A Divided AAUP Lifts Censure on U. of Illinois

June 17, 2017

The American Association of University Professors voted Saturday to lift the censure it had imposed on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign two years ago, despite vocal opposition from prominent members in that state who argued that the institution had not fixed problems that threaten academic freedom.

In urging the association’s members to keep the censure in place, the AAUP Illinois conference’s committee on academic freedom and tenure argued that the university should be required to take additional steps to remedy problems linked to its controversial handling of Steven G. Salaita, whose promised job as a tenured professor there evaporated in 2014 after he harshly criticized Israel on Twitter.

On the other side of the debate, several of the association’s national leaders joined Harry H. Hilton, president of its chapter at the Urbana-Champaign campus, in arguing that the university had met the conditions for censure removal, and that asking university officials to jump through additional hoops would damage the AAUP’s credibility. Their arguments carried the day as the roughly 130 members at the AAUP’s annual meeting voted to remove Illinois from the group’s list of censured institutions.

In other actions, the association also voted to lift the censure that it had imposed on the Phillips Community College — now part of the University of Arkansas system — almost 40 years ago for firing an instructor who had been a gadfly and whistleblower.

The group’s members voted resoundingly, with no discernible opposition, to censure the Community College of Aurora, in Colorado, and Spalding University, in Kentucky, based on allegations that each improperly dismissed faculty members who had criticized administrators’ actions.

Where’s the Goal Line?

The AAUP had considered taking the University of Illinois off its censure list at last year’s meeting, because the university had already reached a legal settlement with Mr. Salaita and taken steps to shore up academic freedom and the faculty’s role in hiring decisions. Its members voted down the proposal, however, after Mr. Hilton of the Urbana-Champaign AAUP chapter joined other professors from his state in warning that lifting censure too quickly would remove any incentive for the University of Illinois system’s Board of Trustees to adopt additional faculty protections.

Saturday’s debate somewhat echoed last year’s.

Peter N. Kirstein, a professor of history at Saint Xavier University in Chicago and chairman of the Illinois AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, read aloud a statement by that panel arguing that the Urbana-Champaign campus "has not demonstrated clear and convincing evidence that it will adhere to AAUP principles and policies." The statement called for the campus to be required to take other steps, such as issuing a public apology for its treatment of Mr. Salaita and reversing a recent decline in the number of instructors in the American Indian Studies Program where Mr. Salaita had hoped to teach.

Another member of the panel, John K. Wilson, an editor of the AAUP’s blog, said that the system’s board has offered little in the way of change or a commitment to abide by AAUP principles.

Mr. Hilton of the Urbana-Champaign AAUP chapter countered that the association "should not introduce new conditions for censure removal." Donna E. Young, a professor at Albany Law School and member of the national AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, argued that faculty members at Urbana-Champaign strongly supported lifting censure and doing so was important for "the integrity of the AAUP itself."

Robert Jones, the chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus, issued a written statement that said, "I’m pleased to learn that AAUP recognizes our efforts." He called academic freedom "a bedrock principle at Illinois."

Rocky Relationship

The AAUP vote to censure the Community College of Aurora came in response to an instructor’s dismissal that the association’s investigators characterized as indicative of a broader lack of academic-freedom and due-process protections for part-time faculty members in Colorado’s community-college system.

In the fall, the Aurora college fired Nathanial Bork, a philosophy instructor and activist on behalf of adjunct-faculty rights, shortly after he told administrators of his plan to complain to the college’s accreditor about a new curriculum there. Mr. Bork argued that the college, in modifying entry-level liberal-arts courses to improve their pass rates, had rendered them so easy that they set students up for failure wherever they might transfer.

The college, in firing Mr. Bork, said he had failed to effectively teach the new curriculum. An AAUP investigative committee concluded that he had been denied due process in the form of a faculty hearing, and the college thus never formally rebutted his allegation that it had violated his academic freedom by firing him for contacting the accreditor.

Elizabeth Oudenhoven, the college’s president, had responded to the AAUP committee’s findings by linking Mr. Bork’s termination to inadequate teaching and saying it had no relation to his complaint to the accreditor. In a statement issued Saturday, the college called the AAUP’s censure vote "unfortunate and unwarranted," and said it "does a disservice to the faculty, staff and students of a fine institution."

The AAUP voted to censure Spalding University, in Louisville, Ky., based on a conclusion that the private institution’s administrators had violated the academic freedom and tenure rights of Erlene Grise-Owens, a professor of social work who had worked there for 18 years.

An AAUP committee’s investigation of the professor’s 2016 dismissal characterized it as "a direct result" of her criticisms of the administration’s handling of a student with a troubled history who brought a gun to a campus parking lot and made what Ms. Grise-Owens interpreted as a threat to people there. Spalding officials had denounced the committee’s conclusions as based on misleading or inaccurate statements and confidential student information; they also had accused Ms. Grise-Owens of being biased against the student in question.

Spalding University declined, through Rick Barney, a spokesman, to comment on Saturday’s censure vote.

Forgotten Firing

The AAUP’s decision to take Phillips Community College off its censure list came in response to various policies adopted by that institution to ensure no repeat of the 1976 instructor firing that had landed it there. In recent years, for example, the college had adopted a policy providing that faculty members who have worked there full-time at least six years are assured continued employment unless dismissed for cause at an appropriate hearing.

The AAUP censured Phillips in 1978 over its summary dismissal two years earlier of Marion Hickingbottom, a history instructor critical of his institution’s administration. The college’s president rescinded an offer of reappointment to Mr. Hickingbottom just weeks after the instructor had sent a letter to the Arkansas Motor Vehicle Division accusing the college of having entered into an illegal automobile leasing arrangement to avoid paying taxes and license tag fees.

"Nobody here even knew about the incident, it happened so long ago," Deborah King, the college’s vice chancellor for instruction, said this week. She said she had no idea whether being censured by the AAUP continued to hurt her rural college’s efforts to recruit faculty members, but "it is always better not to be on that list."

In other moves, the association overwhelmingly passed an amendment to its constitution clearing the way for it to directly compensate part-time faculty members elected to its national offices, to help ensure such service does not create financial hardship.

In other votes, those here adopted resolutions that denounced deep cuts in the budget of the University of Puerto Rico and called on Illinois lawmakers to end a budget stalemate that has left colleges in that state starved for additional funds.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.