U. of Illinois Board’s Denial of Job to Salaita Is Unlikely to Quell Controversy

September 11, 2014

The University of Illinois’s Board of Trustees voted, 8 to 1, on Thursday to deny a professorship to Steven G. Salaita, a harsh critic of Israel, at a meeting in which some board members and guest speakers voiced fears that the institution was abandoning academic freedom and others called Mr. Salaita a potential threat to students.

Board members and top administrators acknowledged at the meeting that the controversy over the university’s decision to deny Mr. Salaita a position on its Urbana-Champaign campus was not going to die out anytime soon. Several academic associations have called for boycotts of the university over the decision, but one board member, Patrick Fitzgerald, argued before voting against the appointment, "I do not think, as a trustee, we should be moved by a boycott."

The American Association of University Professors issued a statement saying it was "deeply concerned" about the board’s vote against Mr. Salaita. Noting that Illinois’s decision to withdraw its job offer to Mr. Salaita is under internal university review, it said, "We will continue to monitor developments closely and will respond accordingly." The statement reiterated the AAUP’s position that the university’s decision to abort a faculty appointment "without having demonstrated cause" is "tantamount to summary dismissal, an action categorically inimical to academic freedom and due process."

As the board’s meeting ended, immediately following its vote, many members of the large crowd of students and faculty members in attendance broke into loud chants of "Shame on you!"

Mr. Salaita, for his part, responded with a written statement suggesting he was prepared to sue over the rescinded job offer as a tenured associate professor of American Indian studies. "I have offered to meet with both the board and the administration, but not one of them has spoken with me or ever heard my side of the story," he said, challenging the idea that he would not be effective in the classroom.

‘Listen and Learn’

"I don’t think this is at all an easy decision," Mr. Fitzgerald said. He argued, however, that Mr. Salaita’s tweets protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza were unacceptable and offered evidence of his potential bias in the classroom. "At the end of the day," he said, "we need to look out for the students and potential students first and foremost."

In urging the board to reject Mr. Salaita’s appointment, Robert A. Easter, president of the University of Illinois, accused the scholar of having shown himself to be "incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions could be given equal consideration, regardless of the issue being discussed." He expressed fears that, given Mr. Salaita’s past statements (which have included a tweet professing a desire to see the disappearance of Israeli settlers on the West Bank), his presence on the faculty would hurt the university’s efforts to recruit students and faculty and staff members.

Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, accepted responsibility for much of the controversy surrounding the university’s dealings with Mr. Salaita, whose appointment she initially endorsed and then attempted, on her own, to rescind. "To my campus faculty colleagues who are frustrated and angry about this case, I pledge that I will continue to listen and learn, and work hard to bring the campus together," she said.

Chancellor Wise pledged to help remedy the flaws in shared governance brought to the surface by her administration’s actions, but she told the board’s members, "I cannot recommend that you approve his appointment to the faculty."

The Face of the University

That Mr. Salaita’s appointment appeared on the list of proposed faculty hires to be voted on by the board on Thursday came as a surprise. Chancellor Wise had earlier told Mr. Salaita that she did not plan to forward his appointment to the board given its likely opposition—a move that some faculty members criticized as violating a state law allowing deans to submit a faculty appointment to the board if that appointment is opposed by the chancellor.

The board’s vote followed public comments that showed how much the controversy had divided people at the university.

Anna Westerstahl Stenport, an associate professor of Scandinavian studies at Urbana-Champaign, told the board she was reluctant to continue soliciting donations to academic programs because she was "unwilling to be the face" of an institution seen as unsupportive of free speech. She urged the board "to reconsider and reverse this damaging course," saying "the heart and soul of this university risks being destroyed."

Robert Warrior, a professor of American Indian studies, English, and history at Urbana-Champaign and director of its program in American Indian studies, told the trustees that Mr. Salaita had been a strong teacher in his previous position on the faculty at Virginia Tech. Nothing Mr. Salaita had said in his tweets about Israel’s actions justified withdrawing the job offer to him, Mr. Warrior said.

But Josh Cooper, a senior at Urbana-Champaign, said 1,300 students there had signed a petition supporting Chancellor Wise’s decision to withdraw the job offer to Mr. Salaita. He called Mr. Salaita’s statements about Israel "vulgar" and "hateful," and praised Ms. Wise for taking a "courageous stand" to ensure civility on the campus.

James D. Montgomery, the trustee who voted in favor of the appointment of Mr. Salaita, said he initially supported Chancellor Wise’s decision to withdraw the job offer but "I have subsequently come to believe that that may be a mistake and an action that is not in the best interest of the university." His reversal, he said, had come in response to threatened boycotts and his belief, as a lawyer, that expressions of opinion are protected speech, regardless of how they are stated.

"The one thing that makes this a unique and great country for me," he said, "is that I can stand on a rooftop and call anyone I want to an SOB."

Correction (9/16/2014, 6:05 p.m.): This article originally misstated the job title of the University of Illinois's Anna Stenport. She is an associate professor of Scandinavian studies, not director of the Scandinavian-studies department. She is a former director of Scandinavian studies, which is a program, not a department. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.