How Money Mattered in the Salaita Case

The CAFT report on the Salaita case has sparked another debate about whether donors influenced the decision, with Steven Lubet and Liel Leibovitz arguing that the report refutes the idea of donor influence, and Phan Nyugen and Peter Kirstein rejecting those arguments.

In one sense, the question of whether Phyllis Wise was influenced by donors in deciding to fire Steven Salaita is unimportant. The morality of the decision can be judged apart from its motives. Sometimes people do the wrong thing for principled reasons, and sometimes people do the right thing for monetary reasons. And even if we attribute financial motives to Wise’s decision, it doesn’t answer the objections of people like Cary Nelson, who clearly have no financial motives in praising Salaita’s dismissal.

But motives matter because of the corporatization of higher education and the danger that academic decisions are influenced by money. And there are plenty of reasons to think that money played a factor, and probably a substantial factor, in Wise’s decision. First of all, no one familiar with the modern university executive can imagine that they are deeply principled people who would never allow money to influence their decisions. A key role for any president or chancellor today is to be a fundraiser. We should be shocked if money didn’t influence Wise.

Steve Lubet argues that the CAFT report “puts the donor meme completely to rest.” According to Lubet, “Included in its ‘findings of fact’ is the unequivocal statement that there is ‘no evidence’ that Chancellor Wise was influenced by donors in ‘her actions with regard to Dr. Salaita.’” But this is not true. One report’s absence of evidence is not proof of a negative.

The CAFT report does not exonerate Wise of donor influence; it simply says that it didn’t find any evidence. Considering that this obviously wasn’t the focus of the subcommittee, and there is no indication that the CAFT report made a thorough investigation by interviewing donors and university staffers who met with Wise, no one can regard this as an issue put “completely to rest.”

In fact, there is strong evidence of donor appeasement. For one thing, Wise actually held meetings with major donors before announcing the decision. And she held internal meeting with her development staff to gauge the effect of this case on donors.

By contrast, Wise had no meetings with any academic administrators or faculty before making the decision, a shocking fact that speaks volumes about her priorities. Wise now admits that she made a mistake in neglecting this aspect of shared governance. But the truth is that even if Wise had talked to faculty beforehand, it probably would have had no impact on her decision. Wise didn’t need to meet with any donors or read any threatening emails from donors to understand that hiring Salaita would cause financial harm to the University of Illinois. She didn’t get to be a chancellor by being naïve and stupid. Indeed, shortly after the Salaita case, the University of Illinois decided to allow the hiring of ex-felon James Kilgore, which immediately prompted the withdrawal of a multi-million dollar donation.

Assuming that Wise wasn’t dumb enough to write to a donor, “because of your threat to withhold donations, I have decided not to allow Salaita to work at the University of Illinois,” we will probably never know to what extent money influenced Wise. But we can make some educated guesses.

Here is my best guess:

Wise was obviously concerned about donations and state funding, and she had a strong motivation to find a reason to get rid of Salaita. But Wise wasn’t primarily concerned about appeasing donors. She was primarily concerned about appeasing the trustees. She knew that the trustees would be upset by Salaita’s tweets and would want him fired. And the trustees are the ones who decide whether to fire her (and perhaps harm her academic reputation and end her lucrative career as an administrator). Literally millions of dollars in future income, and her entire career, could have been in the balance if Wise made the “wrong” decision and opposed the will of the trustees.

Wise also had other factors on her mind. In September 2014, she announced a major proposal that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to create an engineering-focused medical college at the Urbana campus. Wise knew that she would meet sharp resistance from the Chicago campus (where the University of Illinois medical school is headquartered) along with legislators and trustees. There’s never a good time to hire a controversial professor, but this would have been one of the worst imaginable moments for Wise to alienate donors, legislators, and trustees. At the Sept. 3, 2014 meeting of the Board’s University Healthcare System committee, Wise asked for an endorsement of the medical college idea. Wise told the media about the proposal, “I really believe the window of opportunity is very small.” If Wise had led a fight with the Board over academic freedom, it’s difficult to imagine this idea having any chance at success.

Little wonder, then, that Wise made a decision so quickly to dump Salaita. Why should she let a bigoted professor stand in the way of her dreams and ambitions? Why should she allow some fool’s ignorant tweets to get in the way of an important new medical school that would elevate the stature of UIUC and help countless people?

Wise is a saavy political operator. She was named by incoming Republican governor Bruce Rauner to his transition committee, something that never would have happened if she had opposed the firing of Salaita.

Even if she had supported Salaita, Wise would have been forced to obey the trustees on this matter. But she wanted to act from a position of strength. That meant getting ahead of the Board, and anticipating what they wanted rather than responding to it. Wise also decided that rather than having the Board get rid of Salaita, Wise would do it herself by not forwarding the appointment to the trustees (a decision later reversed, probably after speaking to lawyers). Wise probably wanted to get credit from the trustees for taking the heat over this decision, hoping that there would be less publicity without a public Board decision.

It’s overly simplistic to imagine that a few rich donors emailed the University of Illinois, causing Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees to reverse some deeply-held belief in academic freedom (since they obviously never had one). These donors merely reinforced what Wise already knew: that accepting the appointment of a controversial professor would threaten her plans for improving the university.

At the same time, it’s even more simplistic to claim that donors have no influence over the administration and trustees, and that they made a principled decision in the Salaita case. Indeed, the only reason why Wise may not have cared too much about a few individual donors was because she had much bigger ambitions to have a medical college in Urbana approved by trustees and politicians, and correctly feared that supporting Salaita would interfere with those plans.

Money matters in higher education, and in the Salaita case powerful forces were certainly pushing Wise to violate academic freedom. We will never know if Wise might have reached the same conclusion without that pressure, but it is nearly impossible for anyone to make a plausible claim that Wise’s decision was not influenced by money and political power.

2 thoughts on “How Money Mattered in the Salaita Case

  1. I agree. This is more how money works-it doesn’t “force” anyone’s hand, but it’s always tied to an agenda. Administrators read the political hand dealt them with their own needs and ambitions in mind. Their job, almost by definition, requires taking the fall for Regents and Boards of Trustees. The difference is that in this case and many in the future, I suspect, social media will expose those boards to public attention and scrutiny in ways to which they are unaccustomed. That’s why Chris Kennedy behaved in such belligerent ways to Ali Abuminah-he was not used to having the press “in his face” on decisions related to his position as a trustee. That, and the fact that it was Abuminah, a Palestinian from electronic intifada. That’s the little people for Kennedy, but what he doesn’t seem to get is that social media places people like him in more embattled positions than I think they imagine. Republican trustees don’t care, but it probably bothers so-called “liberals” to have people see them as anti-academic freedom, anti-freedom of expression, etc. Also, I suspect they experience confusion when they’re seen as “right-wing,” since they belong to the Democratic Party; plus Kennedy has the Kennedy name which he thinks gives him liberal credentials of a very particular kind. And you can bet that HE cares deeply about the deep pockets of “pro-Israeli” donors to U of I and elsewhere.

  2. I wonder what was behind the decision to fire Norman Finkelstein?

    When I was a student at the University of Texas I heard a story of board imposed censorship from Prof. Ian Lustick, during a talk. As I recall the censorship concerned a book he wrote, published by UT, comparing colonialism in Israel, Algeria, and Ireland. However, before the book could be published, the board required that some alterations be made, including a preface where Lustick declares himself Jewish and zionist, which he reluctantly did.

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