campus that has appropriately aroused the conscience of the academy. The report makes an unconvincing and bizarre distinction between professional and political speech in determining whether the persecuted professor, Steven Salaita, was justifiably fired from a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program.

The CAFT report validates, at least in principle, Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise's assertion that Steven Salaita's tweets reveal an unfitness to teach and serve on the faculty at UIUC: "We do believe, however, that the Chancellor has raised a legitimate question of whether his professional fitness adheres to professional standards."

Let me be clear: The American Association of University Professors does not carve out "new ground" in creating a distinction between protected political and professional speech. This is not a rhetorical game we are playing here. The 1964 "Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances," states a "faculty member's expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member's unfitness for his or her position." This blanket statement was elevated as a virtual amendment, the Fourth Interpretive Comment of 1970, of the iconic 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

The CAFT report is inconsistent. It rejects Chancellor Wise's and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees' charge of unfitness arising out of Salaita's political speech. It "renounces" the incorporation of a civility test to adjudge the fitness of a faculty member to obtain an appointment. It calls for some financial restitution to Salaita: a rather direct assertion of wrongful termination.

However, it recommends in the most general manner that another committee investigate the Salaita firing. The CAFT calls for "a body of qualified academic experts" within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to determine whether Professor Salaita was justly denied an appointment because of a lack of fitness.

While one would hope that this committee would recommend the restoration of Professor Salaita to his rightful appointment, AAUP requires that prior to a summary dismissal, that a hearing be constituted in which evidentiary processes are in play. The AAUP Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure is explicit on procedural due process safeguards that must precede a dismissal. The CAFT report should have stated that in the absence of such a committee, it recommends NOW the immediate restoration of Steven Salaita appointment for the spring semester.

I am also troubled that the CAFT report was selective in publishing only provocative tweets that triggered this auto-da-fe. In Appendix C, "Selection of Dr. Salaita's Tweets Provided by Counsel to the Trustees," it lists seriatim 19 tweets on the Israeli war on Gaza in the summer of 2014 that the administration claimed were inflammatory and indicative of an unfitness to serve on the faculty. Yet as I reported in a prior op-ed in The News Gazette, examples abound of Salaita tweets that are ecumenical and represent an impassioned call for reconciliation: "I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs." (July 27)

Any faculty committee that is engaged in a finding of fact should attempt to be as balanced as possible in presenting the full panoply of extramural utterances that emanated from Steven Salaita's tweets.

Let us hope that the distinction between professional and political speech in extramural utterances not see the light of day. To fire a tenured faculty member on the basis of impassioned speech during the tragedy of war merits reversal and not the parsing of rhetorical distinctions that have little documentary substance in the AAUP universe of academic freedom and shared governance.

Peter N. Kirstein, professor of history at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, is vice president of the Illinois Conference of the American Association of University Professors and is chair of the Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.