Chris Kennedy: "We Did the Right Thing"

Christopher Kennedy, chair of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees has never responded to my request for him to debate me when I speak on Monday in Urbana (Sept. 22, 7pm, Allen Hall, 1005 W. Gregory), but he has spoken to the Chicago Tribune and now the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette about his decision. His interview with the News-Gazette contains a few revelations that only make the decision to fire Salaita even more difficult for anyone to defend.

Kennedy acknowledged that the Board had “a very short time frame to react” to news of Salaita’s tweets and declared, “I would squarely lay the blame for not doing that on Professor Salaita.” Considering that Salaita was reacting to Israeli attacks on Gaza, I suppose that you could lay the blame on Israel, except that Kennedy has apparently decided that no one at the University of Illinois is allowed to blame Israel for anything.

According to Kennedy, the board members discussed Salaita in executive session at their July 23, 2014 board meeting. The Legal Insurrection piece about Salaita appeared on July 19, which probably inspired the Daily Caller article about Salaita that appeared on July 21, prompting a dozen or so complaint letters that alerted U of I officials, and leading to a News-Gazette article on July 22 that was included in the Board packet’s news clips. Kennedy reported that he brought it up with Wise before the meeting, and was told they would talk about it in executive session. According to Kennedy, Wise told the Board that Salaita “crossed the line” and was guilty of “hate speech,” and she wanted to reject his appointment. After a student trustee looked up Salaita’s tweets online (probably from the Daily Caller article) and read them aloud, Kennedy reports, “We were sort of stunned that anyone would write such blatantly anti-Semitic remarks. We indicated to Chancellor Wise that we’d be supportive of her decision.” Notice how Kennedy is very clearly throwing Wise under the bus: this was “her decision.”

This revelation is particularly important, because it is an admission that the trustees never looked for a moment at Salaita’s teaching record or his scholarship. And it appears that the sole reason for Salaita’s firing was the belief that his tweets were “hate speech” and anti-Semitic. Of course, there was never the slightest suggestion that anyone should ask Salaita for any explanation or contact the academics involved in his hiring.

Kennedy’s timeline also brings a new perspective on what happened. Because Wise wrote to Salaita on August 1, telling him that the trustees would not support his hiring, many critics (including me) initially believed that it was the trustees, not Wise, pushing forward this decision, and that the many wealthy donors who had contacted the University of Illinois had influenced what happened. But now it appears that Wise decided on her own to dismiss Salaita, without the influence of any trustees, who were happy to go along with her wishes. Wise has never explained why it took her more than a week to inform Salaita, despite her claim that she did so to help Salaita avoid the needless expense of moving to Illinois.

This does not mean that money and donors had no influence on Wise. She was well aware of the financial implications of hiring Salaita despite receiving less than a dozen letters in protest before July 23, some of which mentioned “financial contributions” and “future donations.”

Kennedy declared, “It’s absolutely clear that we could not bring Salaita onto this campus. We cannot endorse that behavior.” This is rather strange logic, since the hiring of a professor is never an endorsement of his extramural utterances.

Kennedy is very defensive about the decision: “Did we violate the academic autonomy of a unit? Absolutely not, Did we violate someone’s tenure? I don’t know how we can violate someone’s tenure if we never gave it to someone.” These are odd word choices. The issue is not the “academic autonomy of a unit” but the trustees overruling the academic authorities of the university in a decision that rejects academic standards. And the issue was not violating someone’s “tenure,” but violating academic freedom by imposing a punishment, without hearings or due process, for vague allegations of “hate speech.”

Kennedy said, “I don’t believe there’s anybody with an open mind who cannot be convinced we did the right thing, ethically and procedurally.” Kennedy apparently lives in a bubble of groupthink, where he believes that anybody who disagrees with him must be suffering from a closed mind. It’s particularly ironic coming from a man who decided that a professor must be banished because Kennedy didn’t like some of his tweets.

Kennedy also espouses a conspiracy theory to explain any opposition to Salaita’s firing, blaming it on a “handful of very loud, vocal opponents who were well-connected before this episode who banded together and created a lot of communication to the chancellor.” In this case, “well-connected” seems to be code language for union organizers and sympathizers on campus.

Kennedy’s words make the decision by the University of Illinois even more indefensible: this was a rushed decision made without any consideration of Salaita’s academic record, based purely on the misguided, unproven belief that Salaita was guilty of “hate speech” and that a public university can ban such ideas.

2 thoughts on “Chris Kennedy: "We Did the Right Thing"

  1. So now we have diametrically opposed explanations of the firing: Wise’s statements that this was not her idea and Kennedy’s that it was not the Board’s idea, but hers.

    This reminds me of an interesting experience as a graduate student leader: It appeared to the student leader that the dean of the institution was being made the fall guy on a major campus issue more likely determined by his superiors. The graduate student dropped by the office of the dean’s secretary, engaged in some small talk, and then said, “It really disgusts me the way the provost makes the dean take the fall for her decisions.” The secretary replied, “I’m glad you figured that out” — thereby providing verification of the student leader’s hunch.

    In the chain of command, those higher up often consider it to be part of the job obligations of their subordinates to take the fall for the unpopular or controversial decisions of their superiors. Given the conflicting statements from Kennedy and from Wise, it would seem more likely that Wise’s slip of the tongue was the truth (cf http://will.illinois.edu/news/story/chancellor-wise-expresses-regret-over-salaita-case?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter). After all, her own job was/is at stake in the matter: pleasing the Board of Trustees and its Chair above all else.

  2. Pingback: 2014 Through the Academe Blog: September | The Academe Blog

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.