I said in my last post that “barring some major developments,” I wouldn’t be posting on the Salaita affair for a while. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you some major developments.
One of the University of Illinois trustees has broken ranks with his colleagues, publicly voicing misgivings about the decision to dehire Salaita, revealing that the boycott has had a definite impact on the university, and, most important, that this case is not closed and that we have an opening to get the Board to reverse course.
In a bombshell interview with Ali Abunimah, the trustee says, well, I’ll just hand it over to Ali.
A trustee of the University of Illinois has added to public criticism over the decision to fire Palestinian American professor and Israel critic Steven Salaita.
“I think it would have been far better had it been dealt with differently and had it been done with more consultation with faculty,” James D. Montgomery told The Electronic Intifada today.
He also acknowledged the “adverse” impact that a growing boycott was having on the university’s ability to function.
Montgomery, a prominent Chicago attorney, echoed the regrets expressed by Chancellor Phyllis Wise over her own role in the affair.
Montgomery was careful, however, to say that he was undecided about the merits of the case, but he sounded far less certain and more circumspect than a public statement he signed last month along with other trustees forcefully backing Wise’s decision.
Montgomery laid out some of the issues that the board would be faced with at its upcoming 11 September meeting.
“Obviously there’s a lot of uproar on both sides of the issue from the perspective of students and alums who are offended by the manner in which Salaita spoke,” Montgomery said.
“And there are folks who are claiming that is a violation of the right to academic freedom. It’s a difficult decision in terms of what is right and what is wrong,” he continued.
“I know we’re going into executive session and obviously there are people who are seeking to pressure the university to reverse its decision. It’s coming from very significant places. It’s had an adverse impact because people are declining to participate in university activities and there have been a number of events canceled.”
“How it will turn out is anybody’s guess and I would not hazard one at this point,” Montgomery now says, adding he personally has not made up his mind about the issues the board would have to decide.
Montgomery’s public statements come on the heels of Chancellor Wise’s statement yesterday to the faculty that she herself was not the decider in the Salaita affair but rather the agent of the trustees’ wishes. In other words, all those folks, including some commenters here, who credited Wise with making a principled and judicious academic decision, must now come to terms with the fact that she has distanced herself from her own decision, claiming that it was not even hers.
From Illinois Public Media:
The chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana campus Thursday expressed regret about the way she came to a decision to withdraw a job offer to a professor who posted inflammatory comments on Twitter – a decision she said was “pretty unilateral.”
Chancellor Phyllis Wise said members of the Board of Trustees told her in July that they likely would not approve the appointment of Professor Steven Salaita. A week later, Wise sent a letter to Salaita rescinding the job offer.
“The judgment I made in writing him was to convey the sentiment of the Board of Trustees, it was not mine.” She said. “And I did it because I thought I was doing something humane for him.”
Humane, she said, because she didn’t want Salaita to move his family to Urbana only to learn his appointment was not approved.
Wise also admitted in another colloquy (with students) that she did not involve the faculty in the discussion in the way she should have:
I, in hindsight, wish I had been a little bit more deliberate and had consulted with more people before I made that decision.
So here are the takeaways:
First, you have a university leadership in total disarray. The fact that a member of the Board of Trustees and the university’s own chancellor would be publicly voicing so many misgivings is not merely a sign that they made a bad decision that they are now regretting; it’s also a sign that no one is in control and all the principal agents are speaking out of turn, on and for their own behalf. That’s a bad sign for the university politically and legally: when you see this kind of unraveling, you’re likely to hear someone in authority say something that they shouldn’t have said, which will come back to haunt the university in court.
Second, this is not a done deal. Montgomery clearly says that he has no idea how or what the Trustees will decide, and how he will vote.
Third, a member of the Board of Trustees and the university chancellor have now publicly admitted that the faculty should have been involved in this decision.
Fourth, as Bonnie Honig pointed out to me, the UI Board of Trustees is small. There are twelve members, two of whom (students) can’t vote. That means we don’t have to sway a lot of individuals. At least one out of ten of the trustees is undecided, with the potential ability to bring some folks with him. (As an important side note, Martha Biondi wrote this on my FB page: “Faculty in African American Studies should write to James Montgomery [the trustee who’s broken ranks], who once served as an attorney for the family of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, and remind him that African American Studies would never have entered the academy without the principle of academic freedom. He has a history fighting racial discrimination as a lawyer. We need to appeal to this history.”)
Fifth, when we went through a similar battle over BDS at Brooklyn College, this is how it happened. One key figure cracked, then they all fell down. No predictions, no guarantees. But this could be the beginning of the end.
Sixth, and most important, email the Board of Trustees. We have an opening, so let’s take it. Be polite, be firm, reach out to them as people. All of you have gotten us to this point. Now take us all the way there.
Again here are the emails:
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