FAQ on Salaita, academic freedom, and faculty rights

The University of Illinois is in the midst of a crisis of academic freedom and shared governance.  We assume readers are up-to-date on these recent events.  A great deal of confusion exists about the legal, constitutional and procedural issues involved, and so we have compiled some frequently asked questions and answers about the key issues of academic freedom, political speech and the norms and procedures for academic hiring at our public institution.

We want to acknowledge that some people on campus, including CFA members, have found Professor Salaita’s tweets deeply offensive. Nonetheless, we underscore that his statements qualify as speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution, and we discuss below the special responsibilities placed on public employers by the First Amendment. Thus the firing of Professor Salaita sets a dangerous precedent that places the academic freedom of everyone on campus at risk.

Faculty unions can and do bargain for protections and grievance procedures regarding academic freedom, contract rights, and so on.  A union contract can give newly-hired faculty protection as soon as they accept their offer.  A union contract could strengthen our academic freedom, a requirement of an excellent university.

Frequently Asked Questions, and Answers

Q. Did Chancellor Wise’s decision not to forward Steven Salaita’s personnel file to the Board of Trustees violate established norms for shared governance and academic decision at UIUC?

A. Yes. Professor Salaita was offered a position as associate professor of American Indian Studies in October 2013 at the University of Illinois. He was asked to sign and did sign his acceptance in that same month.  The offer followed all normal procedures and went through normal channels of approval for hiring tenured faculty. This included a faculty vote in American Indian Studies, an external review by scholars in his field at peer institutions, review by the LAS Executive Committee, review by the Interim Dean of LAS, and review in the Provost’s office. Normal processes dictated that the final step was for the Chancellor to transmit the file for approval by the Board of Trustees. It is routine for BOT approval to come after faculty have begun their employment at the University. Professor Salaita was scheduled to begin teaching in August 2014.  It remains unclear whether it was the Chancellor or the Trustees who decided not to bring Salaita’s file before the Board – their statements have been unclear on this crucial point.  But either way, Chancellor Wise did not inform Brian Ross, Interim Dean of LAS, or Robert Warrior, Director of American Indian Studies, of the decision before implementing it. In fact, even three days after informing Professor Salaita, she still had not contacted Ross or Warrior.  Her letter to Professor Salaita gave him no explanation and no avenue for redress.

Q. Did the BOT and Chancellor Wise violate AAUP principles and the University of Illinois’s own statutes governing academic freedom?

A. Yes. In commenting on this case, the AAUP has stated that, “Aborting an appointment in this manner without having demonstrated cause has consistently been seen by the AAUP as tantamount to summary dismissal, an action categorically inimical to academic freedom and due process and one aggravated in his case by the apparent failure to provide him with any written or even oral explanation.”

Our own university statues protect faculty freedom of speech in no uncertain terms.  For analysis of the University of Illinois Statutes on Academic Freedom (Section X), see the relevant post at Academe Blog.

Q. Did the BOT and Chancellor Wise’s decision violate Professor Salaita’s Constitutional Rights?

A. Quite possibly.  A group of important Constitutional lawyers, including Professor Katherine Franke of Columbia University Law School, certainly think so, and have written to the Chancellor expressing grave concern.  As noted by University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter, the First Amendment’s protection of speech prohibits government employers, including a state university, from punishing a speaker for their expression or viewpoint. According to Leiter, revoking a job offer because of such speech is clearly unconstitutional.

While this matter may ultimately have to be decided in a court of law, it is clear that as a public institution, we are bound to uphold constitutional protections for freedom of expression.

Q. Did the Board of Trustees and Chancellor Wise need to act to protect students at UIUC from Professor Salaita, as they have stated?

A: No. Faculty at UIUC continuously review each others teaching, and every indication is that Professor Salaita is an excellent teacher.  At UIUC, when students have complaints that they are treated unfairly by a teacher, there are established ways they may complain to faculty and seek hearings and redress, as outlined in the  Student Code and the University Statutes.  Students know of and use these channels for complaint.

Q. But aren’t there exceptions to freedom of speech at an institution of higher learning?

A. Yes, but these exceptions clearly do not apply in this case. Constitutional precedent dictates that a government employer can abrogate the employee’s right to free speech IF that speech clearly threatens and disrupts the core mission of the employer.

While the Board and Chancellor Wise have argued that they know Professor Salaita’s tweets would impact his ability as an educator, they have presented no evidence to support their assertion.  In fact, reviews of his teaching point to Professor Salaita’s excellence as an educator. Students testify that he creates an environment for learning through critical but fair discussion and an openness to all viewpoints.

Q. Did the BOT and Chancellor Wise give consideration to the opinions of alumni and donors over those of the faculty, and did this violate the principles of shared governance and academic autonomy over curriculum?

A. Yes. Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that Chancellor Wise was actively discussing this issue with donors and alumni before she formed the decision, while not communicating with the faculty.

Q. Does Chancellor Wise herself admit to violating procedural norms and obligations in this case?

A. Yes.  In several recent statements, Chancellor Wise has characterized her own decision as “pretty unilateral.”

She has also said that if she had consulted more widely around campus, she might have decided differently. Confusingly, she has said both that she herself made the decision to veto Professor Salaita’s appointment, and that the Board of Trustees made the decision and informed her of it. We cannot tell exactly what has gone on here.

Q. Are all students and faculty at the University of Illinois affected?

Yes. The decision taken by the Board of Trustees and Chancellor Wise has hurt our institutional reputation, our ability to retain and hire top faculty and attract top graduate students, and  severed the trust among faculty and the administration that is central at an excellent R1 institution.

Over 5,000 highly respected scholars have joined an academic boycott of our institution. They range from top minds in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law to influential academic editors.

Some boycott participants have said they will refuse to serve as external letter writers for tenure and promotion cases, a key service upon which universities depend. If this is the case, Chancellor Wise and the BOT’s decision will directly threaten our core scholarly mission and the ability to reward, promote and tenure our faculty.

The Board and Chancellor Wise’s decision will hamper our ability to attract the best and the brightest in faculty and graduate students. A growing graduate student boycott means we may well see a reduced number of applications in Fall 2015. The American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association have explicitly expressed concerns about their members if they should seek jobs on our campus.

At the time of writing, eleven departments have voted no-confidence in the Chancellor, President Easter and the Board of Trustees.

At present, there is no way of knowing what this will cost the institution financially. Costs in time and energy (administrative, staff and faculty) are certain. We do not know how much money the University is spending on lawyers and public relations specialists to fight the growing international scandal and to fight its own faculty. At present, Professor Salaita says he is not interested in a monetary settlement, but if a suit goes to court, a settlement for a lost career and a ruined reputation might be large.

Perhaps most important, in “protecting” the University of Illinois from Professor Salaita, the BOT and Chancellor Wise have denied students exposure to valuable scholarship on a controversial and vital issue of the day.

Q. What are some additional sources of reading on the Salaita case and its implications for academic freedom and the shared governance rights of the faculty?

A. We recommend the legal analyses of Michael Dorf and Brian Leitner, and several posts at Academe Blog (for example, here and here).

Published by CFA

The Campus Faculty Association (CFA) is an advocacy organization for faculty and other campus workers committed to shared governance, academic freedom, and a strong faculty voice on campus.

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