One year ago, on September 11, 2014, Stephen Salaita was fired by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. This is not a date that has attracted any media attention on its anniversary, and seems to have gone completely unmentioned, perhaps because Salaita’s dismissal by this time was a foregone conclusion. But this is a crucial date, I would argue, because it was the first authorized action against Salaita, and because the vote might have been very different had events proceeded in another way.
It is important to emphasize that a year later, we still do not know the entire story. The Board of Trustees still refuses to release the transcripts of their executive session on July 24, 2014 about Salaita. Given the widespread use of personal emails at the U of I to prevent FOIAs from revealing information, it’s quite likely that some important emails have not yet surfaced. And we don’t know what conversations Phyllis Wise and others may have had in person or via phone calls that influenced the decision. But what follows is my best guess, based on the available evidence, of how Salaita was fired, and what might have happened if the right procedures had been followed.
We already know the basic story. In the summer of 2014, Salaita’s tweets became more sharply worded in response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Right-wing websites post attacks on Salaita, and pro-Israeli alumni and members of the public begin sending a few complaints to the UIUC administration. On July 21, U of I President Bob Easter asked Wise to discuss the Salaita situation with him, although we know nothing about their conversation.
On July 22, the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette published a report about Salaita and the controversy over his tweets. UIUC spokesperson Robin Kaler gave the university’s official position: “Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”
On July 23 at 5:49pm, Kaler writes to Wise, outlining a series of steps to take, including criticizing Salaita personally and a review of the vetting process before hiring employees. The next morning, Wise asks Kaler to draft a statement about how Salaita’s behavior was inappropriate.
Meanwhile, Wise is obsessed with wealthy donors. On July 23, she is busy arranging a personal meeting with an important donor (who merely requested a phone call), offering to rearrange her schedule next week and fly out of a different airport in order to speak with him personally.
Even on the morning of the Board meeting, the UIUC administration is focused on the idea of preventing a future hiring like Salaita, not firing him. At 5:44am on July 24, Ade writes, “We are going to be engaging the Deans vigorously to make sure that we don’t have this sort of event again.”
Ade, on July 24, at 6:28am, writes to Burbules and Tolliver, “Over the last two days, the Chancellor has been deluged with protest messages from outraged alumni and the public!” Ade reports, “He is coming to campus in August to take up his position on campus.” And he still wants to “figure out how we prevent this sort of highly charged and negative blow back like we have had on Kilgore and now Salaita in the future.” Again, nothing about firing Salaita, only the future.
Wise writes at 7:13am on July 24, “the hateful, totally unprofessional and unacceptable Twitters have appeared mainly since July. This is after the decision to hire him and after his acceptance of our offer. It reveals a side of the person that I believe makes it difficult for him to contribute to the culture of respect, collegiality, collaboration that we hold so dear.”
Nothing in what Wise writes indicates a plan to fire Salaita. She talks about “the decision to hire him” and his acceptance of “our offer.” And even though she fears it will be “difficult” for Salaita to contribute to the UIUC culture, she doesn’t say that it would be impossible.
At 8:33am, Tolliver writes, ”One piece of our consideration of how to respond to the case we’ve been thinking about lately is that the Senates will soon be considering a proposed revision to the section of the Statutes that deals with academic freedom.”
On July 24, 2014, at 8:43am, Burbules writes to Wise: “Since we’re diving into this, let me say that to me cases like this (or Kilgore) are NOT academic freedom (or free speech) issues. I will defend those principles to the hilt. But having the right (and privilege) of these protections also comes with certain responsibilities as a professor and as a representative of the institution (and not just an individual saying whatever he or she likes). It is this space, that protects rights but talks about responsibilities, that we need a thoughtful campus conversation. I have much more to say, but not for email.”
For the first time in these emails, the conversation shifts from “response and prevention” to raising the possibility that Salaita should be fired.
Wise was impressed by Burbules’ idea, writing back at 8:56am: “We need to get this concept into the documents. There is so much more to talk about.” This proves that Wise read Burbules’ email right before she entered the Board meeting, and that she strongly endorsed his ideas. More importantly, Wise probably saw Burbules’ email as a faculty endorsement of the idea of firing Salaita outright rather than doing damage control.
Here is how the News-Gazette reported Kennedy’s later account of the executive session on July 24, 2014:
Chancellor Phyllis Wise attended the meeting and told the board that the university had recruited Salaita, that after he’d accepted the job he used social media to comment on Israel, and that his tweets had “crossed the line” in her opinion, characterizing them as “hate speech,” Kennedy said.
At one point one of the student trustees Googled Salaita’s name and read his tweets aloud to the other board members, he said.
“We were sort of stunned that anyone would write such blatantly anti-Semitic remarks,” Kennedy said. “We indicated to Chancellor Wise that we’d be supportive of her decision.”
Wise has disputed this account. In one of her personal emails, Wise writes on Dec. 14 about the CAFT draft: “What angers me about this report is that they believe that I made the decision and that BOT followed my recommendation. That is just plain not true.”
We won’t know whether Kennedy or Wise was correct in their stories about what happened at the Board meeting until the Board releases the transcript of the executive session. But it’s actually possible that both of them are right.
There is a phenomenon in groupthink situations where everyone is so anxious to adopt the positions they think others share that the reach a consensus position that is more extreme than almost any of the individual members support. Wise assumed that Kennedy and the trustees wanted Salaita gone, and so she was eager to appease them. Kennedy and the trustees trusted and supported Wise, and because they believe she was eager to fire Salaita, and they didn’t like his tweets, they gave their general support to her.
Each of them saw the other as the driving force to fire Salaita, and the uniformity of the groupthink reinforced it and made it impossible for any of them (except one trustee) to reconsider the decision.
But we do have some hints that the uniformity that later cemented behind the decision to fire Salaita was not there at the time. Kennedy claimed, “We weren’t saying if you recommend him we were not going to approve. We were never close to that.”
And Wise emails Kaler after the meeting, “But they will be considering carefully whether to approve in September. Definitely not a given.” Kaler responds, “Wow,” obviously surprised at this possibility. Wise’s email has never been explained. If Wise and the trustees were firmly united in the decision to fire Salaita, why would she lie about it to Kaler, one of her top advisors and the spokesperson who needed to communicate the university’s position accurately?
Ade also writes a private email on July 25 at 1am, “A statement re-emphasizing the core values of the institution must be made. Exactly when to make it is the judgement to be made. The new guy is not here yet and the faculty are everywhere now. Should a statement be put out now or do we wait? Anyway, we will discuss this tonight.” If Wise and the trustees had firmly decided to fire Salaita, why would Ade say about him, “The new guy is not here yet”? And why wouldn’t anybody in these private emails be discussing the fact that Salaita would not be hired and how to spin that decision?
The only hint of this is Wise’s July 25 email at 5:55am, to Burbules and Tolliver: “I have information from our executive session of the BOT that I will share with you (carefully) on Sunday evening.” But none of this details exactly what happened.
The most intriguing explanation is that the decision to fire Salaita had not been firmly finalized on July 24. Wise and the trustees were so busy disapproving of Salaita’s offensive words and supporting each other’s beliefs that they never reached a firm decision about what to do with Salaita. Wise, believing that the trustees wanted her to fire Salaita, went along with what she perceived as their goal, a fact reflected in the August 1 letter to Salaita, where she explained that she was firing him because “we believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely.”
There’s an interesting line in the News-Gazette interview with Kennedy about why UIUC waited several weeks to issue a statement about Salaita:
The UI held off commenting because officials didn’t want to put out a statement that would make it more difficult to reach a settlement with Salaita, he said. If Salaita couldn’t find another job, that might “make him push harder to come,” he said.
This is a shocking notion, that the trustees and the administration actually believed that Salaita might be able to get another job quickly and that the U of I could simply pay him a small settlement for his inconvenience. It showed that Kennedy and the administration based their decision to fire Salaita on a serious misjudgment. They believed that getting rid of Salaita would be a minor problem with an easy solution and no real consequences for the university. If that was the case, then there was no need for them to make a definitive decision to fire Salaita. However, once Wise had told Salaita about the decision to fire him, using the opposition of the trustees as the reason, they felt that they couldn’t go back. Everyone was trapped in the groupthink that prevailed.
Wise and Christophe Pierre wrote to Salaita on August 1, 2014, “We write to inform you that your appointment will not be recommended for submission to the Board of Trustees in September, and we believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely. We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”
This, I argue, was an illegal act. Because only the Board of Trustees has the power to make appointments and refused (and still refuses) to allocate that authority to the chancellor, Wise didn’t have the authority to remove Salaita. (There is a procedure to suspend faculty, but Wise didn’t follow it.)
Perhaps that’s why, after listening to the university lawyers, Wise decided to reverse course and bring Salaita’s appointment to the Board for a vote on Sept. 11. The fear was that unless the Board formally voted down Salaita, the firing would not be official. But if that had been true, then Wise should not have been able to ban Salaita from coming to UIUC and starting his job. She was free to warn Salaita that the Board might not approve his appointment, but not to actually fire him.
Even if Salaita’s offer sheet was not binding upon the trustees until they approved it (which I would strongly dispute), it was binding upon the administration that signed it, because the administration lacked the authority to reverse any agreements—if anyone could do that, it would have to be the Board of Trustees. And although Wise had the informal support of the Board for her decision, that doesn’t mean anything legally.
What would have happened if Wise had not effectively told Salaita that he was fired? Only Wise really had the power to stop Salaita from starting his job at UIUC. The Board wasn’t scheduled to meet again until Sept. 11, after Salaita would already be teaching.
If Wise had simply stayed out of it and allowed Salaita to come to campus, it could have dramatically changed the results. Once Salaita was teaching on campus, it would have been much more difficult to justify firing him without a hearing. It would have allowed the faculty on campus and the advocates of academic freedom to speak out in his defense. And it would have given Salaita, who can be very charismatic, the opportunity to speak out in his own defense and allay some of the fears about him.
Imagine what would have happened if the decision to fire Salaita had not been made until Sept. 11. Salaita’s lawyers could have shown the trustees that this would be a long and very expensive fight. The AAUP could have informed the trustees that under AAUP rules, Salaita was already considered a faculty member entitled to due process.
On Sept. 11, 2014, the trustees would have been forced to make a difficult decision with angry voices being heard on all sides, but it would have been very different than the decision that they made in the isolation of groupthink. No one knows what they would have done, but we can make a few guesses based on their other actions.
In the case of Kilgore, the Trustees refused to take any action to stop him from being hired, effectively giving a green light to allow him to work at UIUC. The reason was that the trustees could not agree on what to do about Kilgore, and Kennedy was anxious to have a united front among the trustees.
Considering that trustee James Montgomery changed his mind about Salaita despite the intense pressure to remain united, it’s quite likely that more board members would have opposed firing Salaita if they had not acted so quickly to fire him.
A major motivation for Wise to get rid of Salaita quickly was her belief that doing so would gain her the support of the trustees, and especially the chair, Christopher Kennedy, for her pet project, College of Medicine (COM). Far from helping her gain approval of COM, her decision to fire Salaita almost killed it. The Salaita case only reinforced Kennedy’s belief that the University and Board needed to work in total agreement, which was impossible in the case of COM, which was opposed by UIC. It was only after Kennedy resigned that COM was finally approved by the Board, and Wise’s recent resignation (due to her attempts to conceal emails, especially in the Salaita case) now puts COM’s future in some jeopardy. It’s quite likely that without a lawsuit from Salaita and the fear of emails being uncovered during discovery, the U of I FOIA officials might never have revealed Wise’s use of her private email. If Wise had not fired Salaita (even if the trustees did it later on), she would almost certainly still be chancellor today, COM would have still be approved, and she would not have suffered the full brunt of the criticism over firing Salaita.
So, with one simple decision to fire Salaita despite lacking the authority to do so, Wise cost Salaita his career as a professor, and then ultimately destroyed her own career as an administrator. If Wise had not rushed to make this terrible mistake, it’s possible the whole disaster at the University of Illinois might have been avoided.