(Un)Doing the Work of the Faculty at the University of Illinois

The following talk by Michael Rothberg, Head of the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies, was prepared for a Campus Faculty Association forum on shared governance and academic freedom at the University of Illinois in Urbana on February 13, 2015. Rothberg’s previous writings on the Salaita case can be found here and here.

By Michael Rothberg 

I will be speaking tonight from my experience as a member of a campus committee that was charged with considering Hiring Policies and Procedures, and I will also draw on my experience as a department head and my professional identity as a scholar in the fields of Jewish and Holocaust studies. I want to offer some general thoughts on the implications of the Salaita case and then give a brief account of some features of the Hiring Policies report. I want to emphasize that I was just one member of this committee and—although we ended up with a very strong consensus regarding our recommendations—I am speaking here tonight only for myself.

As I have argued before, the Salaita case that brings us together is best understood as overdetermined: by that I mean that it condenses a series of issues that do not always line up smoothly and do not have a necessary connection to each other, but that have been have been brought together by the administrative actions of last summer. These issues include the key terms of our panel—academic freedom and shared governance—along with questions about international politics, new technologies, neoliberal economics, race and indigeneity, the changing discourse around what it means to be a student, and much more. My argument today is that the diverse forces that cluster around those issues have nonetheless produced a predominant, generalized effect: the negation, discounting, and undoing of faculty labor and faculty expertise.

While this negation works at various levels, it is important to clarify immediately that it has had uneven effects on different individuals and sectors of the campus, effects that reveal persistent power structures within and beyond the academy. Although it will not be my focus tonight, it is always necessary to begin by saying that the first victim of the Salaita case is Steven Salaita himself. In one ill-conceived gesture, the administration and Board of Trustees of our university not only violated Steven Salaita’s academic freedom; they destroyed a career, deprived someone of the means to support himself, and took away the fundamental security net of a family. We are here tonight, first of all, because of this injustice and because of the need to set it right.

The violation of Salaita’s rights simultaneously negated the work of numerous other faculty members. In the first instance, it overrode the decision-making authority of the members of the search committee who proposed hiring him and of their colleagues in American Indian Studies who supported the proposal and voted for his tenure. As my colleague Alejandro Lugo has pointed out, the decision to unhire Salaita also negated the labor of the Executive Committee of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—a committee of senior faculty from multiple disciplines elected by their peers and charged with some of the most important decisions on campus, decisions about tenure and promotion. The unhiring even undid the work of the very campus-level administrators who had previously approved Salaita’s tenure, including the Chancellor herself.

In a different register, that unhiring also discounted—by ignoring—the potential expertise of those of us in Jewish Studies, indigenous studies, Middle Eastern studies, postcolonial studies, legal studies, critical race studies, and so on, who might have contextualized the tweets that were at the heart of the controversy. But the administration and the board have never shown the least bit of interest—or, in any case, have never taken seriously—what many of us have had to say about those tweets. Instead, they have relied on a cherry-picked sample of Salaita’s statements that they believe speaks for itself. The work of interpretation and contextualization that is at the core of our expertise has, in the administrative worldview, no role to play in making sense of what happened last summer. That work has thus been devalued and discounted.

I think it’s actually impossible to calculate the quantity and quality of labor that went into the hiring of Steven Salaita and that goes into any faculty search, especially at the senior level. We would need to include not only the many hours that all of the people I’ve already mentioned put into the search and the tenure review, but also the time of the external reviewers who, for little or no compensation, reviewed and reported on Salaita’s dossier; the staff members who helped with the logistics of the search and the external review process; and the graduate and undergraduate students who may have participated in the search by helping to host candidates, attending job talks, and communicating their preferences. Even this vast expenditure of time spent on searching and reviewing candidates is not all, however; we would also need to factor in the various kinds of expertise cultivated over many years that allow someone to have an informed opinion about a scholar in one’s field or about what constitutes an adequate case for tenure in a field distant from one’s own.

My point is not that the fact that many people worked hard on the hiring of Salaita means that their collective decision is by definition infallible or beyond question—though the fact that it was collective and passed through so many levels of review should mean something. My point is rather that the undoing of that work happened with a speed and casualness that is the very opposite of the care that went into the hiring. While the process of hiring Steven Salaita was based on principles of scholarly expertise and democratic decision-making grounded primarily in faculty labor, the unhiring of Steven Salaita took place completely outside either scholarly expertise or democratic decision-making procedures. Indeed, the unhiring was the very negation, discounting, and undoing of precisely those factors of expertise and shared governance that define what a university is.

The unhiring also produced much more labor for many of us. In the wake of the administration’s decision, we have written letters, circulated petitions, organized forums like this one, negotiated with the deleterious effects of the boycott—not to mention that we have had to engage in the emotional labor of managing a crisis at the core of our professional identities. True, much of this labor has been “voluntary,” but many of us here have seen it as necessary nonetheless to saving a university in which we have invested so much of our labor—over years and sometimes decades. I have often had the feeling that in one ill-advised gesture the administration and board negated the work that my colleagues and I have done over many years to create one of the most vibrant interdisciplinary, intellectual communities in the academy.

Among the examples of extra labor generated by the Salaita case are the reports of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) and the Hiring Policies and Procedures Review Committee. It is too early to say what the fate of these reports will be—whether concrete results will emerge from the work that went into them or whether they will simply be ignored and filed away. But Monday’s Senate vote on CAFT is a good start. Whatever else happens, I believe we can already say that these two committees exemplify both the benefits and potential perils of faculty participation in shared governance under current circumstances.

Let me conclude by saying a few words about the Hiring Policies Committee on which I served. When this committee was initially called for by the Senate Executive Committee, many people—including me—were suspicious that it was an attempt to justify and regularize intervention in faculty hiring by the upper administration and Board of Trustees. The ultimate charge that came to us from the Provost and the Chair of the Senate was more open-ended, however: “to review policies and processes for faculty hiring on the Urbana-Champaign campus, including a review of pertinent sections of the University statutes and related policies and processes.” Chaired by Eric Johnson from Law, the committee’s focus was not on the Salaita case per se, but rather on the way that case illuminated general policies pertaining to faculty hiring. At first, it seemed like the committee might indeed go in the direction of recommending ways for the Board of Trustees to exercise more efficiently its approval or disapproval of faculty positions, but we quickly realized that it was not ultimately possible to maintain the kind of formal BoT approval the campus has had without permanently jeopardizing our ability to hire competitively.

A few discoveries in particular stuck out for me and for the others. First, we were struck by the very limited information on which the BoT based its decisions. The only information provided to the BoT before their vote was: the name of the candidate, the title of the position, the proposed salary and starting date, the former position of the candidate, and basic facts about their education. In the new procedure that was recently announced by the board, the information has become even more minimal: now the candidate’s education and former position have been eliminated. The board does have the opportunity to request further information about the candidates, but then one would have to ask under what circumstances such a request might take place. The answer can only be: in instances where there has been outside intervention, interference from beyond the search process—a process that has already concluded by the time a case goes to the board. Whether donors directly influenced the Chancellor’s decision back in July and August 2014 is actually immaterial: the key point is that there would have been no new decision on the part of the Chancellor if forces outside the university had not attempted to undermine Salaita to begin with. That kind of interference is part of a dangerous pattern we have seen in the case of other scholars who are critical of Israel or sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

The other thing that struck the committee was the language that accompanied the presentation of candidates to the board: until the meeting at which Salaita was unhired, the list of prospective faculty members—who were to be considered as one large group—included these words: these appointments “have been approved since the previous meeting of the Board of Trustees and are now presented for your confirmation.” That language has now been changed to read (at least as of the November 2014 meeting): “In accordance with Article IX, Section 3 of the University of Illinois Statutes, the following new appointments to the faculty at the rank of assistant professor and above, and certain administrative positions, are now presented for action by the Board of Trustees.” With the new, post-Salaita wording, the phrase “have been approved” dropped out and BoT “confirmation” was replaced by “action by the Board of Trustees.”

Taken together, the amount of information typically supplied to the board and the language with which that information was framed demonstrate very clearly that Board of Trustees approval of faculty positions has been understood as pro forma. In almost all cases, that is true. The problem, of course, is that once that understanding has been violated and shown to be fragile, the trust on which the system was based has been negated and undone. The board cannot simply promise not to act again—or only to act in unique circumstances. The possibility of politically motivated intervention is now permanent under current policies.

The Hiring Policies and Procedures Review Committee’s solution to this problem is to propose bringing hiring policies into line with traditional hiring practices: that is, to formalize what has been pro forma Board of Trustees approval by taking the board out of faculty hiring at all levels below that of dean. We have proposed that the board—which must agree to this—delegate their authority to the President, who—as relevant documents specify for ordinary faculty hiring in general—would then delegate to the Chancellor, who would subsequently delegate to the Provost. We have also recommended that the board maintain its approval for administrators at the level of dean and higher. We believe it is through approval of upper level administrators—and not by voting on individual tenure-stream faculty—that the board fulfills its duty of overseeing faculty hiring. As the very first sentence of the Statutes puts it: “The Board of Trustees formulates university policies but leaves the execution of those policies to its administrative agents, acting under its general supervision.” Although the Statutes and other relevant communications are not always entirely consistent, this initial statement of the role of the Board of Trustees strikes me—and struck the committee—as completely in harmony with our proposal for delegation from the board through the President and Chancellor to the Provost, who is after all the chief academic officer of the campus.

The labor of committee work and report drafting is key to the labor of shared governance. We take part in such processes because they are essential to campus citizenship. The question now is what will become of our labor—that of both the CAFT and the Hiring Policies Committee. Should our recommendations be taken seriously, there will be an opportunity to win back the reputation of the campus and the morale of its faculty. Should our recommendations not be taken seriously, this will be yet another example of how faculty labor and expertise are consistently negated, discounted, and undone by the managerialism of the contemporary university.  The effect of such a negation would be much more serious than simply the fact that we would have collectively wasted hundreds or thousands of additional person-hours. It would produce a cynicism and despair that would erode the will to participate on the part of many faculty members. It is that temptation to disengage that we need to fight against now. We need to continue to work through the Senate to get these reports taken seriously; we need to continue to organize around the reinstatement of Salaita; and we need to build a faculty union that would give us the leverage to protect and extend the faculty’s role in guiding our campus.

2 thoughts on “(Un)Doing the Work of the Faculty at the University of Illinois

  1. The last five paragraphs pf this post seem essential reading for anyone interested in this case or, more broadly, in how subtle changes in policies and processes can lead to a very significant undermining of academic freedom and shared governance.

    Moreover, if you stand those paragraphs against anything that has been said to justify the “unhiring” of Stephen Salaita, the contrast in the substance and the style of the reasoning is very striking. This argument provokes one to think about the issues more deeply and more carefully, whereas the other arguments seem to beg one to stop thinking about the issues at all and, instead, to start thinking about something else entirely.

  2. Same thing happened to Dr Sandra Troian (Caltech Applied Physics prof), with far more serious implications — Threat to National Security (spying by Israel):


    “According to the lawsuit, a small coterie of Caltech professors and administrators ignored Israeli spying and theft of taxpayer-funded U.S. technology and then retaliated against the professor for reporting it.

    Caltech Provost Edward Stolper, who has ties to Israel and received an honorary degree from one of its universities, seems to have been one of those leading the charge.

    The lawsuit is by a distinguished physicist named Dr. Sandra Troian, who was recruited from Princeton, has won numerous scientific awards, and serves on national and international scientific boards. In her suit Dr. Troian says that an Israeli postdoctoral student blatantly violated US laws and transmitted information on potential space technology to Israel.

    According to Troian, when she reported these violations, some Caltech administrators and professors ignored the Israeli’s extensive violations, and then, enabled by diverse cronies and subordinates, launched an escalating retaliatory campaign against her for trying to stop the Israeli’s illegal activities. Some of the actions described below were remarkably petty, others of considerable significance.”

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.