Salaita, the Howell Case, and the Influence of Money

InsideHigherEd today features an essay I wrote about Kenneth Howell, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois who was fired, and then re-hired, in 2010, after a complaint about an email he sent to his Catholicism class which included some rather bizarre anti-gay views.

Last month, I wrote about a white supremacist who is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, and some commenters complained that it wasn’t relevant to the Salaita case because the professor retired a decade ago and it’s not clear that administrators were aware of his racist views when he was still teaching there. The Howell case, however, is impossible to dismiss because of the striking similarities to the Salaita case (a professor accused of offensive statements) and because of the radically different outcome, where the administration actually intervened to protect Howell’s academic freedom despite his bigotry.

Why did the administration treat Howell and Salaita so differently? That’s a question I don’t explore in the article, but it’s one worth asking.

Salaita himself gave an answer in a Chicago Tribune op-ed published this week: “Publicly disclosed documents reveal that, within days, University of Illinois donors who disagreed with my criticism of Israeli policy threatened to withhold money if I wasn’t fired.” Salaita argued that his firing was done “in order to appease a few wealthy donors.” Denise Cummins, in a blog post for PBS’ Newshour, also argued that money motivated the decision.

In the Howell case, protests and donors also seemed to influence the outcome, but in the opposite direction. The pressure on the university came from Howell’s supporters, as one report noted: “The organizers behind the ‘Save Dr. Ken’ facebook campaign (with a membership of support nearing 3,000) are organizing a cease-donation campaign among UofI alumni.”

Interestingly, the Support Salaita facebook page has about the same number of supporters as Howell did, but there has been no cease-donation campaign started. The personal boycott by thousands of academics of the University of Illinois has gained a lot of attention, but to a lot of conservatives the concept of thousands of liberal professors refusing to speak is a dream, not a threat. I’m very skeptical of the effectiveness of boycotts, but I think cease-donation campaigns (with the money going to alternative funds in the area, to support having dissident speakers on campus) are a great idea, so it’s strange that nothing like this has been proposed.

Still, I don’t imagine that money is going to change the minds of the trustees or Phyllis Wise, since the big money is on their side and against academic freedom in this case.

On the same day that Salaita’s op-ed appeared in the Chicago Tribune, its front page featured a story about Wise announcing a new effort to establish a medical school on the Urbana campus, something that many engineering and science faculty strongly support (and I support it, too). That may help explain why so many STEM faculty on campus support Wise despite her attack on academic freedom: they like her, and they appreciate her work on their behalf. And it may explain why Wise was so anxious to get rid of Salaita that she and the trustees decided to fire him within a few days of learning about his tweets.

Wise isn’t dumb. She didn’t need some rich donor to write an email to figure out that a high-profile accusation of anti-Semitism against a new professor would hurt the University in its efforts to get donations and approval for a new medical school that she planned to announce a few weeks later. Considering that the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Chris Kennedy, has expressed skepticism about a new medical school, it’s also clear that Wise would not have wanted to alienate him by hiring a professor whose views he found offensive.

We might never know whether money really influenced Wise and the trustees, or whether they simply opposed Salaita out of personal convictions (as many others have done). The motivation is mostly irrelevant. Whether money or morality motivated the firing, they still violated the fundamental principles of academic freedom and their own Statutes.

However, the Howell case (decided when Kennedy and a majority of the voting trustees were in office, but shortly before Wise was hired in 2011) indicates a polar opposite approach to academic freedom, where the only similarity was that in both cases, the University of Illinois was responding to the outrage of well-connected and wealthy individuals. It’s naïve to imagine that money doesn’t matter, in an era when fundraising is the primary occupation of a college president.

4 thoughts on “Salaita, the Howell Case, and the Influence of Money

  1. “I’m very skeptical of the effectiveness of boycotts”

    I think this particular boycott has been pretty effective. It has received much attention, as you have noted, and it has influenced at least one board member, Montgomery, who expressed his concerns in a video here:

    College types might be more influenced by such boycotts then other people.

    Unless one is a wealthy person, a person’s donor boycott may not have more impact then other boycotts, although I am not against it. With this boycott at least wealthy and non-wealthy people are equal.

    I was puzzled by your statement that “to a lot of conservatives the concept of thousands of liberal professors refusing to speak is a dream, not a threat.” Aren’t these academic rather then political talks? Is there evidence conservatives see these talks as political and care about them? At any rate the ones that need to be influenced here are the board rather then conservatives in general.

    • The personal boycotts have gotten some attention from people, but I doubt they will be much more effective in the long run than, say, coming to speak and denouncing the Salaita firing. And a boycott does hurt the education of students by taking speakers away. Even if these are academic talks, I think many conservatives regard them as no loss at all. As for the Board, I think it can be regarded as conservative, at least on academic terms. The Board may worry a little about bad publicity, but I doubt that it cares otherwise about speakers boycotting UIUC.

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