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‘Civility’ a divisive issue in U. of I. faculty decisions
By Jodi S. Cohen, ChicagoTribune reporter
AUGUST 29, 2014, 7:52 PM
In defending its decision to rescind a job offer to Steven Salaita, a professor who posted controversial tweets about Israel, University of Illinois trustees said they would not tolerate demeaning speech.
The university’s position — particularly its use of the word “civility” — mirrors language used by U. of I. Board Chairman Christopher Kennedy when the board denied emeritus status in 2010 to retired faculty member Bill Ayers, the controversial University of Illinois at Chicago professor and Vietnam War-era radical.
The most recent incident has led to a rocky start to the school year at the Urbana-Champaign campus, with student protests and faculty unrest in the wake of Salaita’s job offer being rescinded weeks before school started. The university’s decision has raised questions about the board’s role in faculty decisions, how social media communications can factor into employment matters, and the legality and appropriateness of judging one’s “civility” — especially on a college campus.
Critics have said the Salaita decision is an affront to free speech and the academic freedom that protects faculty who speak out about controversial issues. On Friday, the national American Association of University Professors, in a letter to campus Chancellor Phyllis Wise, said it was “deeply concerned” and urged that the university pay Salaita his $85,000 annual salary until the matter is resolved.
In an interview with the Tribune on Friday, Kennedy discussed the administration’s use of “civility” in recent high-profile faculty decisions. The university rescinded Salaita’s job offer in early August after he posted numerous tweets over several months criticizing Israel in its ongoing conflict with Hamas, including some that contained vulgar and inflammatory language. Salaita had accepted the job offer in October 2013 and had resigned his position at Virginia Tech earlier this year.
“We create an environment appropriate for students to learn in,” Kennedy said. “In the few instances where the board has been brought into decisions regarding faculty, our position has been really consistent in terms of creating an environment that produces great citizens.
“We need to learn how to live with each other, to argue, to discuss, to arrive at truths and to move on — and that requires a lot more effort than having a shouting match or name calling,” Kennedy said, pointing to Salaita’s “manner in which he expresses himself, not the expression itself.”
“We have to be sensitive to the community that we were founded to serve. … At the University of Illinois, we take enormous tax subsidies from people in our state. We can’t be so cavalier to think that any behavior is acceptable.”
The decision, however, has created an uproar among faculty members at the U. of I. and throughout the country. Among those who have come to Salaita’s defense is Ayers, bringing together two professors who have put the university in an unwelcome spotlight in recent years.
In a blog post last week, Ayers wrote that he was “in full solidarity” with Salaita and what he called the U. of I.’s “pattern of disregard for free speech and academic freedom,” pointing out the similarities with his own run-in with the administration.
In the Ayers decision in 2010, Kennedy said he could not support someone whose dedication page in a 1974 book included Sirhan Sirhan, the man who had assassinated his father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The rest of the board voted unanimously to deny Ayers the emeritus status, a mostly honorific title given to retired faculty.
To compare, here are the university’s positions in the two cases.
About Salaita: “We must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.”
About Ayers, Kennedy said: “A university should be not only a place of sharp discourse but also, ultimately, a place of civility.”
Ayers, who taught at UIC for more than two decades and had been one of the university system’s most controversial faculty members, offered support to Salaita in an interview with the Tribune.
Ayers and others have seized upon the university’s use of the word “civility,” saying it is a dangerous slippery slope, especially at universities where debate is to be nurtured.
“The board (of trustees’) job is to keep an eye on the budget and hire and fire leadership, without undermining the whole purpose of the university,” he said.
“The whole work of academics is to challenge ideas and orthodoxy. …The idea that we should just be nourishing each other, to just be civil, is just ridiculous,” Ayers said. “Should they check everyone’s Twitter accounts and make sure they are civil? And what does that mean? ‘Civil’ is a perfect word to use if you want to vaguely defend your censorship.”
The controversy primarily has rankled faculty in the humanities departments. The American Indian studies program, where Salaita was to have worked, voted no confidence in Chancellor Wise. On Thursday, the university’s department of philosophy said it lacked confidence in the university’s chancellor, president and trustees, saying the decision showed a “culpable disregard” for academic freedom and free speech.
Nearly 17,000people have signed a petition asking that Salaita get his job back, and faculty members at other institutions have canceled scheduled campus appearances or said they would not attend events at the university’s campuses at Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield.
Salaita could not be reached for comment. He had been hired for a tenured position in the university’s American Indian studies program.
Kirk Sanders, chair of the Urbana-Champaign philosophy department, said the university’s remarks about civility were a factor in the no-confidence vote. “Setting aside the question of what it might mean to demean or abuse a viewpoint, such a broad and unqualified ‘civility standard’ … seems clearly at odds with both the academic freedom in particular and freedom of speech more generally,” he wrote in an email.
John Wilson, a member of the Illinois AAUP chapter’s committee on academic freedom, said the U. of I. has had “some serious problems” with faculty decisions, citing the board actions with Salaita, Ayers and Louis Wozniak, whose tenure was revoked earlier this year after a history of clashes with the administration.
“What is really dangerous about civility as a criteria is that it is so ambiguous,” said Wilson, who co-edits the Illinois Academe blog. “One person’s incivility is another person’s passion, and it becomes dangerous when you have professors judged not on their scholarship or their teaching ability, but on their politeness and particularly their politeness when they are off the job.
“People act very differently in their personal lives, and certainly Salaita is very different in the classroom than he is in how he tweets.”
In June and July, Salaita posted prolifically about the situation in Gaza, particularly about the children killed in the conflict.
On June 20, soon after three Israelis were kidnapped and killed, he wrote: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the (expletive) West Bank settlers would go missing.” In another post, he wrote: “At this point, if (Israel President Benjamin) Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”
In a statement about Salaita, the U. of I. trustees, president and other top officials wrote that academic freedom and free speech should be “tempered in respect for human rights.” In a separate statement, Chancellor Wise said the university values and encourages “differing perspectives” and “robust — even intense and provocative — debate and disagreement” but would not tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions.”
Kennedy said Friday that university officials are open to working out a financial agreement with Salaita, but that there has been a “communications gap” as Salaita has changed attorneys.
“Our intention isn’t to hurt him financially,” Kennedy said. “We don’t like to see that. We are not trying to hurt the guy. We just don’t want him at the university.”