Did the University of Illinois rescind Steven Salaita’s appointment to appease donors?

September 3

The University of Illinois had planned to hire Professor Steven Salaita away from Virginia Tech.  (See my prior posts on this controversy here, here and here.)  Then concerns were raised about his penchant for angry and inflammatory tweets, particularly about Israel and its supporters.  Initially, the university seemed supportive.  Then it effectively rescinded the offer to appoint him to the faculty when University Chancellor Phyllis Wise refused to forward Salaita’s appointment to the University’s Board of Trustees.

An official university statement on the affair reiterated the school’s purported commitment to academic freedom, while also declaring that some opinions cannot be expressed.  Specifically, Chancellor Wise wrote:

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.

As the folks at FIRE note, this statement basically guts the university’s purported commitment to free expression and academic freedom more generally.  FIRE’s Robert Shibley writes:

The university forbids “personal and disrespectful words” that “demean and abuse” “viewpoints themselves”? Is this meant to be serious? If I am an Illinois student or professor, am I actually to be prohibited from “disrespectfully” “abusing” ideas with which I disagree? What about racism, fascism, or communism? What if I am “disrespectful” of a colleague or fellow student’s belief that the world is flat, or that the Sun circles the Earth? What if I “demeaned” another student’s racist tweets about Chancellor Wise?

Does anyone think for one second that Chancellor Wise or anyone else at the University of Illinois would have a problem with demeaning, abusing, or disrespecting such viewpoints? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. Vehement challenges to these and other viewpoints would (and should) absolutely be tolerated at Illinois and at virtually any other college in this nation, and everyone knows it.

If this statement represents the best defense the University of Illinois can muster for its actions, the university has some serious problems.

While I think a case could be made that some of Professor Salaita’s tweets could suggest he lacks the proper temperament to be an educator (and that any such case could be refuted by, for instance, reviewing his teaching evaluations, speaking with peers, etc.), this is something the university should have examined up front — before preparing to place his appointment before the Board of Trustees. As it happens, it appears the university had no problem with anything Salaita said or did until it became controversial, suggesting it was the content of Salaita’s opinions, and not legitimate concerns about his qualifications or abilities, that prompted the university’s actions.

Newly released university documents, as summarized on Crooked Timber, suggest the university’s about face was due to pressure from wealthy donors and alumni.  If so, this demonstrates the university’s lack of commitment to principles of academic freedom.  Again, while there may have been legitimate arguments for refusing to hire Professor Salaita, kowtowing to wealthy alumni and donors who find his ideas offensive is not among them.  These revelations would also seem to undermine whatever legal defense the university has planned and will only fuel the growing academic boycotts of the university.  Settlement anyone?

As far as legal issues are concerned, Brian Leiter comments on the First Amendment issues and Nancy Kim and Dave Hoffman offer contrasting perspectives on potential contracts claims.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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