What Can We Do about the University of Illinois Administration? Get Organized!

We are at a crisis point for faculty governance and academic freedom. Last Friday, the administration imposed a capricious and arbitrary standard of “civility,” governing what faculty are allowed to say both on and off campus. On Monday, Inside Higher Education revealed that  the Chancellor was heavily lobbied by donors and University fund-raisers as she made her decision to unilaterally override faculty decision-making and fire Prof. Steven Salaita.

Today we must ask: is the Chancellor’s newly-invented “incivility” rationale the real reason for the firing? Or do donors and fundraisers now have a say in hiring and retention decisions at the University of Illinois? Academic freedom and faculty freedom of speech are in grave danger under this regime.

Faculty want to know: does the administration even understand the basics of academic freedom and shared governance?

Does the Chancellor recognize how destructive a civility test  is to our scholarly environment?

Are university leaders completely out of touch? An endowed professor of law at the University of Chicago thinks so: he says the Chancellor and the Board of Trusteees “are unfit to lead academic institutions” because of their recent statements.

Below, we re-cap recent developments, and explain how we can join together to protect the University’s reputation and restore the power of the faculty.

Recent developments

The firing of American Indian Studies professor Steven Salaita by Chancellor Phyllis Wise has placed the University of Illinois at the center of a national and international controversy over academic freedom, political speech and faculty autonomy on our campus.  Over the last two weeks, the national AAUP and the Illinois AAUP have issued strong statements denouncing the Administration’s action. So has the Campus Faculty Association. The Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the story extensively, with headlines like “Scholars Sound Alarms About Being Judged on Their Civility.”  Blogs by Peter Kirstein and John Wilson analyze the Chancellor and Board of Trustees’ statements in highly critical terms.

Petitions of protest and calls for Salaita’s reinstatement have gathered thousands of signatures.  Eloquent letters have reached Chancellor Wise from eminent scholars in Constitutional law and many other disciplines. Last week, faculty in the American Indian Studies Program cast a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Wise.

Today, Inside Higher Education revealed that in late July, the Chancellor was heavily lobbied by donors and University fund-raisers.  It seems likely that the decision to fire Prof. Salaita and to override shared governance procedures was shaped by this pressure, and that the Chancellor’s claim she was concerned about Salaita’s “incivility” is not the whole truth.

Today, a commentary signed by sixty-four tenured UIUC professors calls for the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees to reverse their decision.  They underline that the decision has “severely damaged the reputation  of the University of Illinois, which now appears intolerant of political speech as well as indifferent to its own principles of due process, shared governance and academic freedom.”   We agree.

Will Senate leadership push back against the Administration’s threat to academic freedom?

Not likely. The Senate Executive Committee (SEC) seems unconcerned that the Chancellor’s actions threaten academic freedom and faculty governance on our campus. SEC Chair Roy Campbell has gone so far as to hail the Chancellor’s statement as “clear and decisive” (News-Gazette, August 23, page A-6). Prof. Campbell’s support of the Chancellor goes directly against the spirit of a resolution on “academic freedom and shared governance” passed with great difficulty by senators last May in the wake of the James Kilgore case – a resolution that Campbell and other key members of the SEC vehemently opposed.

Senators committed to academic freedom and shared governance will certainly call for action at the upcoming Senate meeting (September 22), trying to defend the powers of the faculty. But the record shows that we cannot expect the Chancellor or Board of Trustees to honor any resolution passed by the Senate.

How can faculty make a difference?

Outrage around the US and internationally continues to grow, and our students are protesting.

What can faculty do?  We need to move beyond writing letters and signing petitions, valuable as those actions are.  If we want to break the persistent cycle of dysfunction on this campus, then we must fundamentally alter the power balance in favor of faculty. We must work to establish an independent voice as an organized faculty, a voice that cannot be silenced by administrative decree.

We need a legally recognized faculty union.  A union contract can protect our tenure-stream colleagues from political interference with their academic work.  It can assure that scholars will not fear for their careers when they speak out on controversial issues. Last year, our non-tenure-track colleagues organized a union – the tenure-stream faculty can do it now.

Restore power to the faculty! Contact us today at <campusfacultyassoc@gmail.com> to join the movement for a tenure-stream faculty union.

– Campus Faculty Association Executive Committee

Notes. CFA is not involved in the movement to boycott UIUC. The group Support Salaita  is tracking actions and statements on campus and around the world in support of Professor Salaita.