In coordination with Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s letter defending the Steven Salaita firing, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees today issued a letter of support (pdf here, and copied below) endorsing her decision.
Disturbing, the Board of Trustees declares “our collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights.” Contrary to what they think, freedom of speech and academic freedom are, in fact, human rights, and must not be “tempered.” And what Wise and the Board regard as “human rights”—being respected and comfortable—are not human rights at all.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” There is not one word in the Declaration of Human Rights about “civility,” “respect,” and feeling “comfortable.”
Yet according to the Board of Trustees, “Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.” It’s true that students and faculty often do want to feel valued, respected, and comfortable (although these are not fundamental rights). But it’s also true that sometimes students and faculty need to be challenged, questioned, and made uncomfortable. A university where everyone is always comfortable is a university that suppresses dissent and questioning. Universities are not safe harbors; they are free harbors for the expression of controversial ideas.
The Board of Trustees argues that they represent a “university community that values civility as much as scholarship.” Consider what this means: in hiring faculty, the Board of Trustees is announcing that qualifications should be 50% based on niceness, and 50% based on quality of scholarship (teaching ability is apparently not important at all to the Board). This is the recipe for a university of polite half-wits.
The Board of Trustees also reveals a deep misunderstanding of what “civility” is. Civility means living in a civil society. Civility means engaging in social interactions without resorting to threats of violence or other kinds of retaliation. Civility does not mean politeness or niceness. For example, if a UIUC professor disagrees with the Board’s decision in this case but refuses to criticize them due to politeness or fear, that professor is not displaying civility. Civility requires that you engage in public discussion and debate with honesty.
If the Board of Trustees had wanted to display civility toward Steven Salaita, the Board would have harshly criticized his views without firing him from his job. By punishing Salaita (without even arguing about his ideas), Wise and the Board of Trustees are engaging in a particularly vile act of incivility.
The Board of Trustees contends, “Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education…. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.” No place for that in our democracy? Have they paid any attention to talk radio or the internet? More than two centuries ago, some other public officials thought that “malice” endangered democracy, and to punish it they passed laws against “malicious writing.” Today, historians look back at the attempt of the Alien and Sedition Acts to ban malice as one of the worst attacks on free speech in American history and as a fundamental betrayal of American values.
A university that bans all “disrespect” and “malice,” even in extramural utterances unrelated to any academic activity, is no longer a free university worthy of its name. Of course, we all know that “malice” will be an arbitrarily-enforced standard. Anyone who falsely accuses Salaita of anti-Semitism and violence will be deemed free from “malice,” while Salaita’s criticism of a government’s bombing campaign that kills children is condemned as “malice” by the Board without any need of a hearing, evidence, argument, or discussion. The Board of Trustees does not define what “malice” is, but apparently its members know it when they feel uncomfortable.
Here’s what should make the Board of Trustees uncomfortable: a university that fires a professor for his political opinions, without the slightest regard for his scholarship or his teaching; a university that cares more about respect and comfort than freedom and debate; and a university run by people who know so little about academic freedom that they repeatedly invoke the concept while they fundamentally betray it.
Here is the full Board of Trustees statement:
August 22, 2014
Earlier today, you received a thoughtful statement from Chancellor Phyllis Wise regarding the university’s decision not to recommend Prof. Steven Salaita for a tenured faculty position on the UrbanaChampaign campus.
In her statement, Chancellor Wise reaffirmed her commitment to academic freedom and to fostering an environment that encourages diverging opinions, robust debate and challenging conventional norms. Those principles have been at the heart of the university’s mission for nearly 150 years, and have fueled its rise as a world leader in education and innovation.
But, as she noted, our excellence is also rooted in another guiding principle that is just as fundamental. Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.
We agree, and write today to add our collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights – these are the same core values which have guided this institution since its founding.
In the end, the University of Illinois will never be measured simply by the number of worldchanging engineers, thoughtful philosophers or great artists we produce. We also have a responsibility to develop productive citizens of our democracy. As a nation, we are only as strong as the next generation of participants in the public sphere. The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multicultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.
Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.
Chancellor Wise is an outstanding administrator, leader and teacher. Her academic career has been built on her commitment to promoting academic freedom and creating a welcoming environment for students and faculty alike. We stand with her today and will be with her tomorrow as she devotes her considerable talent and energy to serving our students, our faculty and staff, and our society.
We look forward to working closely with Chancellor Wise and all of you to ensure that our university is recognized both for its commitment to academic freedom and as a national model of leadingedge scholarship framed in respect and courtesy.
Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees
Robert A. Easter, President
Hannah Cave, Trustee
Ricardo Estrada, Trustee
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee
Lucas N. Frye, Trustee
Karen Hasara, Trustee
Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee
Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee
Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee
Edward L. McMillan, Trustee
James D. Montgomery, Trustee
Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee
Paula AllenMeares, Chancellor, Chicago campus, and Vice President, University of Illinois
Susan J. Koch, Chancellor, Springfield campus, and Vice President, University of Illinois
Donald A. Chambers, Professor of Physiology and Biochemistry; Chair, University Senates Conference
Jerry Bauman, Interim Vice President for Health Affairs
Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel
Thomas P. Hardy, Executive Director for University Relations
Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University
Walter K. Knorr, VP/Chief Financial Officer and Comptroller
Christophe Pierre, Vice President for Academic Affairs
Lawrence B. Schook, Vice President for Research
Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees