University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chancellor Phyllis Wise has written an open letter to the campus (copied below) explaining her decision not to allow the hiring of Steven Salaita. The letter is an appalling attack on academic freedom and a rejection of the basic values that a university must stand for.
Wise argues, “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.” Of course, this standard is ridiculous: individuals should be free to say personal and “disrespectful” things about others (for example, everyone should be free to say that Wise’s argument here is both stupid and evil, without facing punishment from the respect police). Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being “disrespectful” is not an academic crime. But it’s notable that Salaita really didn’t say anything personal about anyone. So here Wise greatly expands the concept, declaring that not only persons but “viewpoints themselves” must be protected from any disrespectful words. I am puzzled as to exactly how a free university could possibly operate when no one is allowed to be disrespectful toward any viewpoint. Presumably, Wise will quickly act to fire anyone who has ever disrespected or demeaned Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since all “viewpoints” are protected, then biology professors must be fired for disrespecting creationism as false, along with any other professor who is found to believe or know anything.
Wise’s other main argument confirms this absurd approach: “A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner.” If what a professors tweets before they’re even hired might undermine those “confident” feelings, then all professors would have to be banned from ever expressing any opinion anywhere, lest it create any doubt that a student will be unable to debate in a respectful manner. There is clear evidence in Salaita’s teaching evaluations that students are free to express disagreements with him. But since the standard that Wise sets is the imagined feelings of students, rather than actual evidence or reality, Salaita’s long experience as a teacher is no defense.
Wise claims, “We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.” That sentence is exactly right. But Wise’s grotesque mistake is imagining that one of the rights of an individual is to be protected from the possibility of hearing “disrespectful” criticism. To the contrary, one of the fundamental rights of individual students is the right to hear dissenting viewpoints without censorship, and Wise is clearly violating that right of students to hear Salaita teach when she imposes her personal standards of “civility” on a university.
Here is Wise’s full statement:
As you may be aware, Vice President Christophe Pierre and I wrote to Prof. Steven Salaita on Aug. 1, informing him of the university’s decision not to recommend further action by the Board of Trustees concerning his potential appointment to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Since this decision, many of you have expressed your concern about its potential impact on academic freedom. I want to assure you in the strongest possible terms that all of us – my administration, the university administration and I – absolutely are committed to this bedrock principle. I began my career as a scientist challenging accepted ideas and pre-conceived notions, and I have continued during my career to invite and encourage such debates in all aspects of university life.
A pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas. One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives. Robust – and even intense and provocative – debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university.
As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.
The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel. Our university is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy. Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate.
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. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.
As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner.
A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.
As a member of the faculty, I firmly believe that a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois is a tremendous honor and a unique privilege. Tenure also brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.
I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.
Phyllis M. Wise
UPDATE: The University of Illinois Board of Trustees has issued a statement in support of Wise’s decision.