The University of Illinois Attacks Free Speech

In mid-August the University of Illinois withdrew its appointment of Steven Salaita, formerly an English professor at Virginia Tech, as a tenured associate professorship at UIUC. Having cut his ties in Virginia (resignation from a tenured job, his spouse quitting her job, and the couple renting a house) Salaita was informed that the final hurdle of his appointment—the typically pro forma approval by the Board of Trustees—would not be cleared. The administration under instructions from the Board rescinded the offer. This group of wealthy business people—singularly unqualified to judge his scholarship, teaching, or collegiality—surely feared that Salaita’s presence on campus would put them in the position of upsetting other rich people. I write now in full solidarity with Professor Steven Salaita.
I’ll have more on this shameful episode in the next days, more, as well, on the importance of building a movement to resist and reverse this action, but first a bit of context: I’ve had my own run-ins with the U of I Board, and while noting that the consequences for Steven Salaita are much more serious and more despicable than anything I encountered, I think my experiences show a pattern of disregard for free speech and academic freedom, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a public university in a supposed free society.
When I retired from the University of Illinois the Board of Trustees voted to deny me emeritus status—an honor initiated by the faculty and advanced on approval from the provost to the chancellor and then to the president and finally to the Board. This was a first in the history of the University, and ignited another round of weirdness—strange times.
I didn’t like the sound of it, emeritus, except when applied to noxious politicians—George Bush, emeritus…Yes! He was gone. And I didn’t like retired much either because the cultural construction and the social assumptions all pointed toward the grave.
Christopher Kennedy, head of the board and billionaire chair of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, made an impassioned plea at the end of a public meeting that was quoted in the papers “I intend to vote against conferring the honorific title of our university to [William Ayers] a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father, Robert F. Kennedy. There can be no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations or to honor those who do so.” He noted that I had long been a popular teacher at UIC, that I had earned considerable respect among education scholars, but added that since emeritus status is a tribute “our discussion of this topic does not represent an intervention into the scholarship of the university, nor is it a threat to academic freedom.” This last bit struck me as overly defensive and wholly inaccurate.
He was referring to Prairie Fire, the manifesto of the Weather Underground, written decades earlier, and I might have been impressed that Kennedy even knew the book existed except that it too had been resurrected in the run-up to the 2008 national elections. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly read from it regularly—good stuff mostly—always pointing out that it was “dedicated to Sirhan Sirhan, the man who assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy.” That wasn’t true. The dedication page reads: “to harriet tubman and john brown/to all who continue to fight/and to all political prisoners in the us.” This boxed dedication is superimposed over an artist’s rendering of wall-to-wall names of people in prison—hundreds and hundreds of them. The force of the piece is that it points to the fact that the US was already well into creating a massive gulag—and this was way before mass incarceration gripped the country—and it’s true that Sirhan Sirhan’s name is there, but so are Willy Johnson’s and Michael McGann’s—exactly, who the hell are they? And was the artist in any way endorsing Johnson’s and McGann’s actions whatever they were? Not likely.
I immediately wrote a letter to Christopher Kennedy expressing surprise that I’d become an issue and noting that I was truly sorry he had found himself in that impossibly difficult situation. I went on, “I’m also saddened that your loss was once again made present and painful to you and your family. I can only imagine the awfulness of those memories, and as I try to put myself in your place, the sense of anguish and anger seems utterly overwhelming.”
I asked to meet with him away from the weight of stereotypes and media creations “to see if we might find some common ground in our shared commitment to the University, to basic democratic principles, and to a belief in the power of redemption and reconciliation.”
I told him that I had never praised the man who murdered his father nor had I ever condoned assassination— “That narrative is categorically false.” I did not point out—I thought about it for sure, but restrained myself—that both his father and his uncle not only condoned assassinations, but participated actively in assassinations and attempted assassinations from Viet Nam to Cuba to the Congo—they would presumably bear the brunt of Chairman Kennedy’s sanctimonious exclusions if coherence and consistency were part of his make-up. But I went on to ask him to consider the implications of his action. What are my thousands of students to make of it? And beyond that, what was anyone to make of the board intervening in the academic affairs of the university, making decisions about things they cannot adequately or fully evaluate or judge, and are therefore appropriately the province of the faculty and the officers hired by the board? “But whatever the outcome of this,” I said, “I want you to know that I regret the pain that this has rekindled for you. I would welcome an opportunity to talk with you if and when you think that might be worthwhile.”
Kennedy sent me a letter back thanking me for my “thoughtful response” and my “kind words and support.” He reiterated his point about there being no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations, and noted that the board decision “was not a personal or political matter, but simply a decision of the board.”
Some tricky lawyer—probably Thomas Bearrows—had to have written that last phrase because merit is the only basis of emeritus status and he would be hard-pressed to explain my promotion to Distinguished Professor on any other basis. Further the First Amendment prohibits using political criteria for employment decisions at public colleges, and the role of politics in this unprecedented action is unmistakable.
But Bearrows—who had previously defended me in his role as University counsel—was brought in to counter the Faculty Senate and others who were organized to object. He now endorsed the misrepresentation that I supported political assassinations and repeated the fabrication that I had never expressed any regret for my activities. He escalated the falsification when he asserted that I was a willing participant “in what can only be described as terrorist conduct.” I had never been charged, arrested, or convicted of “terrorist conduct.”
At that moment a controversy erupted in New York regarding an honorary doctorate for the justly acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner, which had been recommended to the CUNY board of trustees by the faculty and administration, denied, and then approved in a rapid reversal because of a firestorm of protest due to Kushner’s views and statements regarding—you guessed it—Israel and Palestine! While the facts were different—and I was surely no Tony Kushner—the principles were similar. As the board chairman Benno C. Schmidt, Jr. noted, they had “made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy,” and that politics and personal opinion should not play a role in these types of things. The board (in that case as well as at Illinois) had no capacity to investigate nominees, and no stated criteria to evaluate them; the board had never before rejected a nominee in its long history, even though it always had the legal right to do so; the board appeared capricious and arbitrary in its decision.
Being denied emeritus status didn’t mean a lot practically: losing my parking permit and my email account—Damn! But, really, who cares? Yet when the news hit the media I immediately got phone calls from folks in parking and communication: “Fuck them,” said one older clerk. “You’ll get you parking sticker as long as I’m here.” And from a young woman computer nerd, “If Kennedy wants to take down your email, let him try. I’ll find a way around it. Keep going.” And then I got an encouraging note from Espie Reyes: “I returned my emeritus award to Chris Kennedy and told him if you were not worthy, then I wasn’t either. I sent him your vitae and told him he owed you an apology.” Oh, Espie!
Best of all a group of friends and faculty hosted a big retirement party on a Saturday night in a funky open space on 61st and Blackstone. The Experimental Station was an innovative Southside social and cultural incubator, home to the Blackstone Bicycle Works, B’Gabs Goodies Raw Vegan Deli, the Backstory Café, the 61st Street Farmers Market, the Baffler magazine, the Invisible Institute, the art studios of the renowned Dan Peterman and the dazzling Theaster Gates, as well as events ranging from book launches to theatrical performances to ARC events and rallies—the joint was teeming with a wild mash-up of art, political purpose, and life while masquerading on the outside as a hulking abandoned industrial relic.
Political comrades, university colleagues, family and friends crowded in and the pot-luck tables groaned with plates of fried tofu in dill and basil, yummy home-made tamales, tasty grits with spicy greens, cardamom cake and sweetened rice squares. One colleague and her kids made a zillion astonishing cupcakes, each with a strip of paper bearing quotations from my books toothpicked to the top like a delicious exhortation. People loaded up, ate and talked, and then moved on to the dance floor as DJ Dave kept the party going with a mix of old and new, and Bernardine and I swirled through the crowd, warm embraces and surprising home-made tattoos and buttons in every direction: “I pal around with Bernardine and Bill.” It was loud and sweaty, lovely and sweet.
And I was presented with a plaque that read: “The People’s Emeritus Award!” That was all I really wanted or needed. Then FM Supreme adapted and spit one of her classic pieces in which everyone joined in on the noisy refrain: “This is the Movement! This is the Movement! So get moving y’all! Get moving!”

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