By Sharon Ann Musher
In the aftermath of the board of trustees’ vote at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to terminate Steven Salaita’s conditional job offer, the scholar of Arab-American literature is pursuing two options. He has engaged the Center for Constitution Rights to sue the university. And he has requested that the American Association of University Professor’s (AAUP) investigate the case.
The AAUP is perhaps the most influential organization to condemn Illinois in this instance on the grounds of academic freedom. It has already declared the university’s decision to terminate Salaita’s appointment to be “tantamount to summary dismissal, an action categorically inimical to academic freedom and due process.” If it takes up Salaita’s case, we can expect a decision favorable to the professor. And should Illinois decline at least to grant him a hearing, we can anticipate the AAUP censuring the university.
That would be just if the AAUP investigation were objective, but recent communications suggest otherwise. When the AAUP wrote to university chancellor Phyllis Wise on August 29 requesting information about Salaita’s claims, it badly misrepresented the precedents cited in Salaita’s defense. Indeed, the problems with that letter undermine the organization’s credibility and raise serious questions about whether political activism is replacing deliberation in the nation’s oldest professional association committed to academic freedom. How did this happen?
The day the news broke in an Inside Higher Ed article that chancellor Wise would not forward Salaita’s appointment to the board of trustees, the Illinois state conference of the AAUP’s Committee A issued a statement condemning Illinois for voiding his job offer without due process based on extramural, controversial tweets on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The following day, August 7th, Rudy Fichtenbaum and Henry Reichman, the AAUP president and vice president, expressed serious concern that the university’s actions might have violated both his academic freedom and that of the faculty members who recommended his appointment.
Their statement explicitly distanced the AAUP from Cary Nelson’s defense of the Chancellor’s actions. An English professor at Illinois, a past president of the AAUP, and a current member of the AAUP Committee A that hears such cases, Nelson argued that Salaita was not fired for his speech but rather his conditional hiring had been aborted in part as a result of his tweets.
People can and do disagree about many of the key issues in this case: Was Salaita’s job offer final or contingent? Were his tweets extramural or part of his scholarly output? Were there anti-Semitic dimensions to his social media presence? And if so, could a university legitimately withdraw a job offer on those grounds?
Historically the AAUP has drawn on past examples – the cases the organization has pursued before – in investigating instances like Salaita’s. Unfortunately, the AAUP’s recent misrepresentation of its own precedents suggests that it has already made up its mind on the case. On August 29, Anita Levy, a staff member of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Shared Governance, sent Chancellor Wise a letter expressing the AAUP’s grave concern and acknowledging Salaita’s request for an investigation.
In replaying the events leading up to the denial of Salaita’s preliminary job offer, Levy disturbingly conflated a conditional appointment with an unequivocal one. Last October, Brian H. Ross, the interim dean of the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, notified Salaita of the faculty committees’ recommendation for his appointment. The dean’s letter noted that “this recommendation for appointment is subject to approval by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.” The letter clearly did not accord with A AUP policy that formal offers include “an unequivocal letter of appointment signed by the responsible institutional officer.”
Only in passing, however, did Levy recognize that Salaita’s letter was not a final offer, noting near the end of her letter: “We understand that an issue has arisen regarding the legitimacy of Professor Salaita’s tenure absent board of trustees’ approval.”(3)
Rather than plainly stating that Salaita’s position was conditional on board approval, the AAUP attempted to substitute its unenforceable professional judgment. Its letter sympathetically concentrates on the ten months between Salaita’s conditional offer and its termination, during which time Salaita corresponded with the university about what classes he should teach and “made arrangements for a place to live for him and his family.” Most people who have moved – particularly with a family – can empathize with someone in such a situation. But, contrary to the letter’s implications, this position marks a significant departure from past precedent. The AAUP appears never to have conducted an investigation of a case based on the withdrawal of a conditional offer of permanent employment with tenure.
Even more disturbing is The AAUP’s misuse of precedent. Levy’s letter refers to only one AAUP case, in which the University of South Florida revoked a one-year contract offered to a Dr. Fleming in 1962. In this case, the investigating committee determined that South Florida’s president had a “moral and professional obligation” to support Fleming’s appointment and his failure to do so constituted summary dismissal without due process. The AAUP imposed a censure on the university at its 1964 annual meeting, which the 1968 annual meeting removed “after the university provided redress to the professor and adopted procedures consistent with the Association-supported standards.” (3)
But here’s the rub: The job offer in the South Florida case was final. In neither of the dean’s letters to the candidate “was there any suggestion that the offer was tentative or that further steps were necessary to make the appointment official” (AAUP Bulletin, Spring, 1964, 44). Furthermore, although no one administratively higher than the dean offered the professor a job, the university’s president approved a press release announcing his appointment prior to the reversal. In contrast, in Salaita’s case the dean’s offer was expressly provisional upon board approval.
The AAUP’s obvious misapplication of its own precedent raises serious concerns about its neutrality. Thus, we should be very wary of trusting it to deliberate fairly on Salaita’s case.
Sharon Ann Musher is Associate Professor of History at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and a member of the executive committee of the Academic Advisory Council of Ameinu’s Third Narrative. Her forthcoming book is Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015).