Fallout from the Steven Salaita case continued with less vitriol Monday, as a resolution critical of University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise prompted a vigorous discussion on free speech, "civility" and academic freedom.
Monday's campus academic senate meeting was free of the hissing and jeers that marked previous sessions on the Salaita case.
"Today was about principles," said Mark Steinberg, UI professor of history.
In a split vote, the senate turned down a resolution that slammed Wise's Aug. 22 mass email, "The Principles on Which We Stand" — in which she explained her decision to withdraw a job offer to Salaita because of his controversial tweets about Israel — as an attack on academic freedom.
The senate resolution said the mass email appeared to suggest new policies on "civility" and new restrictions on free expression and should "have no force" in the development or application of campus policies.
Sponsors said it contradicted guidelines from the American Association of University Professors defending academic freedom and free expression and decrying campus speech codes. Wise's email also "upended" existing procedures in the UI statutes, which guarantee faculty "the same freedoms as other citizens without institutional censorship or discipline," they said.
Wise said that was not her intent.
"Mass mails were never intended to be a mechanism by which policy was either set or changed," she said Monday.
In the Aug. 22 email, Wise stated her commitment to academic freedom and said a "pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas." But she also said the university is committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students to explore contentious issues, citing the "Inclusive Illinois" initiative.
"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," she wrote.
"Let's think about that," said history Professor Bruce Levine, a resolution sponsor. "Are we really going to say that no faculty member can or should ridicule absurd ideas" such as a flat Earth, he asked. "How about politically objectionable ideas? How about totalitarianism? How about authoritarianism?"
The point is that civility is too easily used as a detour around academic freedom, he said.
Professor Nicholas Burbules said the resolution quoted selectively from UI statutes, which also warn faculty to be mindful that "accuracy, forthrightness and dignity befit association with the University and a person of learning." The AAUP endorses the notion of civility several times in its guidelines on academic freedom, he noted.
Academic freedom is not absolute, Burbules said. The issue is what the restraints are and how they should be applied in specific cases, whether it's Salaita or someone else, he said.
UI Professor emeritus Cary Nelson, former AAUP president, said the resolution confused constitutional free-speech protections and the potential consequences of speech by a faculty member. If a gas station attendant claims the Earth is flat, he probably won't lose his job. If a geologist does, it could suggest he's incompetent, Nelson argued.
Burbules also said the senate should not take a stance until the campus Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure finishes its review of the Salaita case, expected by the end of the semester.
But a statement from that committee read Monday urged the senate to support the resolution. While there's nothing wrong with observing civility, the committee said, Wise's email could be interpreted to suggest it is "an enforceable rule of conduct."
The committee cited a 20-year-old AAUP statement against speech codes, which have been held unconstitutional. Inevitably, the university will be drawn to decide "what words are unacceptably offensive and what are within the margin of acceptability," it said.
Steinberg, a member of the committee, said later it was significant that the chancellor publicly stated she was not making civility a new policy.
"The concern with the committee is that it might have been," he said.
The Salaita case, however one views it, has forced the campus to "look back at our core values, and that discussion can't be bad," he said. "People get angry, testy, but I think we all have great respect for each other as scholars, as colleagues, as human beings."
Burbules said it was good to see that both sides agree civility is a norm.
"It isn't silence, death or creeping fascism," he said, referring to previous slogans used by Salaita supporters. "Maybe it is a value we share in common. That's a step forward."