There are many developments today in the Salaita affair.
This morning, the News-Gazette released 280 pages of documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act revealing extensive donor pressure on Chancellor Wise.
As news spread in late July about a new University of Illinois faculty hire and media outlets began publishing some of his profanity-laden tweets, a number of wealthy donors threatened to stop giving money to the university, recently released documents show.
The letters about professor Steven Salaita started arriving in Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s inbox July 21, and the writers did not hold back.
“Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years, I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses,” wrote one UI business school graduate.
The letters from donors, some of them identifying themselves as members of the UI’s $25,000-plus “presidents council,” have also raised questions about the motivation behind the administration’s decision to not forward Salaita’s name to the board of trustees for formal approval last month.
The chancellor, however, through a spokeswoman, maintains her decision was not influenced by them, but was based out of concern for the students, campus and community.
Then tonight Phan Nguyen sent me 443 pages of documents he had posted online. These are all the documents released by the UIUC in response to four different FOIA requests from various news organizations. I’ve now spent the entire evening reading through these documents and here are some of the highlights.
When the Salaita story first broke in the local press, Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs 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.” That was on July 21. The UIUC documents reveal that not only was Chancellor Wise apprised of that statement minutes after it was emailed to the media, but that she also wrote back to Kaler: “I have received several emails. Do you want me to use this response or to forward these to you?” (p. 101) In other words, this was not the rogue statement of a low-level spokesperson; it reflected Wise’s own views, including the view that Salaita was already a university employee. Even though Wise already had been informed of Salaita’s tweets.
In the days following this forthright defense of Salaita, the Chancellor and her associates begin to back-pedal. Around July 23, Wise starts reaching out to select alumni, trying to arrange phone calls (and in one instance, struggling to rearrange her travel schedule just so she can meet one alum in person [pp. 78-94]). To another such alum, she writes, “Let me say that I just recently learned about Steven Salaita’s background, beyond his academic history, and am learning more now.” (p. 293) That “beyond his academic history” is going to get Wise in trouble on academic freedom grounds.
In the background of this change of tune are the donors and the university’s fundraising and development people. In a July 24 email to Dan Peterson, Leanne Barnhart, and Travis Michael Smith (all part of the UIUC money machine), Wise reports about a meeting she has had with what appears to be a big donor. In Wise’s words:
He said that he knows [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] well and both have less loyalty for Illinois because of their perception of anti-Semitism. He gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling. (p. 206)
And as Carol Tilley revealed earlier today on Twitter, the alum whom Wise scrambled to rearrange her schedule over is Steve Miller (the UIUC redactor failed to redact his name). Tilley then tweeted some other information about Miller. He’s a huge venture capitalist. In 2010, he donated a half-million dollars to endow a professorship in the UIUC business school. He’s given money for years to endow the Steven N. Miller Entrepreneurial Scholarships. He believes in “venture philanthropy.” He’s also on the board of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the board of Hillel.
Once Wise and her team start back-tracking, the trustees are brought into the picture. On July 28, Susan Mary Kies, who is the secretary of the Board of Trustees, writes Wise, who had been apologetic about “filling your inbox” with Salaita info, “No problem, we will place the letters in weekly dispatch (as we did last week) so the trustees can see the depth of the matter!” (p. 62) The next day, Kaler starts writing to complaining alums that the final decision regarding Salaita lies with the trustees (this is the first we hear of what will become the ultimate strategy of the administration: putting it all on the trustees):
While I cannot comment on any specific employment decisions of the university, pursuant to the governing documents for the university the final decision for any faculty appointment at the level of assistant professor or above rests with the Board of Trustees. I, therefore, have passed your concerns along to the Secretary of the Board of Trustees. (p. 62)
What’s most stunning about these documents is that they show how removed and isolated Chancellor Wise is from any of the academic voices in the university, even the academic voices on her own team. As she heads toward her August 2 decision to dehire Salaita, she is only speaking to and consulting with donors, alums, PR people, and development types. Ilesanmi Adesida, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, makes exactly one appearance in these 443 pages. That is on Tuesday, July 22. Even though Wise has been inundated with emails about Salaita for days, she only finally emails Adesida about the matter a day after the story has broken in the local press. His response: “Thanks for sending these emails. I was not aware of any controversy on this person until yesterday!” (p. 95) And he’s never heard from again.
Then on August 4, two days after Wise has informed Salaita and Robert Warrior, chair of the American Indian Studies department, that Salaita won’t be hired, Warrior writes Brian Ross, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to find out what happened. Warrior first gets an email back from one of Ross’s associates, who says, “Brian is not in the office today, and I’m not sure he knows anything about this because I presume he would have discussed it with me if he had” (p. 361). And then Ross himself writes back, “i am in NY, traveling back tomorrow. I have not seen the letter but have a request in and will let you know when I hear any more” (p.362). In other words, even two days after the Chancellor has dehired Salaita, she still hasn’t informed the dean of the largest college at the UIUC of her decision.
What’s also clear from reading these documents is just how high up the chain Salaita’s appointment had gone, and how ensconced at the university he was becoming—up until the day that he wasn’t. On September 27, 2013, for example, Reginald Alston, one of two associate chancellors who works directly in Phyllis Wise’s office, writes the following report on Salaita’s candidacy (pp. 238-239):
After closely reviewing Dr. Steven Salaita’s dossier, I support the Department of American Indian Studies’ (AIS) request to grant him the rank of Associate Professor with indefinite tenure at the University of Illinois. The uniqueness of his scholarship on the intersection of American Indian, Palestinian, and American Palestinian experiences presents a rare opportunity to add an esoteric perspective on indigeneity to our cultural studies programs on campus.
Again, I support offering Dr. Salaita a tenured position because of the obvious intellectual value that his scholarship and background would bring to our campus. His presence would elevate AIS internationally and convey Illinois’ commitment to maintaining a leading academic program on the historical and sociopolitical intricacies of American Indian culture.
On January 15, 2014, his appointment is approved by the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access, which is one of the key and most powerful offices in any university hiring decision; if they don’t sign off, the appointment goes nowhere (p. 398).
Then, between July 22 and July 25, while the chancellor and her aides are formulating their strategy to deal with the backlash, Salaita and Warrior email back and forth about Salaita’s moving expenses. The UIUC had originally promised to cover up to $5000 of Salaita’s expenses (p. 387), but when the University-approved moving company comes back with an estimate of $7500, the department decides to cover the difference (pp. 341-347).
And then, when the tech support start asking Warrior about Salaita’s computer needs (“Did Steven Salaita say he had any special PC laptop needs? Does he run SPSS or any other resource intensive applications? Does he need something geared toward video work or any other special area?”), Warrior replies, “He’s pretty much a meat and potatoes user. Nothing complicated” (pp. 341-347).
That was on August 1. The next day, Chancellor Wise fired Salaita.
In other news of the day, last night’s report that Chancellor Wise would be forwarding Salaita’s appointment to the Trustees was wrong. Several members of the UIUC faculty met with her today. According to Michael Rothberg, chair of the English department:
Together with two colleagues I just met with Chancellor Wise, at her invitation. The main message from our discussion was that there is no change in the status of the case. It seems that the students were not accurate in their impression. She doesn’t know if the Board of Trustees will be voting on the case at their 9/11 meeting, but she indicated that she thought a reversal was very unlikely.
So status quo. I’ll come back to that 9/11 meeting at the end of this post.
Tonight, the English Department became the fourth department at UIUC to take a vote of no confidence in the leadership of the University of Illinois—the trustees, the president, and Chancellor Wise. From what I’m hearing, the departments of history, comparative and world literatures, and East Asian Languages and Cultures will be voting on similar motions sometime this week.
Meanwhile, the number of canceled events grows. We now have a second cancelled conference. Today, Columbia law professor Katharine Franke canceled series of lectures she was to give at the UIUC in late September. This was an especially nice touch:
I have long held the view that the use of boycotts as a tactic to protest an unjust practice by a state, business or academic institution may be appropriate in the right context, such as the current crisis at the UIUC, but that those who pledge to honor a boycott cannot rest their political commitments exclusively on a promise not to do something. Rather they should also pledge to affirmatively engage the injustice that generated the call for the boycott. For this reason, rather than merely boycotting your institution, I plan to travel to Urbana-Champaign in mid September at my own expense to participate in a forum (located off campus) with members of the UIUC community in which we will explore the manner in which the termination of Professor Salaita’s employment at UIUC threatened a robust principal of academic freedom.
I just found out that University of Nebraska philosophy professor Mark Van Roojen canceled a scheduled lecture as well. In fact, the list of canceled lectures and events seems to have exploded overnight. There’s now a poster listing all of the cancellations. John Protevi’s also keeping track over at his blog. If you’re cancelling something, please let him know.
In other developments, a group of graduate students has now organized its own boycott pledge. It’s one of the more powerful statements, as it dramatizes the real long-term costs of the Salaita dehiring.
As the rising generation of scholars and public intellectuals, we are troubled about what this signals about the work environments, hiring conditions, and the larger academe we are working to enter.
UI-UC’s actions have signaled to the graduate student community that in order to secure employment, we should stay silent on political questions, eliminate our online interactions with others in the public and in the scholarly community, and cease researching and asking tough questions that may displease those in authority. These conditions trouble us all, and will deter many graduate students from applying to faculty positions at UI-UC in the future.
We hold that the value of scholarly efforts must not be determined by how readily they appease the powerful or cater to the status quo; instead, such efforts must be weighed by their degree of due diligence and attention to the ethical pursuit of knowledge, as well as the imperative to voice righteous criticisms when necessary. To constrain our research and public engagement in such a way as to protect ourselves from the treatment Professor Salaita has received promises to strip the academy of all relevance to society as an institution that values intellectual debate.
If you’re a grad student, please sign it.
Over the weekend, the American Historical Association, the official professional body of historians, issued a scorching denunciation today of Chancellor Wise’s decision.
The First Amendment protects speech, both civil and uncivil. It does so for good reason. The United States made a wager that democracy can flourish only with a robustly open public sphere where conflicting opinions can vigorously engage one another. Such a public sphere rests on the recognition that speech on matters of public concern is often emotional and that it employs a variety of idioms and styles. Hence American law protects not only polite discourse but also vulgarity, not only sweet rationality but also impassioned denunciation. “Civility” is a laudable ideal, and many of us wish that American public life had more of it today. Indeed the AHA recommends it as part of our own Statement on the Standards of Professional Conduct. But imposing the requirement of “civility” on speech in a university community or any other sector of our public sphere—and punishing infractions—can only backfire. Such a policy produces a chilling effect, inhibiting the full exchange of ideas that both scholarly investigation and democratic institutions need.
If allowed to stand, your administration’s punitive treatment of Steven Salaita will chill the intellectual atmosphere at the University of Illinois. Even tenured professors will fear for their job security, persuaded that their institution lacks respect for the principles of academic freedom. The unhappy consequences for the untenured will be even more pronounced. A regimen of defensive self-censorship will settle like a cloud over faculty lectures and classroom discussions. Faculty will be inclined to seek positions elsewhere. This, surely, is not the future you wish for your historically great institution.
The AHA joined the Modern Languages Association, the professional organization of literature and language scholars, and the American Studies Association, in putting the weight of a major disciplinary organization behind Salaita’s case. I hope American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, and other disciplinary organizations join in soon.
It has become clear from various UIUC faculty I’ve spoken with that the trustees are now the main focus of our campaign. Between now and 9/11, we have to bombard them with emails and phone calls urging them to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, we don’t have all of their contact information, but Thanks to John Protevi’s heroic efforts (and a little angel who came to my aid after this post went live), we have most all of them. Here they are (plus a few others that are relevant).
If you’ve already joined a boycott, signed the petition, and emailed Chancellor Wise, I want to ask you—all of you, in the tens of thousands now—to rattle the trustees with your voices. As John says: “Be polite but firm, open, frank, forthright, unapologetic, and exigent when writing these folks.”
Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees: firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert A. Easter, President: email@example.com
Hannah Cave, Trustee: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ricardo Estrada, Trustee: email@example.com
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lucas N. Frye, Trustee: email@example.com
Karen Hasara, Trustee: firstname.lastname@example.org
Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee: email@example.com
Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee: firstname.lastname@example.org
James D. Montgomery, Trustee: email@example.com
Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel: email@example.com
Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees: email@example.com
And if you want all the email addresses collected in one place in order to send one email, John Protevi has done that for you too:
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
One last word. I know in the last few days, I’ve been posting on this issue more and more frequently. While I think the attention is warranted—if for no other reason than that it has roiled the entire academy, here in the States and sometimes beyond—I’m also mindful that I’m part of a collective, where we don’t all agree on the politics of Israel/Palestine or its role in the academy (even though Henry, Chris, and I have joined the boycott), and that not all of you, our readers, come to this blog in order to get updates on Steven Salaita. So barring some major developments, I’m going to make this my last post on the issue for a while. If you want to get more updated information, come to my blog, follow me on Twitter, or friend me on Facebook.