By voiding an incoming professor's job offer, the University contributed to an "alarming development" against academic freedom, said John Wilson, a member of the academic freedom committee in the Illinois American Association of University Professors.
According to documents released by the University on Wednesday, Steven Salaita, who was offered a position in the University's American Indian studies program starting in August, had his job offer rescinded on Aug. 1. This was done following a string of politically charged tweets regarding the recent violence in Gaza.
"Zionists: transforming 'anti-semitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948," one of Salaita's tweets said.
"At this point, if (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised?" another said.
In an emailed letter on Aug. 1, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Christophe Pierre, vice president for academic affairs, reminded Salaita the job offer was subject to Board of Trustees approval at its September meeting.
"We believe that an affirmative board vote approving your appointment is unlikely. We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty of the University," Wise wrote in the letter.
Wilson, editor of Illinois Academe, the AAUP's publication, said that regardless of the wording of the tweets, it's an encroachment on Salaita's academic freedom to rescind the offer.
"Academic decisions, like hiring a professor, should be based on academic criteria. That means you look at a person's research, teaching and similar kinds of academic qualities," he said. "What you don't do is look at their political views and what they tweet about."
Wilson is not alone, as almost 15,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org demanding the University reverse its action. Additionally, about 300 academics from social sciences at universities across the country have signed statements saying they refuse to engage with the University until Salaita is reinstated.
"It's not just his academic freedom we have to worry about - it's the academic freedom of everyone on campus as well," Wilson said. "Everyone on a campus should be free to express their opinions on politics and not be punished for it."
Wilson said the University's decision plays into an ongoing trend in higher education to regulate social media. He cited a case where a collection of public universities in Kansas implemented a policy that allows institution's chief executive officers to discipline or terminate any faculty that acts improperly over social media.
"Up until now, social media was treated like any other thing people wanted to say – you could write a letter to the editor, you could write a blog post, you could tweet something on social media, and whatever you said, you were free to your opinion," Wilson said.
"If you start saying someone's tweets are too controversial, and they have to be fired, you're really, in my view, impeding the whole purpose of what a University is all about," he added.