Faculty matters: Before, during, and beyond the Salaita case

(Originally published in the Daily Illini on 9/15/14)

The Board of Trustees’ unfavorable vote against Steven Salaita’s job offer of a tenured associate professor position at our institution has diminished the academic integrity of the promotion and tenure review process at the University. Consequently, my main concern over last week’s official resolution of Salaita’s case is the future of our great university — after all, our university is much more than any one of us as individuals, whether we are faculty, staff, students, or administrators and trustees.

For almost 20 years, I have been a proud member of the faculty at the Urbana campus.  As a scholar and educator, I have been a member of the departments of Anthropology and Latina/Latino Studies, with additional affiliations in Gender and Women Studies, Global Studies and Latin American Studies. In my capacity as administrator, I have been associate head and director of graduate studies in Anthropology and associate dean of the Graduate College. I have been a CIC Academic Leadership Program fellow.

I also have served in the Executive Committee of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS), which is responsible for evaluating tenure and promotion cases once the candidate has been approved at the department level. The LAS Executive Committee members are not appointed by the Dean. All the members of the faculty in this committee are democratically elected by other faculty in the College.

Additionally, the members of this committee represent the social sciences, the humanities and the sciences. In fact, the scientific departments within LAS are also evaluated by the same kind of executive committee that evaluates American Indian Studies, a humanities and social science department. In other words, the stakes in the Salaita situation are broader than just for the humanities and ethnic studies on campus.

This means that Salaita’s case was vetted not only at the department level, but also by the LAS multidisciplinary Executive Committee before it went to the Provost Campus Committee. The campus-wide Promotion and Tenure Committee at the provost level consists of faculty representing multiple colleges on campus: Education, Engineering, Fine Arts, etc.

At the college and provost levels, all faculty members who serve in these committees have themselves been previously promoted both from assistant professor to associate professor and from associate professor to full professor — overall, it takes more than a decade for an assistant professor to reach full professor status.

With the input, evaluation, assessment and discussion by faculty experts on the specialty of the candidate and beyond at three levels of campus review (including the five to six fundamentally essential external reviewers from across the nation, beyond the candidate’s own references), it makes sense that the board should only approve pro forma — as a practical formality — the promotion and tenure cases being recommended to them by our “full professors.”

Because of this well-established democratic procedure at the University, I strongly believe that it was not in the best interest of our fine institution to have abruptly withdrawn, without consulting the promotion and tenure faculty committees, the official offer of a tenured position to Salaita.

Indeed, the initial job offer (dated October 2013) was made after careful review of Salaita’s promotion and tenure papers (including the letters from external reviewers) not only by colleagues in the department of American Indian Studies but also by the democratically elected members in the Executive Committee of the College of LAS and also by the Campus Committee at the provost level.

It should be emphasized that every promotion and tenure case is different, and so is every vote. This evaluation process for promotion and tenure at the University is what gives integrity to the rigorous academic system that gives body and soul to a world-class research institution such as ours.

The lack of faculty consultation behind the University’s decision on Salaita not only disregards our democratic practice of shared governance, as manifested in the way faculty representation is included in the tenure process at all levels of review, but also disregards our academic integrity by dismissing faculty expertise and the role it plays in maintaining an intellectually vibrant community of original scholars at our university.

Given the rigorous and clearly-delineated set of guidelines through which we recruit and promote and retain tenured faculty, it is not fair to the multiple communities of the University to risk being systematically boycotted by thousands of colleagues around the country and around the world as a result of top administrative decisions made about (irritating yet First Amendment-protected) comments expressed by Salaita on social media — outside the promotion and tenure review process.

Therefore, I firmly believe that the decision to revoke and terminate a job offer that has been properly reviewed, discussed and voted upon not only by an established academic unit (American Indian Studies) but also, and even more importantly, by those ultimately responsible for the quality of research and teaching at our institution — its highest ranking full professors from across the campus — was a deeply serious administrative error.

With the Board of Trustees 8-1 vote rejecting Salaita’s appointment, I hope that they and the rest of our top administrators are seriously concerned  (just like Trustee Montgomery) about the unfortunate boycott of the University, mainly as a result of the “University’s decision” made against the hiring of Salaita without consulting faculty.

It is urgent that our Chancellor, our Board and our President understand that the boycott is not an idle threat with only sporadic and short-term consequences. With a boycott in place, we, particularly the humanities and the social sciences, will experience considerable difficulty bringing scholars to campus to further help educate our students and to further enhance our pursuit of knowledge and research.

We will experience even more difficulty than usual evaluating future promotion and tenure cases (we do need letters from external reviewers; we cannot just evaluate ourselves internally); and we will be highly limited in our efforts to effectively recruit to campus new faculty and new graduate students of diverse backgrounds and with multiple points of view (particularly given the diverse demographics in the rest of the 21st century). A boycott of this kind would be devastating to our university and its multiple communities.

Ultimately, those of us who are in charge of maintaining its fine, world-class reputation must recognize that there are moments when the University and its future are being put at risk. This is one of those moments and we should not underestimate the potential harm that a national and international boycott, as well as the disregard for academic freedom, shared governance and academic integrity — fully embedded in our rigorous promotion and tenure review process — can bring to those who matter the most: the future leaders of our society; that is, current and future students of the Urbana campus.

Alejandro Lugo, Professor of anthropology and Latina/Latino studies. He can be reached at a-lugo@illinois.edu. 

 

 

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