News Local/State

Chancellor Hears Student Support, Criticism Over Salaita Decision


Chancellor Phyllis Wise heard praise and criticism from University of Illinois students Wednesday night, for the decision to withdrawn Steven Salaita’s faculty appointment.

More than a dozen students attended a meeting of the Urbana campus Student Senate to speak out on the action, which came after Salaita posted strongly worded tweets critical of Israel.

The opposing camps sat on opposite sides of the Illini Union Pine Lounge, where the meeting was held. From one side, student Josh Cooper said he supports Wise, because Salaita’s tweets showed no regard for people with differing views.

“Every student has the right to feel comfortable in engaging in disagreements and debates with faculty members, without the fear of being bullied, disrespected or maliciously attacked”, said Cooper.

But on the other side, grad student Jane Bennatine said the action against Salaita made her feel less secure, not more.

“I fear that I’m unable to express my opinions and to do rigorous and critical scholarship, the reason that I’m here in the first place” said Bennatine. “I fear that I will be blacklisted from conferences and jobs because of UIUC’s new reputation. I fear that my professors and peers will be unable to challenge me in the classroom.”

Chancellor Wise told the meeting that despite news reports suggesting otherwise, pressure from major donors did not play a role in her decision to withdraw Salaita’s appointment to teach in the American Indian Studies program.  

She said that in hindsight, she wished had had consulted with more people before acting, but that she acted when she did, because she wanted to let Salaita know of her decision before he moved to Champaign-Urbana from Virginia. Salaita left a tenured position at Virginia Tech to accept the faculty appointment at Illinois.

Wise said she withdrew Salaita's appointmentbecause trustees would likely have rejected it --- and because there’s no place on campus for words that “demean or abuse” people just for expressing certain views. But she said a policy for addressing cases involving comments made online needs to be formalized.

“There’s no hard and fast policy”, said Wise. “And I think that one of the good things that could come out of that is a really active discussion, symposia, workshops, seminars, on what is considered academic freedom and what is considered freedom of speech, in light of digital media. And I think we could all learn a great deal from that.”

Meanwhile, student senators debated a motion to endorse a letter written by Student Body President Mitch Dickey giving qualified support to Wise’s move to block Salaita from teaching on campus. The letter decries the impact on the American Indian Studies Program, which was denied an expected new faculty member just days before the start of the fall semester. But Dickey argues that Salaita’s tweets ran against the principles expressed in the university’s “Inclusive Illinois” initiative, established to encourage diversity and tolerance on campus.

Student Senators sent proposal endorsing Dickey's letter to committee. It could receive a final vote next week, prior to the next University of Illinois trustees meeting.

Now that the issue has become a controversy attracting nationwide attention, Wise says she’ll be meeting with various colleges on the Urbana campus over the next few weeks. She says she wants to listen to concerns about the Salaita case, and clear up what she says are misconceptions about the matter.

Meanwhile, supporters of Salaita have organized an academic boycott of the University of Illinois Urbana campus, and faculty at several departments have approved no-confidence votes against Wise and other administrators. Salaita's supporters are calling for a student walkout and day of silence to show solidarity with Salaita on Tuesday, September 9th.