The following is the text of an open letter to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees from Safiya Umoja Noble, Assistant Professor, UCLA, and former faculty member, student, and development staff member at UIUC. The letter appeared on Noble’s blog.
Dear University of Illinois Board of Trustees Members,
I spent the last eight years of my life building community at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before recently accepting a faculty position at UCLA this Fall. I write as an alumna of the University with two degrees from Illinois, and as a person who will have a lifelong interest and commitment to the U of I.
When I first moved to Champaign, I was hired as the Director of Development for the Department of Computer Science. During that time, my job was to interact with donors and cultivate gifts in the form of endowments, fellowships and scholarships. I write to you knowing first-hand the kinds of pressures the University is facing and why you might be compelled to follow the direction of wealthy donors, or feel sensitivity to their threats. I also recognize the powerful role that the advancement directors and deans hold in influencing the administration to take various courses of action that serve these interests. As the State decreases its contributions to the University, I know you find yourselves increasingly beholden to corporate and private interests that are able to use their resources to further influence the direction of the University.
Having seen these things happen while a development officer, I opted-out and pursued a master’s and doctorate so I could join the faculty instead of having to endure these challenges to support my family and myself. I truly believe that the expertise in educating students, as a public land-grant university lays in the hands of people who can produce evidence-based research — not six- and seven-figure endowments.
It is the faculty who are grounded in research and deep expertise, which should be at the forefront of shaping the future of the University with students, not people who can make extraordinary gifts tied to their ideological stances. I say this after hearing a potential donor from a famous family tell me once that he would not make a major gift to support fellowships for underrepresented students because he “knows for a fact that Latinos and Blacks are not intellectually capable of doing higher level math and computer science.” I shudder writing it. I also had a donor who wanted his gift to only support White students, and wanted this provision to be enforced with any gift he made to the University. One must gracefully navigate the strategies and beliefs that are tied to advancement, as I am sure you are now experiencing.
You see, wealthy people may or may not tie gifts to things that make sense. Certainly, this is not the vast majority of donors to the University, whom I am sure are generous, incredible people, as are most of the development professionals on the campus. Their jobs have become incredibly difficult now due to the firing of Professor Salaita. No matter the ideological ties some may put on their gifts, we do not want the workings of the University, and the scholarship it produces, to be tied to these kinds of whims — or to racism, to be frank.
It is interesting timing for a crack-down on “civility” at Urbana, and an interesting interpretation you hold about who is (potentially, hypothetically) fostering harm, and who isn’t. You may recall that the campus and its students were not exempt from ACTUALLY fostering hate-speech on Twitter, most recently directed at Chancellor Wise last Fall when she did not cancel classes due to inclement weather. The students responsible for the petition that circulated against her, and many who participated in the activities on Twitter, were some of my students. They confessed their participation to their classmates and me the next morning. I spent considerable time helping students make sense of the ways in which “harmless pranks” and “childish behavior” (as some administrators deemed it) fit into larger systems of structural racism and sexism. It was a teachable moment.
I probably need to point out that tweeting racist and sexist statements, including a thinly veiled death threat at the Chancellor, is not the same thing as tweeting critiques of war and state-sanctioned violence, just so we are clear. No students were expelled from school for using the campus IT infrastructure to tweet racism and sexism. Professor Salaita should not lose his career at Illinois over critiquing racism and apartheid.
Many of my students were incredibly reflective about their participation, passively or actively, in those events last Fall, which also made the national news much to our collective embarrassment. Being contrite and admitting to being caught up in the moment, and doing the wrong thing, can happen to anyone. When students were able to reflect in the broader context of their actions and the actions of their peers, their opinion of the matter changed in the case of tweeting hate at the Chancellor. Many people realized that they did not have to double-down on the mistake, rather, they were able to process the broader impact of the petition and the harm it had caused the institution. Many students modeled reflective leadership and corrective action.
What we learned in the classroom over the racist and sexist tweets directed at Chancellor Wise, which we could use in the case of the firing of Professor Salaita, is that it is never too late to say I’m sorry and do the right thing. If students can do it, certainly the Board of Trustees can.
You could demonstrate what having an education allows for — an opportunity to reverse a course of action based on new information, like the incredible outpouring of concern over academic freedom and what this mistake costs our institution, my alma mater. You could consult the Constitution and the First Amendment experts for a closer reading of Federal law. You could deliberate on what it costs Illinois when hiring safeguards are abandoned, and why faculty governance is important to ensuring experts evaluate other experts, rather than donors (or faculty in other departments) capriciously weighing-in on hiring and firing decisions. You might model the most important lesson of all — that we do not have to hold on to a stance just because it’s too hard to face the surmounting evidence that our position is incorrect.
In the face of evidence about the outstanding scholarship and teaching record of Professor Salaita, there exists a crisis of common sense.
As to the future, I cannot express enough how chilling this firing is, as there are so few underrepresented voices in the academy and we are now fearful in our own intellectual commitments. I have seen many faculty of color leave Illinois because of the hostile environment it fostered toward them in their pursuit of tenure, in their research endeavors, or in their desire to find a greater sense of community and inclusion, and these practices persist today without much regard by the Trustees. Your firing of Professor Salaita does the exact opposite of creating a safe and welcoming campus. These actions have created fear, anxiety and incredible stress for many brilliant scholars and students at the U of I, who now fear that capricious whims of donors and administrators will set the tone for our civic engagement in our communities.
I know it pains many people to cast votes of “no confidence” against Chancellor Wise, and it pains me to watch it from afar. Don’t let the kind of whims I heard as a development director persist. All money is not good money. I urge you to take corrective action and reinstate Professor Steven Salaita to his tenured job in the Department of American Indian Studies.
It’s never too late to say I’m sorry and do the right thing. In fact, it might be the real teachable moment we need.
Safiya Umoja Noble, Assistant Professor, UCLA
Ph.D (’12) and M.S. (’09) Graduate School of Library & Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Safiya Umoja Noble, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Media and Cinema Studies
Institute of Communications Research
Faculty Affiliate to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Department of Gender & Women’s Studies, Center for African Studies, and the Center for Writing Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign