After Salaita

In a guest post below, an author of the essay “Civility and Academic Freedom,” which appears in the new volume of the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom describes his involvement with the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska and discusses the impetus for his essay: the Steven Salaita case.–Gwendolyn Bradley

After Salaita: Keep Pushing for Academic Freedom!

by Frank Edler

When Chancellor Phyllis Wise at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign blocked the appointment of Professor Steven Salaita on August 1, 2014, the incident went viral and sent shock waves through the academic community. The Center for Constitutional Rights, AAUP, MLA, and other organizations began responding almost immediately. David Moshman and I are both members of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON), a twenty-five-year-old organization in Lincoln, NE, composed of representatives from the AAUP, faculty senates, library organizations, ACLU Nebraska, Nebraska Center for the Book, and other organizations interested in protecting academic freedom.

The first chance our organization had to discuss the case was at our September 13, 2014, meeting. All of us felt a sense of urgency about the case and thought that it would become iconic in some way for academic freedom. We kept the case on our agenda and provided updates for our members by e-mail when new developments occurred. However, even before our meeting, David, president of AFCON at that time, had already written a piece for his Huffington Post blog on September 2 entitled “Academic Freedom at the University of Illinois.”

In his blog, David identified three issues involved in the Salaita case: 1) Did the University of Illinois violate Professor Salaita’s right of free speech outside his context of employment? 2) Did Chancellor Wise violate the freedom of speech of students and faculty by imposing a standard of civility for the University of Illinois? And 3) By blocking Professor Salaita’s hiring, did Chancellor Wise arbitrarily and unilaterally disregard the academic freedom and integrity involved in the already completed hiring process? According to Maria LaHood, Salaita’s attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, “Wise ‘went out of her way to meet with donors and didn’t bother to consult Salaita himself or the hiring committee that vetted him or the department that hired him.’”

During my tenure as president of AFCON in 2013, we had invited ReLeah Cossett Lent, co-author of Keep Them Reading. An Anti-Censorship Handbook for Educators (Teachers College Press, 2013) and Chair of the Standing Committee Against Censorship (SCAC) of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), to be the keynote speaker at our annual conference on September 28. Since AFCON is the only state organization of its kind in the United States, we agreed that AFCON would give a presentation at NCTE’s annual convention in Washington in 2014 on how to develop anti-censorship coalitions on the state level. Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, kindly agreed to be on a panel with ReLeah and myself. For a small state organization, this felt like it was our attempt at national outreach. The Salaita case underscored even more the importance of defending academic freedom.

By mid-September, 2014, the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign voted eight to one not to hire Professor Steven Salaita. Motivated perhaps by this case and other incidents of enforced civility, NCTE president Ernest Morrell in early October charged Lent and the SCAC with creating a stronger statement in defense of academic freedom than the one NCTE currently possessed. Lent asked David to join an SCAC subcommittee of which I was a part in order to see what we could do. Led by Lent, we decided to formulate a statement that included the five principles of academic freedom that David formulated in his book Liberty & Learning. Academic Freedom for Teachers and Students (Heinemann, 2009). On November 19, Lent informed the SCAC that the new academic freedom statement had passed the executive committee and was now official NCTE policy.

It was also about this time (October 30 to be more precise) that I got an email from David about volume 6 of the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom. He had just gotten the call for papers from Michael Bérubé and asked whether I’d be interested in collaborating on an article. I immediately answered that I would love to collaborate with him. Since David and I had taken it upon ourselves to keep track of the developments in the Salaita case in order to inform the other members of AFCON, we kept up a regular e-mail exchange with each other whenever there were new developments or articles. Our article for JAF grew out of this e-mail exchange.

On November 21, 2014, Joan Bertin, ReLeah Cossett Lent and I gave a presentation at the annual NCTE convention in Washington. The title of the presentation was “Academic Freedom Fighters: Create an Anti-Censorship Coalition in Your State!.” Although Diane Ravitch was slated as a convention keynote speaker, she was unable to attend, and NCTE substituted roundtable discussions of her book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013). Some people left when it became clear that Ravitch would not be present, but in the huge hall most people stayed. Electricity was in the air. Enough with the corporate culture of education and the reform movement! To me it felt very similar to the massive response against the firing of Salaita. Enough with the trampling of academic freedom!

And as it happened, the alliance between Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees at UIUC began to unravel as the withheld e-mails slowly dribbled out about the extent to which personal e-mail addresses were used by Wise and other UIUC administration officials to evade public disclosure laws. Chancellor Wise resigned on August 6, 2015, the day before the university released the e-mails showing that she not only used her own private e-mail address to conduct university business, but she also deleted the personal e-mails. As the Electronic Intifada has already pointed out, it is ironic that Wise who broke Salaita’s contract now claims that the Board of Trustees had broken its contact with her for the $400,000 resignation package.

Most recently on August 27, 2015, U. S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber reversed his ruling about the claims Salaita could make against UIUC. He had disallowed Salaita’s claim that university officials were destroying evidence in relation to his case. Now he reversed and allowed Salaita to add destruction of evidence to his lawsuit.

What would have happened back in July of 2014 if Chancellor Wise and Spokeswoman Robin Kaler had held fast to their initial position concerning Salaita’s tweets that faculty hold a wide variety of political views and that “we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all our employees”? Wise would have had to defend Salaita’s academic freedom before a Board of Trustees that was willing to throw academic freedom under the bus. The worst thing that could have happened is that she would have had to resign; however, her reputation would not have been damaged to the extent that it is today. But that would have taken a different Phyllis Wise.

Notes:

Maria LaHood’s quotation is available at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/30/steven-salaitas-long-anticipated-lawsuit-against-u-illinois-includes-twist .

The reference relating to The Electronic Intifada is available at https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/emails-indicate-univ-illinois-concealing-information-about-salaita-firing

Chancellor Wise’s and Ms. Robin Kaler’s early position defending academic freedom is available at https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/emails-indicate-univ-illinois-concealing-information-about-salaita-firing and at http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-07-22/updated-soon-be-ui-profs-mideast-posts-drawing-ire.html respectively.

One thought on “After Salaita

  1. It’s been clear from the start that Wise’s principled choice would have been to sacrifice her job if necessary to defend academic freedom. That would have saved her and everyone else a lot of time, money, and embarrassment. But you’re right, that’s not the animal we’re dealing with. As Andrew Scheinmann has revealed, her desire for a College of Medicine was important in her willingness to got along with the BOT/Israel Lobby.

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