Critics target chancellor

 

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American Indian Studies professor is requesting that no-confidence vote be held against Wise

URBANA — Critics of the university's decision to not hire Professor Steven Salaita have ramped up their efforts in recent days, seeking support for a no-confidence vote in the chancellor, soliciting donations for Salaita and adding names to the growing academic boycott.

Meanwhile, supporters of University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise are coming to her defense, saying the situation has gotten "out of hand."

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On Monday, an American Indian Studies professor asked the Senate Executive Committee, a group of mostly faculty leaders on the Urbana campus's Academic Senate, to hold a no-confidence vote on the chancellor.

On Friday, faculty in the department that would have been Salaita's home approved a vote of no confidence and have been asking other departments to support their action.

The Senate committee did not take any action on Monday; chairman Roy Campbell said any such proposal would need to be on the agenda in advance of the meeting, per the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

"No unit or department, indeed, no individual faculty member should be treated the way Chancellor Wise has mistreated our unit and our academic field in the matter involving the hiring/firing of Professor Steven Salaita," Professor Vicente Diaz wrote to Campbell seeking the vote of no confidence.

The university's decision to not forward Salaita's appointment to the board of trustees for formal approval, after a faculty search committee recommended his hiring, was "an enormous blow" to the UI's American Indian Studies program, director Robert Warrior told The News-Gazette on Monday.

"I think our faculty, by our vote of no confidence, has certainly said what we think about the leadership of the chancellor at this point. I don't think that good decisions are being made at the top, that good advice is being sought or given," he said.

"This is shocking to me that the people who are responsible for the flagship educational institution of the state of Illinois ... have apparently decided that they don't believe in dissent," Warrior said.

Warrior did not sit on the search committee that recommended Salaita, but he was on Salaita's dissertation committee at the University of Oklahoma when he was a faculty member there and Salaita was a Ph.D. student. Warrior said Salaita has a reputation for innovative, quality scholarship in a range of areas, including Native American studies and Arab American studies, and he has an excellent record as a teacher and in developing curriculum.

Salaita, formerly a professor at Virginia Tech, has been outspoken in support of Palestinians in essays and on social media. Following Israel's invasion of Gaza, he often took to Twitter to express his anger about the invasion. His posts drew the ire of conservative bloggers and media across the country in July. In the wake of those tweets and the media attention to them, he was notified on Aug. 1 that although the UI offered him a job — and he accepted it — in October, his appointment would not formally go to the trustees next month. He was in the process of moving to Champaign-Urbana.

Since then, an academic boycott of the UI was launched and most recently his supporters created a website, http://supportstevensalaita.com, to drum up support and solicit financial donations.

Among those who have canceled talks at the UI is Allen Isaacman, a history professor at the University of Minnesota. He said he's called off his visit to campus later this month about South Africa because of the university's treatment of Salaita and James Kilgore, a nontenure-track faculty member whose future employment is being reviewed by administrators following media attention to his background as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s.

"I had no alternative," Isaacman said. "If you believe in academic freedom, including the right to hold ideas, particularly ideas that are not necessarily popular, it's essential people speak out against the chancellor in this decision. The University of Illinois is a world-class institution. I have many colleagues and friends there. I have the highest regard for them, and it is because of them and their situation and because I support the principle of academic freedom, I had no choice but to withdraw," Isaacman said.

In response to the vote by the American Indian Studies faculty, Michael Rothberg, chairman of the UI's English Department and director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies Initiative, has written to Wise to share his concerns about the Salaita case and damage to the reputation of the university by the rescinding of Salaita's job.

"Members of the (English) department will be meeting very soon to discuss what, if any, statements we may want to make or actions we may want to take in the wake of the decision to rescind Steven Salaita's job offer. I suspect other departments will be doing the same," Rothberg said.

Wise attended Monday afternoon's meeting with the Senate and echoed her statement issued Friday. The university, she said, cannot tolerate "personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. ... 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," she said.

Given the academic boycott and talk of no-confidence votes, Wise said she and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida plan to meet with as many faculty across campus as quickly as they can. She also has scheduled meetings with the student senate to discuss the matter.

"I welcome the views of the whole community, the academic community and the community around us," Wise told The News-Gazette after the meeting.

As for the academic boycott, she believes it will likely have some short-term effect, such as speakers canceling lectures, but "I would hope it will have no long-term effect. The University of Illinois is a great institution and we want to continue to hire the very best faculty, faculty who are smarter than I, more intelligent and wiser than I am, faculty who are ready to put all their efforts into making the university a better place," Wise said.

Kim Graber, a UI kinesiology professor who was on the search committee that brought Wise to campus in 2011, said she has had faith in Wise and her work in building a diverse student body, in terms of race, ethnicity and religion. Graber said she is troubled at how events have unfolded in recent weeks.

"This has gotten out of hand," she said. "You have my full support. I know you; I know you would never do anything to infringe on academic freedom and tenure," Graber told Wise Monday. "I have full confidence in her," Graber told The News-Gazette.

Another supporter, Matt Hill, is the undergraduate representative on the committee and said he is looking forward to Wise's upcoming visit to the student senate.

"I love talking about Middle East politics," said Hill, a junior political science major from Buffalo Grove who was in Israel over the summer. He found Salaita's tweets to be "uncivil" and "disrespectful," he said, not what he thought would come from a scholar. And as a Jewish student at the UI, he said he found them "disturbing."

But like the faculty, students appear divided on the issue. Students who support Salaita will rally outside the Swanlund Administration Building, home to Wise's office, this morning.