Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet has an op-ed in today’s Chicago Tribune with the headline, “The writing is on the wall, U. of I.: Offer controversial scholar Steven Salaita a job.” It’s a well-written piece expressing Lubet’s previously expressed opinion that Salaita an anti-Semite and an idiot, but arguing that the U of I’s fight against his job will cost money, endanger academic freedom, and lionize Salaita as a free speech martyr.
Lubet argues: “The great irony is that Salaita himself is no champion of free expression. He has advocated excluding Hillel, the Jewish student organization, from minority group activities on campus, and he supports the boycott of all Israeli academic institutions and the barring of Israeli deans and rectors from scholarly conferences.”
That’s not a great irony; many academic freedom cases involve people who don’t support other people’s academic freedom, and it doesn’t matter. But Lubet’s attacks on Salaita are very weak. It’s true Salaita writes that Hillel is “ethnonationalist” and should “be banned from participating in any form of multicultural celebration.” But that’s very different from proposing any censorship of Hillel (unlike Hillel’s own national policy which bans chapters from participating in any events with anti-Israel people). And although barring Israeli deans from speaking for their institutions at scholarly conferences is a misguided policy of the American Studies Association, since that actually never happens, there is no impact on academic freedom. If this is the worst Lubet can say about Salaita and free expression, then Salaita would be among the strongest supporters of academic freedom in the country, and far better than anyone who favors firing Salaita.
But it is notable that the state’s biggest and most influential newspaper is allowing an op-ed that calls for Salaita’s reinstatement. Also notable is today’s Tribune editorial, which opposes giving Wise the $400,000 bonus for resigning.
The biggest irony in the Salaita case may take place tomorrow. It’s quite possible that the Executive Committee of the Trustees will do to Phyllis Wise exactly what Wise and the Board did to Salaita. The Board of Trustees might revoke a previously negotiated agreement with Wise to give her $400,000 in exchange for resigning, in exactly the same way that Wise and the trustees revoked the hiring offer for Salaita, except that Wise’s penalty for the trustees revoking the agreement would be merely having the tenured position Salaita is suing for at more than three times Salaita’s salary.
There are important differences between the two cases: Salaita has a much stronger legal argument for deserving his tenured position than Wise does for her $400,000 “bonus.” Salaita’s firing violated University Statutes that absolutely protect extramural utterances, it violated the First Amendment protections of free speech and academic freedom, and it violated AAUP guidelines about academic freedom. It also violated the academic freedom of UIUC students and faculty who are deprived of the chance to take classes with Salaita.
There are other differences: Salaita has always performed his academic work admirably well, as his teaching record at Virginia Tech can attest. By contrast, Wise not only miserably failed to do the part of her job that involves defending academic freedom, but she is also being forced out of her position because she acted unethically in her role as chancellor by intentionally violating FOIA law in order to conceal her emails.
If the trustees give Wise the $400,000 bonus promised to her, they will have no moral excuse to deny the same for Salaita and his promised job. If they deny Wise her bonus, then we might see her joining Salaita in suing the trustees for breach of contract, unless she’s satisfied with the millions she’s made from the University so far, and the many millions she will make in the future.