Chancellor decrees faculty at Illinois are subject to civility test; Trustees back her to the hilt

Chancellor Wise broke her long silence on the Salaita case by launching a frontal assault on academic freedom and shared governance. Her campus massmail of August 22 seems perfectly reasonable at first reading – this campus is generally a friendly and cordial place, and who would want to change that? – but what she actually asserts is alarming:

“What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

Universities exist in order to investigate, challenge, and (when necessary)  “demean and abuse” viewpoints. But the Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will not tolerate the utterance of words that demean “viewpoints” if, in her sole judgment, those words are “personal and disrespectful.” We are presumably now forbidden, for example, from bluntly disparaging the viewpoints of creationism or homophobia on this campus.

This newly-invented civility test has been applied so far only to Steven Salaita, yet we must assume the Chancellor intends for all faculty and staff to be bound by her decree. Further, her treatment of Salaita demonstrates that she sees no need for due process in such cases. Salaita was fired without the Chancellor even informing the director of the American Indian Studies Program in which he was to teach. The Chancellor seems to regard shared governance as an irritation to be discarded when convenient.

The Chancellor’s statement is troubling also for non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty, who have little enough job security as it is, what with the administration refusing so far even to recognize their new union (CFA Local 6546). On the Chicago campus, faculty are protected by their union contract from the whims of administrators. But here, NTT faculty in particular now have to look over their shoulders and worry about their social media posts – for the Chancellor might decide that some future student could be uncomfortable about comments made in the faculty member’s personal life.

The follow-up statement by the Board of Trustees and President Easter supporting the Chancellor (August 22) is just as bad. They say “we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.” Civility is pleasant enough, to be sure, but scholarship justifies the university’s existence. To rank the two as equally important betrays a sophomoric understanding of the institution that the Trustees and the President purport to lead.

For more extended analysis and skewering of the Chancellor and Trustees’ statements, we recommend the blog post by Peter Kirstein here, and the Academe Blog posts by John K. Wilson here and here.

Update: Brian Leiter  concludes his Huffington Post article on the case by writing “Chancellor Wise and Chairman Kennedy have made statements that commit the University of Illinois to illegal because unconstitutional courses of action. They should resign, or be removed from office, before doing further damage to one of the nation’s great research universities. Their public statements make clear they are unfit to lead academic institutions in which both freedom of speech and freedom of research and inquiry are upheld.” Professor Leiter is the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director, Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values, at the University of Chicago.

Contact us now at <campusfacultyassoc@gmail.com> to join the movement for a tenure-stream faculty union – and restore power to the faculty.

 – Campus Faculty Association Executive Committee