University of Illinois Board of Trustees Statement on Salaita Case

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


10 thoughts on “University of Illinois Board of Trustees Statement on Salaita Case

  1. Pingback: Chancellor Phyllis Wise Explains the Firing of Steven Salaita | The Academe Blog

  2. A game-changer? The Board of Trustees has now officially supported the Chancellor and her version of academic freedom. They have not (yet) voted on the appointment proper. This distinction with a difference could be very “interesting” should Prof. Salaita sue UIUC for breach of contract.

    • Of course, it is also possible that the sole remedy from a breach of contract case in state court for a job applicant would be that the Board is obliged to vote on the appointment inasmuch as that was/is the only violated element of the contract approval process.

      Damages? Interesting question. The plaintiff is likely obliged to show mitigation and if he receives employment or another academic appointment in the meantime, they are lessened. Settlement? How likely, now that the board appears to have dug in its heels?

      A First Amendment case in Federal court? That’s what the Board of Trustees’ statement is designed to defeat by making the case for business reasons for controlling public employee speech. But, oddly enough, ordinary citizens have more speech rights at a public university than its employees do. And this university chancellor and board appear to have broken the cardinal rule of silence on candidate personnel matters which may or may not infringe on any existing state law or regulation protecting candidate privacy.

      But what if court discovery reveals that never ever before has such an appointment offer not been approved by this Board of Trustees? Or if some UIUC faculty have begun their contracts before formal board approval? Might not the Board’s acceptance/rejection vote have then served as purely ceremonial and be so adjudged in court?

      What if an argument were made in Federal court that this is a case of ethnic discrimination against an Arab-American? Of course, then it wouldn’t matter whether or not Prof. Salaita is or is not an employee. In fact, the case might be stronger if he were not.

      In the face of these multiple facets of the case, academic freedom is likely to be only one of many causes of action if/when Prof. Salaita takes UIUC to trial. One thing is certain: the outcome of any court action will be years away — plenty of time for this to somewhere become a political cause celebre as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict evolves on the world stage.

      Oddly enough, the question is whether free speech in this nation will survive all of these political machinations. In a case flipping sides in the same argument, as it were, the French courts ruled in favor of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper (which has viciously and scatalogically mocked everyone and everything held sacred by anyone) when it was sued for having published the controversial Danish cartoons and a cover drawing of Mohammed weeping “It’s hard to be loved by jerks” (cf.

      Would the same type of result defending free speech occur in American courts? Only time will tell.

  3. Also, the Chair of the BoT is the genius who said several months ago that adjunct faculty don’t have academic freedom because they’re hourly employees. Clearly a staunch supporter of both academic freedom and faculty.

  4. Pingback: 8.27.2014 – Academic freedom in the US and global sex trafficking | Voices of the Middle East & North Africa

  5. Pingback: Salaita vs University of Illinois and global sex trafficking | Voices of the Middle East & North Africa

  6. Pingback: A UI Trustee Breaks Ranks! We Have an Opening! | Corey Robin

  7. Pingback: Board of Trustees Officially Votes Against Salaita | The Academe Blog

  8. Pingback: Civility is for suckers: Campus hypocrisy and the “polite behavior” lie | Nieuws | Kritische Studenten Utrecht

  9. Pingback: Misunderstanding Civility and the Salaita Case | The Academe Blog

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