News Local/State

U of I Administrator, Trustees Defend Withdrawal of Salaita Appointment


For the first time, University of Illinois officials are publicly defending the decision to withdraw the faculty appointment of Stephen Salaita.

Salaita gained attention for his online tweets about the Israeli invasion of Gaza. After that, the U of I administration told Salaita it would not recommend trustee action on his appointment. The decision set off protests from many faculty members and others accusing the administration of infringing on academic freedom.

But in messages emailed to the campus Friday and posted on her blog, Urbana Campus Chancellor Phyllis Wise wrote that the university's decision to withdraw their offer to Salaita was not due to his views on Israel, but because the university could not tolerate quote “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves, or those who express them”. She wrote that students of all backgrounds must feel confident that views can be expressed and debated on campus in a civil and respectful manner."

Wise said that the university's decision not to hire Salaita was in no way a suppression of academic freedom. "

"One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives", Wise wrote. "Robust – and even intense and provocative – debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university."

Wise's message was followed up later in the day by one signed by University of Illinois trustees, President Robert Easter, University Senates Conference Chair Donald Chambers and several top-level administrators.

The authors of the letter endorsed Wise's statement and stated they "write today to add our collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights – these are the same core values which have guided this institution since its founding."

Robert Warrior calls both statements "inadequate". He directs the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois, and recommended Salaita for the job.

"This is a very dark period in the history of this institution", said Warrior, "and it's going to be remembered in this way in the future. the people who signed their names to this letter will be remembered for making it that way".

The university's arguments for rejecting Salaita were called a "transparent use of 'civility' as a cover to fire a professor with outspken views on Israel" by a writer at the online Electronic Intifada, where Salaita has posted articles in the past.

Ali Abunimah wrote that the University of Illinois' arguments were similar to those made by DePaul University in 2007, when it denied tenure to Normal Finkelstein following an academic feud with Alan Dershowitz over writings on Israel.

Supporters of Salaita have circulated petitions and organized a boycott, urging others not to speak at the U of I Urbana-Champaign campus unless the faculty appointment is reinstated. The U of I's Education Justice Project announced on Thursday that it was cancelling a conference on campus as part of the boycott.

UPDATE: This article was updated to include the second letter sent by university trustees and administrators, and the response. Scott Cameron contributed additional reporting.