The New York Times has weighed in with a strong piece on the Salaita affair. This is significant for two reasons. First, while we in academia and on social media or the blogosphere have been debating and pushing this story for weeks, it hasn’t really broken into the mainstream. With a few exceptions, no major newspaper has covered it. Now that the Times has, I’m hoping Salaita’s story will get even more attention, possibly from the networks as well. Second, in addition to covering the basics of the case, the piece shows just how divisive and controversial Chancellor Wise’s decision has been, and how it has isolated the University of Illinois.
The decision, which raised questions about contractual loopholes and academic freedom, almost immediately drew pushback from the academic community. Thousands of scholars in a variety of disciplines signed petitions pledging to avoid the campus unless it reversed its decision to rescind the job offer. A number of prominent academic associations also urged the university to reconsider.
In the past few days, several people have followed through on promises to boycott the institution. Two scholars declined invitations to speak at the prestigious Center for Advanced Study/MillerComm Lecture Series this fall, and a campus-based project called off a four-day national conference that it was scheduled to host there in October.
David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy and legal studies at the University of Delaware, notified the Center for Advanced Study on Aug. 20 that he no longer wanted to participate. His lecture had been scheduled for Sept. 29.
“Instead of choosing education and more speech as the remedy for disagreeable speech,” he wrote to the committee, the University of Illinois “has apparently chosen ‘enforced silence.’ It thus violates what a university must stand for — whatever else it stands for — and therefore I join those who will not participate in the violation. In my judgment, this is a core and nonnegotiable issue of academic freedom.”
Mr. Blacker added that he “would be delighted to reschedule my talk” if the university should decide to reinstate its offer to Mr. Salaita.
The following day, Allen F. Isaacman, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, also pulled out of the series, offering a similar message. His talk had been scheduled for Oct. 30.
“The University of Illinois’s recent decision to disregard its prior commitment to appoint Professor Salaita confirms my fear of the administration’s blatant disregard for academic freedom,” Mr. Isaacman wrote in a letter to Wayne Pitard, a professor of religion and head of the lecture-series committee. “I do hope that the university administration will reverse its decision before it does irreparable harm to your great institution.”
That same day, the Education Justice Project, which is part of the department of education policy, organization, and leadership at Urbana-Champaign, announced that it was canceling the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison, which it had been scheduled to host.
“This decision has not been easy,” Rebecca Ginsburg, an associate professor in the education policy department, said in an announcement posted on the project’s webpage. The project’s leaders reached the decision only after speaking with would-be presenters and attendees, she wrote. “We concluded that for EJP to host the conference at this time would compromise our ability to come together as a national community of educators and activists.”
Ms. Ginsburg could not be reached for comment Friday; university administrators also did not respond to calls for comment.
On the campus, tensions are just as high.
That evening, however, faculty members in the American Indian studies program, a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, cast a unanimous vote of no confidence in Ms. Wise’s leadership, criticizing her handling of the last-minute withdrawal of the offer to Mr. Salaita.
“In clear disregard of basic principles of shared governance and unit autonomy, and without basic courtesy and respect for collegiality, Chancellor Wise did not consult American Indian studies nor the college before making her decision,” reads a statement posted on the program’s webpage.
“With this vote of no confidence, the faculty of UIUC’s American Indian studies program also joins the thousands of scholars and organizations in the United States and across the world in seeing the chancellor’s action as a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech,” the statement says.
The note goes on to encourage other departments to do the same, and to question whether the chancellor deserves the confidence of Illinois’s full faculty.
My only objection to the piece is that its numbers are out of date.
As of today, five scholars, not two, have canceled lectures or turned down an invitation to a University of Illinois campus. (And there may be more I am not aware of.)
In addition to David Blacker and Allen Isaacman, Eric Schwitzgebel has canceled a talk he was due to give on campus in December and also notified the organizers of a conference on experimental philosophy that he would not be able to deliver the keynote address, as he had been invited to do.
Jonathan Judaken, a humanities scholar, was asked to deliver the keynote address at conference at the UIUC in October; he was also scheduled to speak, while on campus, at the Program in Jewish Culture and Society. He has turned down the invitation. Despite his opposition to the idea of an academic boycott of Israel, and despite his visceral reaction to Salaita’s tweets, he believes the academic freedom issues in this case are so vital that he must boycott the UIUC.
[Chancellor Wise’s] new doctrine of civility ostensibly created to foster a climate where open dialogue, discourse, and debate must be respected has actually planted the latest land mine in this academic battlefield. The result will be opposite of what she intends. Now faculty and students will feel more anxious than ever that views or viewpoints that go beyond the policed confines of what administrators—or worse, the lapdogs of the watchdog groups—define as the norm, will be able to be expressed as part of an open conversation.
It is consequently on the basis of the principles of faculty governance, academic freedom, and freedom of speech that I will not speak at Illinois until Salaita’s job offer is upheld.
This all could have been avoided if Chancellor Wise trusted faculty governance procedures. The faculty who hired Salaita were fully aware of his position on Israel and Zionism and fully equipped to determine if it would negatively impact his ability to teach his classes. There are international experts on the faculty who could have aided the administration in assessing Salaita’s tweets. It is faculty as the leaders of the communities of inquiry in universities and colleges that are best equipped to judge in such cases.
Contrary to the muddled ways it is being used today as a political cudgel, academic freedom is about the right of academics to say what they will without the interference of groups outside the academy policing their positions. Faculty governance is about giving faculty the right to make all decisions within the academy pertaining to their domains of expertise, most significantly hiring decisions. And freedom of speech is our most basic right as Americans.
Campus watchdogs who monitor the academy claim they do so to uphold what is best in higher education. But Salaita’s case shows once more that they threaten to turn campuses from refuges of critical inquiry into battlegrounds of political correctness and narrow norms.
And Julie Livingston, a Rutgers historian and MacArthur Fellow, has canceled a talk at the University of Illinois at Chicago (a UIUC sister campus, whose chancellor came out in support of Chancellor Wise). Livingston writes:
With great sadness I am writing to cancel my upcoming talk at UIC scheduled for September 17, given your chancellor’s recent statement of support for the actions of Phyllis Wise and the U of I Board of Trustees in the Steven Salaita case. While I had been looking forward to engaging with colleagues and students at UIC, I cannot in good conscience visit your campus until the Steven Salaita matter is resolved in a manner that upholds the principles of academic freedom and shared governance that are fundamental to American higher education and the necessary exchange of ideas, especially where difficult and potentially polarizing issues are concerned. I very much hope that your leadership will listen to their faculty and to the several thousand scholars (including myself) who have signed a pledge to boycott the University of Illinois, reflect on their actions, and reverse the errant course on which they have embarked in this matter. Should that happen I would welcome very much the chance to come and speak.
So five cancellations or refusals of an invitation.
No Confidence Votes
In addition, three departments at the UIUC, not one, have taken a vote of no confidence in the leadership of UIUC. In addition to the American Indian Studies department vote discussed by the Times, the Asian American Studies department and the philosophy department have voted no confidence in the chancellor. The philosophy department resolution states:
Whereas the recent words and actions of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, President Robert Easter, and the Board of Trustees in connection with the revocation of an offer of employment to Dr. Steven Salaita betray a culpable disregard not only for academic freedom and free speech generally but also for the principles of shared governance and established protocols for hiring, tenure, and promotion, the faculty of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign declares its lack of confidence in the leadership of the current Chancellor, President, and Board of Trustees.
The philosophy vote is especially important, to my mind, because it demonstrates the power of the boycott. Of all the disciplines, philosophy has been the strongest in defending academic freedom at the UIUC. Over 530 philosophers have joined the boycott, more than any other field. Why that’s the case, I’m not sure. But the fact that philosophy is the only department at UIUC—besides Asian American and American Indian Studies (where Salaita’s connections are strong)—to have voted no confidence is symptomatic of the power of the boycott. Seeing so many of their colleagues across the country and around the world take this strong stand, the philosophers at UIUC have now communicated to the administration that the campus is growing increasingly ungovernable. Chancellor Wise will not get any peace on campus till she and the trustees reverse their decision. As even this generally negative piece in a local paper acknowledges.
This is why I want to press one of the newer boycott initiatives, from Alan Sokal of NYU, for natural scientists. Getting support among the natural scientists is critical, as they are often a favored constituency at big research campuses like UIUC. They draw the big money from federal grants; they have a lot of power. I want to urge any one of you who is a natural scientist to join this boycott pledge and to urge your friends and colleagues in the natural sciences to do the same. With just the right amount of pressure from all of you, we might see something similar to the philosophy vote on the natural sciences side of the UIUC campus.
For a complete list of the boycott statements, go here. While I haven’t gotten a complete update on the numbers, we have at least 3849 signed up for the boycott as of tonight.
The American Association of University Professors has issued a strong statement on the Salaita affair. Here are some of the highlights.
The letter details the extensive dealings between Salaita and the University of Illinois subsequent to his signing of the offer letter he received in October 2013. Among other things, the AAUP reveals that Chancellor Wise invited Salaita to a welcome reception for new faculty.
Toward the end of January, Professor Salaita wrote to Professor Byrd about scheduling a visit to Urbana-Champaign in order to make arrangements for a place to live for him and his family. He states that they visited the area in March and subsequently initiated the purchase of an apartment, including payment of “earnest” money, which was subsequently forfeited when the agreement was voided following the abrupt notification regarding his appointment. During this visit, the AIS faculty hosted a dinner for him and his family to welcome him to the faculty. In early April he was notified of his fall teaching assignment, and he finalized his course book orders in mid-summer.
In the intervening months between his October 2013 acceptance of the appointment and early August 2014, when you notified him of its termination, Professor Salaita received information from various offices of the university, indicating that they had been informed of his appointment, including an invitation from your office to attend your August 19 reception “welcoming faculty and academic professionals who joined the Illinois community in 2014,” as the invitation stated. Nothing was said to Professor Salaita about board action still to come, and we are informed that it is not uncommon for board action on new appointments to take place only after the appointment has begun and the appointee is already at work.
Because the AAUP recognizes that Salaita was in fact hired by the UIUC, they reach a vastly different conclusion about what Chancellor Wise has done to him and what Wise must now do.
Aborting an appointment in this manner without having demonstrated cause has consistently been seen by the AAUP as tantamount to summary dismissal, an action categorically inimical to academic freedom and due process and one aggravated in his case by the apparent failure to provide him with any written or even oral explanation.
Until these issues have been resolved, we look upon Professor Salaita’s situation as that of a faculty member suspended from his academic responsibilities pending a hearing on his fitness to continue. Under the joint 1958 Statement on Procedural St andards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings, any such suspension is to be with pay. As detailed earlier in this letter, Professor Salaita has incurred major financial expenses since he accepted the University of Illinois offer. We urge–indeed insist–that he be paid salary as set in the terms of the appointment pending the result of the CAFT proceeding.
Brian Leiter has an interesting followup on the AAUP letter, which I urge you all to read, along with the fascinating comment thread that ensues.
The AAUP brings up the issue of Salaita’s financial standing. If you haven’t donated to the fund set up by his friends and colleagues to help him fight his case and support his family, please do so now. Click on this link and then go to the right-hand side of the page. People often urge individuals in Salaita’s situation to sue. He may have to. But lawsuits cost money. Like a lot of money. Unless you’re independently wealthy, they’re hard to paid for. Like really hard to pay for. So please help Salaita out. And while you’re over there, check out these awesome testimonials from his former students. You know, students: the very people Chancellor Wise and Salaita’s critics claim to be protecting.
Someone on Facebook just brought to my attention that there is a sixth lecture cancellation. This one by Pomona English professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who was scheduled to give a talk at UIUC in September.
Update (12:30 am)
I should have also mentioned to other cancellations. The first, which the Times discusses in that excerpt and which I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is that the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison, which was scheduled to be hosted at UIUC, was canceled. The second is that Columbia Professor Bruce Robbins canceled a screening of a film that was supposed to take place at UIUC. I should have remembered this one especially, as it was what inspired my original call for a boycott of UIUC.
So the title of this post should really be: “Salaita By the Numbers: 6 Cancelled Lectures, 1 Cancelled Screening, 1 Cancelled Conference, 3 Votes of No Confidence, 3849 Boycotters, and 1 NYT Article.”
Update (September 1, 10:30 am)
Change that headline to “Salaita By the Numbers: 7 Cancelled Lectures, 1 Cancelled Screening, 1 Cancelled Conference, 3 Votes of No Confidence, 3849 Boycotters, and 1 NYT Article.”
I was just informed that Karma Chavez, associate professor of communication arts and Chican@ and Latin@ Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, canceled her lecture at the UIUC Center for Writing Studies, which was scheduled for September 18.