Faculty

AAUP Censures U. of Illinois and 3 Other Colleges, Vows to Fight On in Wisconsin

June 14, 2015

The American Association of University Professors voted overwhelmingly at its annual conference here on Saturday to censure the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for withdrawing a tenured-faculty appointment from Steven G. Salaita over his Twitter posts harshly criticizing Israel.

"The world — or, at least, the academic world — is watching," Troy D. Smith, an assistant professor of history at Tennessee Tech University and secretary of the AAUP’s Tennessee conference, said in urging fellow association members to censure the Illinois flagship for violating academic principles.

The vote to censure Illinois followed a lopsided debate in which Cary Nelson, a former AAUP president and a professor of English at Urbana-Champaign, found himself alone in arguing that the association would be acting prematurely in passing such a judgment. On the other side, several AAUP officials and Illinois faculty members argued that the association needed to send a clear message that the university’s treatment of Mr. Salaita violated AAUP guidelines dealing with shared governance, due process, and academic freedom.

"If we do not censure the administration of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, not only will nothing be changed, it will get worse and worse," said Harriet L. Murav, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at that campus.

In other actions, the AAUP members on hand for the meeting voted overwhelmingly to censure the University of Southern Maine and unanimously to censure Felician College, in New Jersey, for trampling shared governance and professors’ due-process rights in jettisoning faculty members as part of academic reorganizations.

Also in unanimous votes, the AAUP members censured the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and passed a resolution opposing proposed state legislation that would curtail shared governance and tenure in the University of Wisconsin system.

The Wisconsin resolution urges faculty members throughout the nation "to support our Wisconsin colleagues to ensure that similar proposals do not gain traction elsewhere," and calls on the AAUP to come up with a plan for faculty resistance if the measure becomes law.

"We clearly live in a challenging time for higher education and the professoriate," declared Henry F. (Hank) Reichman, chairman of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He described the cases the association’s members were voting on as "sadly but the tip of a larger iceberg threatening our most fundamental values."

‘A New McCarthyism’

The association’s vote to censure the Urbana-Champaign campus’s administration came in response to the findings of an AAUP panel charged with investigating the university’s decision to rescind an offer of a tenured professorship to Mr. Salaita.

In a report issued in April, the investigative panel held that the university had denied Mr. Salaita the due-process rights that his tenured status should have afforded him, and also violated widely accepted standards for academic governance by not letting relevant faculty and administrative bodies weigh in on his fate. It said the university’s stated reasons for rescinding his appointment — concern that his inflammatory Twitter posts about Israel betrayed a lack of civility and portended his potential mistreatment of Jewish students — betrayed a lack of understanding of academic freedom.

Mr. Salaita has sued the university over the job revocation, and on Friday an Illinois judge ordered the university to release to him thousands of documents connected with its decision.

In response to Saturday’s censure vote, Phyllis M. Wise, chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus, issued a statement saying her campus has "a longstanding commitment to the principles of academic freedom and shared governance" and has already "taken several key steps to address the concerns raised by AAUP."

"We are disappointed to be the subject of an AAUP censure," Ms. Wise said, "and we want to support faculty who are impacted by this censure by demonstrating our unyielding commitment to the principles of academic freedom while remaining focused on the excellence in learning, discovery, engagement, and economic development that are at the core of our mission."

The Committee A motion calling for the censure of Urbana-Champaign argued that the steps taken by the campus’s administration to deal with the AAUP’s concerns were inadequate. Critics of the campus administration at Saturday’s meeting contended that some of the fixes it has proposed, such as having a provost weigh in on controversial hires and speeding up the process by which the university system’s board votes on such hires, actually would increase political interference in the hiring process.

In arguing that the AAUP was acting prematurely in voting to censure, Mr. Nelson, the association’s former president, argued that the job offer to Mr. Salaita had been based "more on political than scholarly criteria," with Mr. Salaita’s criticism of Israel helping to win him the job.

Mr. Nelson elicited groans from several of the other AAUP members on hand when he said the association’s "rush to censure has been compromised by anti-Israel sentiment, both on the staff and within Committee A." Mr. Reichman, chairman of Committee A, called the allegation of anti-Israel animus "totally false."

Peter N. Kirstein, a professor of history at Saint Xavier University and vice president of the AAUP’s Illinois conference, described the Urbana-Champaign’s response to accusations of anti-Semitism against Mr. Salaita as evidence of "a new McCarthyism" in dealing with critics of Israel.

Financial Considerations

In the cases of both Felician College and the University of Southern Maine, the AAUP’s investigative panels had rejected assertions by the institutions’ administrators that the layoffs at issue were justified by financial crises.

In response to the AAUP vote to censure the administration of Southern Maine, Glenn Cummings, the institution’s incoming president, issued a statement declaring his intent to learn from the past while looking forward. "Shared governance does not liberate us from either civility or reality; it requires all of us to contribute to the common welfare of the university above our individual agendas and personal interests," his statement said.

Edward C. Eichhorn, a spokesman for Felician, said last week his college had no plans to respond to the AAUP’s censure vote. He said the institution was standing by its earlier response to the AAUP’s investigation, which held that Felician had handled the layoffs in a fair and thoughtful manner and, lacking any formal affiliation with the AAUP, was outside its jurisdiction.

The AAUP censured the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center for its treatment of two long-serving faculty members whose contracts were not renewed and a third who was reassigned to an administrative position. Much of the conflict between the AAUP and M.D. Anderson stemmed from the center’s policy of not awarding tenure and instead hiring faculty members on seven-year contracts.

When the AAUP last summer announced plans to investigate it, the cancer center responded by sending the association a long list of questions doubting its authority in such matters. M.D. Anderson subsequently rejected the AAUP’s assurances of a fair investigation, and in March pre-emptively released the AAUP’s pending investigative report on it, to publicly lash out at the document as inaccurate and unfair.

Ronald A. DePinho, president of M.D. Anderson, stuck to his guns in his response to Saturday’s censure vote, issuing a written statement that said the center’s policy of seven-year contracts "not only promotes academic freedom but also fosters exceptional individual achievement and maintains the institution’s global impact on the cancer problem."

William H. McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas system, issued a similar statement that said the center’s contract policy complied with the system’s rules and rarely results in the nonreappointment of faculty members.

In other action on Saturday, the AAUP overwhelmingly voted to remove from its censure list Yeshiva University, which it had censured in 1982 for terminating three tenured professors, without due process, in response to budgetary concerns. The motion calling for the censure removal said Yeshiva had long dragged its heels in responding but officials there now appeared committed to a strong tenure system.

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