Salaita firing has ‘crippled’ U of Illinois’s ability to hire excellent scholars

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Corey Robin has a report on developments in the Salaita case containing the stunning news that 34 administrators at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign have written to the school’s incoming president stating that the firing of Salaita last summer for speaking his mind on twitter about Israel’s assault on Gaza has “crippled” their efforts to recruit top-level scholars, as Robin says:

That 34 heads of departments and units are now signed on in opposition to the university’s handling of the case is also a big development. Back in the summer, it seemed as if we were hovering at about 15 or so departments. Clearly, far from diminishing, the controversy on campus has only expanded.

What’s even more amazing is where it has expanded: three of the signatories are chairs of the departments of chemistry, math, and statistics. The opposition has spilled beyond the walls of the humanities and social sciences

The administrators’ letter appeared on the Academe blog, as an open letter from Department Heads at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to incoming president Timothy Killeen about the Salaita case. “The Department of History has already abandoned a previously authorized senior search in U.S. history this year in recognition of the bleak prospects of attracting suitable applicants in the current climate,” they report, and: “we cannot hope to recruit excellent senior faculty” because candidates cannot “trust” the school to honor principles of free speech. 

The most important thing about this letter is that these officials are uncowed by the Israel lobby; they are standing up for Salaita, defying any risk. Another sign of the changing climate in the U.S. The letter begins:

The recent words and actions of senior officials in connection with the decision to revoke an offer of a tenured position in American Indian Studies to Dr. Steven Salaita have done genuine damage to the university, and especially to the Urbana-Champaign campus, that remains largely unrecognized outside of the affected units. The program in American Indian Studies has itself obviously suffered the most as the result of the administration’s actions, but the harm to other units is also significant and ongoing. Representatives of the American Anthropological Association, the American Comparative Literature Association, the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Studies Association, and the Modern Languages Association, among others, have issued strongly worded statements or letters critical of the university. More than 5,000 academics from across the country and around the world have expressed their disapproval by boycotting UIUC. More than three-dozen scheduled talks and multiple conferences across a variety of disciplines – including, for example, this year’s entire colloquium series in the Department of Philosophy – have already been canceled, and more continue to be canceled, as outside speakers have withdrawn in response to the university’s handling of Dr. Salaita’s case. The Department of English decided to postpone a program review originally scheduled for spring 2015 in anticipation of being unable to find qualified external examiners willing to come to campus. Tenure and promotion cases may be affected as faculty at peer institutions consider extending the boycott to recommendation letters.

Most troubling of all, the ability of many departments to successfully conduct faculty searches, especially at the senior level, has been seriously jeopardized. While the possible negative effects on even junior searches remain to be seen, the Department of History has already abandoned a previously authorized senior search in U.S. history this year in recognition of the bleak prospects of attracting suitable applicants in the current climate. An open rank search in Philosophy attracted 80% fewer applicants at the rank of associate or full professor than a senior search in the same area of specialization just last year. We have long been proud of the University of Illinois’ ability to maintain and extend its excellence through the recruitment of the very best scholars in the world. In many disciplines, however, we cannot hope to recruit excellent senior faculty to this campus, or to retain many of those already here, when they can no longer trust that this university will honor the principles of faculty decision-making, free speech, and freedom to conduct research.

The department heads specifically deplore the statement by Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the school’s ceo, that the school will not tolerate “disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” followed by the board of trustees’ declaration that there is no place in a democracy for speech that does not promote “civility.” What a standard!

The administrators also criticize the hasty manner in which Chancellor Wise upended a months-long process of selecting Salaita in a few days in July and August as Israel conducted its onslaught on Gaza. As Salaita expressed rage over the actions, Wise was meeting with alarmed fundraisers at the school.

Here, by the way, is a video of Salaita’s appearance at Brooklyn College two weeks back, alongside Katherine Franke and Corey Robin. Salaita graciously cops to using the word Zionism in “crude and rudimentary ways” on twitter and takes the blame for that; but explains that in his book Israel’s Dead Soul he fully explores these questions. Nation building gave way to ethno-nationalism as the Zionist project unfolded, he explains, at 1:35. “‘Who is a Jew?’ is a question taken up by the state,” he says. “I don’t want the state defining my religious identity.”  

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Actions have consequences, Chancellor Wise.

You should have wised- up. The implications of firing him are far- reaching, indeed. As they should be. I hope that they rattle the foundations of every academic institution for a long time.

The letter is a doozy.

Somebody should submit a complaint to the body that gives this university its accreditation. Perhaps that would provoke an investigation.

RE: The department heads specifically deplore the statement by Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the school’s ceo, that the school will not tolerate “disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” followed by the board of trustees’ declaration that there is no place in a democracy for speech that does not promote “civility.” ~ Weiss [TEVYE] Civility! Civility! Civility! Civility! Civility! Civility! [TEVYE & PAPAS] Who, day and night,… Read more »

Thanks, Phil, for this report, which I can’t help but consider in light of Naftali Bennett’s recent performance at the Saban event, also covered here in granularity (what would we do without MondoWeiss?) The kind of “strength of inner spine” talk Bennett used, sort of boasting that he didn’t care what he was being confronted with by Saban and Van Dyk, just denying others’ perception of reality in favor of imposing a different perception, when… Read more »

An old saying in the academy is that “it takes ten years to gain a reputation, and twenty years to lose one”. In other words, there is a time-lag between how good you are and your reputation. And some places “coast”‘ on their past accomplishments. In the case of U Illinois, they have gotten a bad reputation in a real hurry. Of course, they can always hire SOMEBODY (someone who needs a job), but they… Read more »