In her first public statement about Professor Steven Salaita, University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise said her decision to not forward his appointment to trustees for formal approval was not influenced by his criticism of Israel.
Updated 2:45 p.m.
URBANA — In her first public statement about Professor Steven Salaita, University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise said her decision to not forward his appointment to trustees for formal approval was not influenced by his criticism of Israel.
The university, she said, cannot tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”
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“We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals. A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education,” Wise sent in a mass e-mail to the campus community Friday afternoon.
UI President Robert Easter, senior administrators, the Board of Trustees and the head of the University Senates Conference issued a statement of "unwavering support" for Wise Friday afternoon.
Wise's statement comes on the Friday before the start of the 2014-2015 school year. Salaita accepted an offer to teach at the UI in October and was expected to officially become a UI employee on Aug. 16, when the academic school year kicks off. On Aug. 1, Wise and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre informed Salaita that his appointment would not be forwarded to trustees for formal approval after conservative bloggers criticized Salaita’s angry tweets about Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
Since then, pressure from the academic community has been mounting. More than 15,000 people signed a petition on change.org demanding Chancellor Wise reinstate Salaita. A range of other petitions have been circulating, including one signed by over 2,000 scholars in which they pledged to boycott speaking at any conferences or public events at the university due to Salaita’s treatment. Earlier this week University of Delaware professor David Blacker cancelled a talk he was to deliver about universal education later this month as part of the UI’s Miller/Com lecture series. The UI’s Education Justice Project also canceled an upcoming conference, “Strategies for Action National Conference on Higher Education in Prison.” The Illinois AAUP also has criticized the university’s action and said it stood by Salaita’s “right to engage in extramural utterances.”
In Easter's statement Friday, he said the university community "values civility as much as scholarship."
"Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university," the statement said.
Salaita, formerly a professor at Virginia Tech, is the author of books on several different topics, from Arab American fiction to “Israel’s Dead Soul,” a criticism of Zionism. He was offered a tenured faculty position in the UI’s American Indian Studies Program in October. His salary was to be $85,000.
Salaita has been outspoken in support of Palestinians in essays and on social media. Since the Israel invasion of Gaza, his online rhetoric has drawn some criticism. In July he tweeted, “(Expletive) you, #Israel. And while I’m at it, (expletive) you, too, PA, Sisi, Arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS.” About the Israeli prime minister, he tweeted: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza”
Back in July spokeswoman Robin Kaler said faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, “and we recognize the freedom of speech rights of all of our employees.”
University officials have refused comment since the Aug. 1 letter.
Here is Wise’s statement in full:
As you may be aware, Vice President Christophe Pierre and I wrote to Prof. Steven Salaita on Aug. 1, informing him of the university’s decision not to recommend further action by the Board of Trustees concerning his potential appointment to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Since this decision, many of you have expressed your concern about its potential impact on academic freedom. I want to assure you in the strongest possible terms that all of us — my administration, the university administration and I — absolutely are committed to this bedrock principle. I began my career as a scientist challenging accepted ideas and pre-conceived notions, and I have continued during my career to invite and encourage such debates in all aspects of university life.
A pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas. One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives. Robust – and even intense and provocative – debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university.
As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.
The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel. Our university is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy. Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate.
What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.
As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner.
A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.
As a member of the faculty, I firmly believe that a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois is a tremendous honor and a unique privilege. Tenure also brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.
I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.
Phyllis M. Wise
Here is the full statement from Easter and other top UI officials:
Earlier today, you received a thoughtful statement from Chancellor Phyllis Wise regarding the university’s decision not to recommend Prof. Steven Salaita for a tenured faculty position on the Urbana-Champaign campus.
In her statement, Chancellor Wise reaffirmed her commitment to academic freedom and to fostering an environment that encourages diverging opinions, robust debate and challenging conventional norms. Those principles have been at the heart of the university’s mission for nearly 150 years, and have fueled its rise as a world leader in education and innovation.
But, as she noted, our excellence is also rooted in another guiding principle that is just as fundamental. Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.
We agree, and write today to add our collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights – these are the same core values which have guided this institution since its founding.
In the end, the University of Illinois will never be measured simply by the number of world-changing engineers, thoughtful philosophers or great artists we produce. We also have a responsibility to develop productive citizens of our democracy. As a nation, we are only as strong as the next generation of participants in the public sphere. The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multi-cultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.
Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.
Chancellor Wise is an outstanding administrator, leader and teacher. Her academic career has been built on her commitment to promoting academic freedom and creating a welcoming environment for students and faculty alike. We stand with her today and will be with her tomorrow as she devotes her considerable talent and energy to serving our students, our faculty and staff, and our society.
We look forward to working closely with Chancellor Wise and all of you to ensure that our university is recognized both for its commitment to academic freedom and as a national model of leading-edge scholarship framed in respect and courtesy.
Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees
Robert A. Easter, President
Hannah Cave, Trustee
Ricardo Estrada, Trustee
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee
Lucas N. Frye, Trustee
Karen Hasara, Trustee
Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee
Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee
Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee
Edward L. McMillan, Trustee
James D. Montgomery, Trustee
Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee
Paula Allen-Meares, Chancellor, Chicago campus, and Vice President, University of Illinois
Susan J. Koch, Chancellor, Springfield campus, and Vice President, University of Illinois
Donald A. Chambers, Professor of Physiology and Biochemistry; Chair, University Senates Conference
Jerry Bauman, Interim Vice President for Health Affairs
Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel
Thomas P. Hardy, Executive Director for University Relations
Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University
Walter K. Knorr, VP/Chief Financial Officer and Comptroller
Christophe Pierre, Vice President for Academic Affairs
Lawrence B. Schook, Vice President for Research
Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees