On January 23, 2014, Christopher G. Kennedy was reelected by his peers as chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. In the public relations announcement it praised his putative transformation of the board into an ethical model of leadership: “During his five years as chairman, the board has restored confidence in the integrity of senior leadership and established a tone at the top for strong ethical behavior and undivided commitment to the best interests of the University in the wake of a 2009 admissions controversy.” The reference was to a “clout list” being sullied by politicians and friends of the board pressuring the institution to admit some eight hundred “special interest” students into the various colleges and Law School, thereby, circumventing the normal process of evaluating applications for admission. Now we are seeing a new “clout list” in which donors, organized e-mail campaigns and enemies of free speech have pressured the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to revoke a promised position to Professor Steven Salaita.
I doubt if such an accolade will be repeated at the end of Mr. Kennedy’s second term as chair. Kennedy, a nephew of President John F. Kennedy and the son of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, has played a major role in the firing of Professor Salaita. An expert on indigenous peoples, he was tenured at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and was offered and returned a signed written contract in October, 2013 as a tenured associate professor in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The reasons behind this summary dismissal, without even an explanation of cause to the victim, were to placate angry donors and more purposefully to implement viewpoint cleansing of a narrative that deviates from the predominant accepted discourse on matters pertaining to the long-standing conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian population living in the West Bank and Gaza.
Illinois has seen its share of tumultuous academic freedom cases that deal precisely with this matter. The Norman Finkelstein tenure travesty at DePaul University and the Iymen Chehade case at Columbia College Chicago, while resolved, are two recent examples of institutional efforts to attenuate significantly the range of permissible discourse on the Middle East cauldron of war. No other area of world politics or international relations is subject to such censorship and coercion in the area of scholarship and pedagogy.
Mr. Kennedy has told the Chicago Tribune on numerous occasions he is open to a settlement. See here and here. That would not, in my estimation, serve as an ethical exit from the summary dismissal of Professor Salaita. A settlement might preclude a possible censure from the American Association of University Professors and quell the outrage directed against the gratuitous, possible destruction of an academician’s career. Yet I hope Professor Salaita does not accept a settlement, although, that is for him and counsel to determine.
A settlement gets Mr. Kennedy and Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise off the hook. A settlement ends the matter. It also binds the parties never to discuss the details or to litigate any aspect of the revocation of continuous tenure. A settlement does NOT restore a career; it pays cash to end it in many instances. It does not permit teaching and the prestige of a university appointment. It does not guarantee future employment and the removal from a blacklist. The Finkelstein case is proof of these assertions. If a settlement provides health care, a pension plan or cash, it is at best of limited duration. It assuredly would constitute less remuneration than several decades of financial benefits that would accrue from a continuous tenured appointment.
If Mr. Kennedy were to reinstate Professor Salaita it would be seen as a profile in courage and a capacity to exercise ethical judgment upon reconsideration of a grievous wrong. More importantly than the restoration of Mr. Kennedy’s problematic reputation as chairperson of the Board of Trustees, it would serve as a veritable declaration that on the flagship campus of the University of Illinois, a respect for academic freedom, academic due process and shared governance is in the process of restoration. The reputation of the university administration and governing board hangs in the balance.