The University of Illinois Board of Trustees just concluded a meeting at which they formally voted to reject the appointment of Steven Salaita. However, the vote was not unanimous. Trustee James Montgomery, who had earlier signed the letter endorsing the dismissal of Salaita, changed his mind: “I think I made a mistake, and I don’t mind saying it.” Montgomery recalled being a student at the Urbana campus 55 years ago when the university embraced housing discrimination against African-Americans and noted, “I guess I was almost as vocal as Professor Salaita when I carried my picket signs around this campus.”
Other trustees disagreed. Patrick Fitzgerald argued that Salaita’s presence “might chill 18-year-olds from coming on campus” and said that the Board should intervene because “shared governance means everyone plays a role on campus.”
UPDATE: Salaita has responded to the Board’s decision:
I am disappointed in the majority of the Trustees and the action they took today. Being at the school on Tuesday surrounded by so many supportive students and faculty was a professional high point for me and reinforced how rewarding it would be to work in that community. I have offered to meet with both the Board and the Administration, but not one of them has spoken with me or ever heard my side of the story. They have no reason to doubt the high standard I have always maintained in the classroom. As I said in a less-notorious tweet, “I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs.” If they had cared to learn, they would have seen this and other tweets reflecting a similar sentiment. Given the Board’s vote, I am speaking with my attorneys about my options.
The one interesting revelation at the Board meeting was Chancellor Phyllis Wise admitting that the Salaita appointment received “my initial approval.” I haven’t seen the news that Wise had approved the appointment before. Wise said, “I pledge that I will continue to listen and learn” and added, “We will be stronger because of this, and look forward to the engagement.” (So far, Wise hasn’t responded to my request to have her join me for a discussion on academic freedom at UIUC on Sept. 22. I look forward to the engagement, but I’m not sure it will happen.)
The decision against Salaita was also endorsed by the Chicago Tribune in an editorial this morning, which argued that “his tweets crossed the line from caustic commentary to hate speech” and “would create a hostile environment in which others must work or study.” Here’s what I wrote in a letter to the Tribune:
Dear Editor: It’s always disturbing when a newspaper embraces the repression of free speech, but the Tribune’s editorial (op-ed, Sept. 11) endorsing the dismissal of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois is particularly disheartening. According to the editorial writers, Salaita must be fired because his controversial tweets would create a “hostile environment” in the classroom. I once had a professor who publicly opposed gay marriage for religious reasons. Like Salaita, he was a teaching professional in the classroom. But wouldn’t a gay or lesbian student feel a “hostile environment” if a professor publicly advocates government discrimination against gay and lesbian people? (Unlike my professor, Salaita never argued for discrimination against anyone.) So, if the Tribune endorses the dismissal of Salaita to protect student feelings, will you also support the firing of all professors who oppose gay marriage? As for my professor, fortunately he was never punished for his beliefs, and eventually sound logic pushed him to change his mind about gay marriage. His name: Barack Obama.