Justice Denied to Steven Salaita: A Critique of the University of Illinois Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure Report

I have significant concerns about the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure report on the summary dismissal of tenured Associate Professor Steven Salaita in the American Indian Studies Program. The CAFT report states: “The investigative subcommittee interviewed the Chancellor on November 14.” I was able to independently confirm with multiple sources that the CAFT never contacted Dr. Salaita or his lawyers prior to releasing their document titled: “Report on the Investigation into the Matter of Steven Salaita.” This is a shocking blunder on the part of the committee members and results in obtaining information and testimony from only one side of the dispute. The report, while appropriately finding fault in several areas in the dismissal of Professor Salaita, is deeply flawed in its refusal to seek information from the aggrieved party.

The report fails to confront definitively the violation of academic freedom and viewpoint cleansing on the UIUC campus that has appropriately aroused the conscience of the academy. The report makes an unconvincing and bizarre distinction between professional and political speech in determining whether the persecuted professor, Steven Salaita, was justifiably subjected to a contract revocation from a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program. The CAFT even supports the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise’s assertion that Steven Salaita’s tweets reveal an unfitness to serve on the faculty: “We do believe… that the Chancellor has raised a legitimate question of whether his professional fitness adheres to professional standards.” {Emphasis added}

Yet the CAFT report is hopelessly contradictory. It asserts correctly that it was improper for Chancellor Wise to draw conclusions that Salaita’s tweets indicated a lack of fitness to interact with students in the classroom because of his chosen rhetoric to condemn the State of Israel’s military operations in Gaza. The CAFT explicitly defends Salaita’s right to engage in “political speech” and dismissed the chancellor’s introducing a civility test when evaluating one’s fitness to serve on the faculty. The report also accuses Chancellor Wise of violating shared governance in firing Dr. Salaita ex cathedra without consulting various units such as the American Indian Studies Program or the current dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences:

The process by which Dr. Salaita’s proposed appointment was withdrawn and eventually rejected did not follow existing policies and procedures in several substantial respects, raising questions about the institution’s commitment to shared governance.

I had hoped, along with thousands of other academicians, that the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure would recommend directly and unconditionally the immediate restoration of Professor Salaita to his academic appointment. Yet the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure has conveniently created a new standard which confounds logic and vitiates the basic elements of justice. The CAFT introduces a “professional fitness” standard to determine whether Salaita’s tweets, a clear example of extramural utterances, demonstrate a lack of fitness. Even though Chancellor Wise emphasized only teaching and civility as purported areas of unfitness, which the CAFT rejects, it now introduces arbitrarily an indefensible, provocative standard of “professional fitness” that yet another investigative committee of “experts” is supposed to investigate.

This is unnecessary. While concluding that Chancellor Wise had no right to bypass other academic units in reversing the contract proffer, the CAFT is bypassing the American Indian Studies Program that vetted carefully Salaita’s scholarship almost a year before his antiwar tweets surfaced last summer. Will this new Liberal Arts and Sciences committee look at a tweet and examine it for “professional fitness?” Will they investigate his scholarly writings and determine, in the total absence of even a hint of academic misconduct, whether they achieve the level of “professional fitness?” It appears there is an effort, long attempted by Salaita’s detractors such as Cary Nelson, to conjoin scholarship and tweets in order to expand exponentially the assessment of scholarship.

Let me be clear: The American Association of University Professors does not carve out “new ground” in creating a distinction between protected political and professional speech. This is not a rhetorical game we are playing here. The 1964 Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances states a “faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position.” This blanket statement was elevated to a virtual amendment, the Fourth Interpretive Comment of 1970, of the iconic 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Extramural speech is extramural speech: it is not subject to discrete, pedantic classifications of political-extramural utterances versus professional-extramural utterances.

The AAUP requires that prior to a summary dismissal an adversarial hearing be constituted in which evidentiary processes are in play. The AAUP Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure is explicit on procedural due process safeguards that must precede a dismissal. The CAFT report should have merely stated that in the absence of such a committee, it recommends the immediate hiring of Steven Salaita in time for the spring semester. To charge at this point an ad hoc committee to consider a “professional fitness” standard of Salaita’s tweets should be rejected as unnecessary and improper .

I am also troubled that the CAFT report included only alleged provocative tweets that triggered this unseemly autoda. In Appendix C, “Selection of Dr. Salaita’s Tweets Provided by Counsel to the Trustees,” it publishes seriatim nineteen Salaita tweets on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza that the administration introduced as evidence of unfitness. Yet examples abound of Salaita tweets that represent a broader area of rhetorical preference:

— It’s a beautiful thing to see our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world deploring #Israel’s brutality in #Gaza. (July 18)

— My stand is fundamentally one of acknowledging and countering the horror of antisemitism. (July 19)

— Equal rights for everybody, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc. (July 20)

— I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs. (July 27)

Any faculty committee engaged in a finding of fact should present the full range of extramural utterances that emanated from Steven Salaita’s tweets. Since the CAFT did not request any input from Dr. Salaita, they avoided the opportunity to contextualize the administration-produced tweets. The lack of balance in the CAFT report is palpable.

Let us hope that the distinction between professional and political speech in extramural utterances is rejected. To fire a tenured faculty member on the basis of impassioned speech during the tragedy of war merits reversal, and not the parsing of rhetorical distinctions that have no bearing in the AAUP universe of academic freedom and shared governance. While the CAFT appropriately rejects the civility standard, the circumscribing of political speech, and the arbitrary manner in which the chancellor fired the professor, it allows the persecution of controversial extramural utterances to continue under a different name. The University of Illinois board of trustees and the UIUC chancellor should restore Steven Salaita to his position on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty.

25 thoughts on “Justice Denied to Steven Salaita: A Critique of the University of Illinois Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure Report

  1. The concerns expressed in this blog post only highlight the fact that the AAUP leadership has for decades now neglected the important business of information and training in the principles of the Association.

    For example, when was the last time that an AAUP General Counsel issued a series of legal bulletins or articles on academic freedom to help guide the professoriate in the AAUP chapters in their understanding of the organization’s founding principles?

    Of course, this is also part of the mission of the Assembly of State Conferences and the state conferences themselves, which have been effectively undermined by the AAUP leadership’s “raiding” of the ASC budget in favor of the pursuit of collective bargaining organizing as the leadership’s top national priority. Further, and ironically, this organizing is primarily in the subjugated service of another national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers.

    Sadly, these are some of the reasons why the approaching centennial year of the AAUP is as much an occasion of mourning as of celebration. Dewey and Lovejoy are turning in their graves.

    • The fact that the local faculty committee has missed the mark on the definitions of academic freedom poses a problem for the national AAUP leadership which, if it is investigating this case on the state or national level, may find itself in the position of needing to criticize the faculty body in order to remain faithful to the national principles.

      Again, the multiple Generals Counsel of recent date have not embarked on any program for the dissemination of the AAUP principles within the chapters and conferences, so that his recent digression of a major university’s faculty committee from the essential norms of the organization is the unfortunate fruit of the dearth of their labors.

      Further, it must be noted that a former AAUP President, Cary Nelson — who is also a member of AAUP National Committee A — has declared himself in the national press as approving of the university administration’s decision in this case. Therefore, AAUP national Committee A does not start out of the gate with a team of impartial judges of the case but rather with the probability of a fractured Committee A decision, saddled with a dissenting minority report, whichever finding the committee may make..

      Thus, as stated in the first comment above, the weaknesses of the national AAUP leadership are revealed in this case, and their failure to foster the Assembly of State Conferences and the state conferences themselves in their educational mission, poses a threat to the present and future “gravitas” of the organization — just as the centennial year approaches.

  2. I think this misreads the logic behind the report as well as the situation. First, as you note, “the American Indian Studies Program … vetted carefully Salaita’s scholarship almost a year before his antiwar tweets surfaced last summer. ” Time has bypassed that committee, not CAFT. Surely there must be a process for taking into account accusations about professional fitness between the time of review and the time of appointment?

    I personally feel that Salaita is an excellent scholar whose tweets, though unfortunate, were both protected speech and defensible in context. That said, what CAFT is trying to do is to say that if concerns were raised, what should have happened was consultation with the appropriate campus units and experts precisely about whether the candidate’s fitness — which I believe AAUP itself has elevated as the sole criterion for job seekers — is seriously called into question. What CAFT is doing, it seems to me, is simply re-engineering that consultation, which I can assure you would be run most professionally by the units in question. Thereby, they are creating an appropriate route for questions to be raised while at the same time, following their resolution, providing for Salaita’s appointment.

    Two factors you do not note: first, the report calls for financial compensation to Salaita for this process. Second, it also explicitly calls for him and his representatives to be allowed to refute any questions about him.

    This awful morass was created by a horrible administrative decision that was not Salaita’s fault. That is why he deserves financial compensation. That said, CAFT is trying to create a bridge linking both adequate review and a reversal of that decision. While it may not be perfect in every regard, I think it does not deserve your contempt or your blithe disdain for a very difficult set of circumstances, into which the committee was placed. I hope the AAUP leadership is as capable of rising to this occasion as CAFT has been. We’ll see, I guess.

  3. I am glad CAFT called for financial compensation. The time to seek input from Dr. Salaita or his counsel was BEFORE not after a report has been released. It is unconscionable that the CAFT produced a report without even consulting the individual whose firing triggered the investigation in the first place. I find their recommendation that Salaita’s tweets continue to be investigated by another committee to determine whether his extramural utterances are revelatory of a lack of “professional” fitness simply perpetuates the violation of his academic freedom. Illinois Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued a statement claiming that Dr. Salaita’s dismissal was an egregious violation of AAUP documents. The AAUP national office has sent letters to the university addressing the summary dismissal and virtual suspension of Steven Salaita. Nothing short of his restoration to his position can rectify UIUCs violation of his basic rights.

    • I personally would agree with you that Salaita deserves to be a member of the faculty at Illinois. I hope that he will be. That said, if “shared governance” is to have any meaning, then there needs to be appropriate consultation when questions about job fitness (the AAUP standard, whether or not you quibble about “professional” being attached to it) are raised by members of the university community (in this case, the Chancellor; in some other cases, staff or faculty). It does not take much imagination to imagine 1,000 different possible ways in which fitness for a job can be questioned between the offer of a position and its assumption — or indeed thereafter, in that fitness does not cease to be an issue after tenure, as before. CAFT in this case has attempted to create such a process of consultation, given the egregious decision (which Chancellor Wise has herself said she regrets) not to engage in this consultation before. And in case it was not clear the first time around, I would expect faculty in AIS as well as the College level committees, who reviewed his dossier in greatest detail, to be the first to be consulted, as the relevant experts in this field.

      In my opinion, failure to engage in consultation would result in a violation of shared governance.

      Should they have consulted with Salaita and his lawyers? Perhaps. But their brief was 1) to determine whether or not the process violated campus procedures, which they did (and it did); and 2) to recommend a way forward consistent with those procedures. I would be curious what substantive aspect of either of those Salaita’s oral account (as opposed to the documentary evidence of the relevant e-mails) would have changed. In any event, the key here (and why I find your post misses the forest for the trees) is that the goal is to route the appointment back through shared governance, acknowledging the controversy generated by the July tweets, while at the same time allowing for that to be evaluated as to whether it touches on fitness, the sole relevant consideration. Lastly, it should be noted that CAFT did not provide for the whole case to be reevaluated, but only for evaluation of this controversial commentary on what is after all one of his fields of specialty.

      I’ll conclude by once again saying I see Salaita as an exemplary scholar working in an inherently controversial, which is to say meaningful, field. I hope he will be appointed to Illinois. At the same time, “shared goverance” for me means that colleagues who feel otherwise should be able to have their concerns discussed and evaluated.

      • Process is the most important product in faculty governance. When the processes are flawed, as in the UIUC administration’s proceedings AND in the CAFT investigation, then their products, the resulting actions and reports, are thrown into question. Period.

  4. I appreciate your analysis and the opportunity to exchange these views with you. I think CAFT’s criticism of the process that led to the contract revocation is undermined by their recommendation that a committee of “experts” launch a formal investigation of Professor Salaita’s “professional fitness”: This strikes me as an investigation of scholarly misconduct that I find unnecessary and unwarranted. It is a virtual dagger thrust into the heart of shared governance. CAFT does not need to establish a bypass around other units, such as the American Indian Studies Program and the interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, that previously examined his scholarship and offered him an associate professor rank with tenure.

    I would like to correct a point you made in your first comment. You were critical that I rejected the CAFT’s decision not to solicit any information or perspective from Dr. Salaita or his counsel: “it also explicitly calls for him and his representatives to be allowed to refute any questions about him.” That statement refers to the putative right to critique a yet-to-be established committee report that would investigate Dr. Salaita’s “professional fitness.” If the faculty panel believes that an investigation of his “professional fitness” is warranted, it needed to make a solid case, which it failed to do, and to provide Salaita an opportunity to challenge beforehand any such recommendation.

    • I’ll be brief as I think you and I are repeating ourselves at this point.

      I don’t see the current CAFT report calling for new investigation, and certainly not one that cuts out relevant campus experts. I read it as trying to restore what should have happened in July and August. Quite obviously, the July tweets were not part of the initial review of the case; they led some to conclude (wrongly, in my view) that he is not fit for the job, fitness being the accepted AAUP standard; the concerns in question (baseless, in my view) were ones of undoubted gravity, namely, prejudice in scholarship and teaching; consultation should have occurred with the relevant units in the face of such concerns, which consultation would have allowed a much fuller portrait of Salaita as a scholar, as well as his research, service and teaching, to address the controversy. This would have been the essence of shared governance in a difficult situation.

      Whether Salaita should have been consulted in CAFT’s attempt to consider procedure is unclear to me. You claim this would have allowed CAFT to adjudicate the difficult issues raised in advance and thereby avoid any further consultation. It seems to me this would have been a mistake for all involved. It could have potentially led the committee to do what they should not have done, namely, take on themselves the role of being the professional experts in the field in question. Should the university accept CAFT’s recommendation, by contrast, relevant experts can make their proper judgement on fitness, in light of the new event of the controversy and the accusations of prejudice it produced, accusations in my view groundless but clearly of a kind a university has to consider.

      Salaita will have a much better forum to defend himself via this route, than by attempting to influence CAFT’s opinion on procedure.

  5. “the summary dismissal of tenured Associate Professor Steven Salaita in the American Indian Studies Program.”

    You could use this post to teach the fallacy of begging the question in a college logic course.

    • Spoken like a tenured professor. Perhaps now that you have gotten the supercilious condescension out of your system, you will address the point.

      BTW, as you are a tenured professor of history, it is truly extraordinary that you have never heard of Publius.

      • Bloix, read your comments: You will see that they add little to the conversation. Please, keep your insults to yourself. We don’t need them and they don’t help anyone.

        It’s no wonder that Kirstein reacts negatively to you!

  6. Prof. Cary Nelson of UIUC:

    “When Steven Salaita received a conditional job offer from a college dean at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the letter included a standard disclaimer, warning him that the offer would not be final until and unless the board of trustees approved it.

    “The board usually does approve appointments, but not always. It has occasionally objected to appointments in the past and inevitably will do so again. Wise faculty members do not resign their current job until the contract is signed by the Board. For whatever reason, Salaita did not follow that standard advice. He quit his job in Virginia. When the Illinois board voted eight to one not to hire him, he found himself unemployed.”


    You can argue that board approval is a formality. The board didn’t think so, and by ignoring what the board said it was doing when it refused to approve the appointment you’ve misrepresented the facts of the situation.

    • Misrepresenting? How? In all other cases, the board has acted as though its approval is a formality. In this one case, it acted differently. Yes, it has the right to disapprove, but the general view, Nelson being the exception, is that the actually hiring is done “on campus” and not by the board.

      Perhaps you could call your interpretation of events a disagreement with Kirstein’s, but he is not misrepresenting the situation.

      • “Yes, it has the right to disapprove”

        If you had any interest in consistency, you would find yourself forced to recognize that you disagree with Prof. Kirstein. He does not acknowledge that the board has any role at all, far less that it has the right to disapprove.

        PS – keep my insults to myself? You aren’t by any chance contending that there is virtue in civility, are you? Watch out, Prof. Kirstein may disown you.

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  8. I still do not understand why the Indigenous Studies program’s judgment is being questioned by CAFT. Of course, that’s not what they’re saying, but then who would? That is nonetheless the impact of what they are recommending. There is an undermining of the Indigenous Studies program here that I saw in the videotaped Faculty Senate meetings where people were telling Vincent Diaz to sit down, when he spoke. It was disgusting to see faculty being so willfully dimwitted-wouldn’t anyone expect that faculty in the Indigenous Studies program would be the most impacted and thus have the most to say in a faculty meeting?

    The response of Chancellor Wise to the CAFT report is telling. She knows that she’s overridden what the CAFT report tries to put into place after the fact. She knows that the Faculty Senate did not interview Salaita; anyone can read the power relations implemented by the committee, and the way it has inadvertently (or not-it doesn’t really matter) set itself up as the arbitrator of a potential campus split on the question of whether a Palestinian who is openly not a Zionist “qualifies” to be on the faculty. This committee is not innocent or neutral but complicit with a kind of racism. That’s what not speaking to Salaita is about. It’s not oversight.

    And where is the AAUP on this question of whether the actual victim of an attack on academic freedom, needed to be interviewed by this committee? Is it really just a minor point? If so, maybe the AAUP ought to take a look at its membership and see how racially diverse is it.

    Here’s what’s at stake-there is something about Salaita’s “Palestinianess” that for U of I requires an extra burden of proof of his qualifications. That’s discrimination. It’s racial and political discrimination at once, even though the bad historical moment for labor in the US will mean that “management” will get away with it. The faculty committee that did not speak to Salaita probably does not get this, which is a sign of why he needs to be hired. Clearly, U of I does not have a campus climate in which Palestinians as faculty and thus as students can have a robust political existence in the manner “pro-Israeli” faculty and students can. That’s the underlying condition that no one wants to notice but seems important in generating the shenanigans, the “we’re doing our best, we’re good people,” defense of another “report” on the Salaita hire. I get that from the viewpoint of being on campus, this is an important document and process. From off campus, however, the troubling racism on which the entire brouhaha arose seems to continue rather than being named let alone challenged or combated.

    A young postdoc in the sciences who is African American and Jewish said she did not apply for a job at U of I this year because of what happened to Salaita. She said she “felt sorry” for U of I because of the institution’s Chancellor. She said “no one wants to be a part of an institution that essentially fires you for defending your own ethnic group.” I wonder if the faculty committee has the imagination to recognize how faculty of color, not just Palestinians, might view U of I at this moment in time.

    We abhor the lack of leadership from administrators. But we’re in trouble if faculty governing bodies cannot step up to the plate and exercise their role as guardians of academic freedom and the fact that for obvious reasons we don’t put job candidates through different and unequal vetting processes unless we want to treat them differently and unequally-i.e. discriminate.

    This entire incident remains a sign of how low have faculty sunk to accommodate things we rail against.

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