Wise won't ask LAS to reconsider Salaita job


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URBANA — Chancellor Phyllis Wise will not ask the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to review the case of Steven Salaita, the professor who lost a pending job at the University of Illinois last summer after his inflammatory tweets.

In a mass mail to employees on Thursday, entitled "Moving Forward Together," Wise outlined several actions by the campus to address the faculty outcry over the Salaita decision — new "faculty fellows" in the arts and humanities to improve shared governance and a plan to get trustee approval of faculty appointments long before new hires arrive on campus.

But Wise said after "broad consultation across campus," and in light of the Board of Trustees' statement that it will not reconsider its 8-1 vote to reject Salaita's appointment last fall, "I have decided not to remand the decision to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for further consideration."

Her announcement rejects a recommendation from the campus Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure that the UI reconsider Salaita's appointment. The tenure committee said a panel of qualified experts in the College of LAS should review concerns raised about Salaita's professional fitness for a tenured faculty position in American Indian Studies because of his angry tweets about Israel.

"While the employment decision is now in front of a federal court, I want to reiterate that we have undertaken significant and meaningful efforts to engage Dr. Salaita and his representatives in attempts to resolve this issue," Wise said, apparently referring to unsuccessful efforts to obtain a financial settlement with Salaita.

A former Virginia Tech professor, Salaita has sued the university to win back the job he was offered in 2013.

Professor David O'Brien, chair of the tenure committee, declined comment Friday, saying that the panel was guided by statutes and other policy documents in its decision but what happens after that is beyond the panel's control.

The campus Academic Senate earlier this month approved a resolution supporting the tenure committee's recommendation on a 51-41 vote. An author of that resolution, Professor Bruce Levine, said he wasn't shocked by the chancellor's message but expressed dismay at her comments.

"I think this demonstrates absolute contempt for the faculty and for the academic senate," Levine said Friday. "We're up against a board and a chancellor who have no regard for the opinion of the faculty on what is in my opinion the most important issue of academic freedom and governance that has come up on this campus in decades."

Wise said she has taken several actions in response to the "many frank, open and productive discussions" with faculty, staff and students across campus about the case. Among them:

— A joint Academic Senate-Provost faculty committee has reviewed the faculty hiring processes and recommended improvements. Wise said one change being implemented - though it was not one of the committee's recommendations - will allow board approval of faculty appointments much sooner and "well in advance of the arrival of potential new hires." The committee's full report will be presented to the Academic Senate on March 9.

— To ensure "strong, consistent and open communication" between her office and academic units, Wise said she will ask for nominations for "Chancellor's Faculty Fellows" in the humanities and arts. They're intended to provide rapid faculty input and guidance on "critical campus issues," she said.

Levine said the change in the hiring timetable is a "dishonest" remedy. The committee report on hiring procedures actually asked for the opposite — to have trustees delegate their authority over faculty hires to the president or another senior administrator, not have them be involved even earlier in the process. The change Wise proposed will allow the board to intervene even more easily in the future, he said.

"We don't need quicker Board of Trustees' involvement, we need less Board of Trustees' involvement," Levine said.

He also characterized the new faculty fellows as "an attempt to go around shared governance." The senate, which is elected by the faculty, already advised her on the matter, he said.

Wise also tried to clarify her Aug. 22 mass mail explaining the decision to withdraw Salaita's job offer last summer. In it, she emphasized the importance of "civility" in campus discourse, generating a flurry of debate about free expression and academic freedom.

"I want to make absolutely clear that my statement was not intended to establish a policy on speech or a campus speech code. I believe any such code would represent an unacceptable restriction on the academic freedom of our faculty," she wrote.

"The purpose of my August message was to enunciate my aspirations for Illinois to be a community where respectful discourse is championed and where together, we recognize that intolerance may impede the educational experiences of our students. These are aspirations that can only be achieved by inspiring new ideas and new avenues of exploration," she said.

Levine called the chancellor's comments "evasive," noting that the senate resolution asked her to withdraw her initial comments in August.

"She's not saying 'What I said was wrong.' That's what needs to happen," he said.


Note: This story has been updated to clarify the hiring committee's recommendations.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).