Recent meetings of University of Illinois faculty members, including those on the faculty senate, carried a flavor of almost universal condemnation of Chancellor Phyllis Wise's decision to withdraw a job offer to a former Virginia Tech English professor who tweeted himself into trouble.
While one speaker after another lined up to condemn Wise's decision, later supported by UI trustees, not to hire Professor Steven Salaita for a position in the UI's American Indian Studies Program, her supporters were few and far between.
So a faculty senate vote Monday in support of Wise might have come as a surprise to some. But it wouldn't be the first time that the noisiest faction in support of a political cause turned out to express a minority viewpoint.
People ought to keep that in mind as this campus controversy plays out in the future.
Under the circumstances, the voice vote that was affirmed by a subsequent show of hands and supported Wise was the only sensible result, given the flawed premises on which the resolution repudiating Wise was based. Indeed, the resolution prepared by Salaita supporters was almost fanciful in the way it framed the issue.
The resolution targeted Wise's campuswide e-mail in which she explained her reasons for withdrawing Salaita's job offer.
For those with short memories, Salaita was scheduled to join the UI faculty for the fall semester. Shortly before he planned to move to Champaign-Urbana, Salaita drew substantial attention to himself with a series of angry and obscenity-laden tweets, some of which were characterized as anti-Semitic, that were critical of Israel's attack on Hamas fighters in the Gaza strip. A Palestinian-American, Salaita was enraged by the Israeli action.
In her e-mail, Wise took exception to the strident language in Salaita's comments, concluding they were unworthy of a prospective faculty member. Because Salaita's contract had not been formally approved by UI trustees, Wise withdrew his job offer.
The resolution charged that her decision to withdraw the job offer both violated Salaita's academic freedom and improperly established a new campus policy on deportment.
Here's the bottom line — if Salaita actually had been a faculty member, none of this would be happening. He would have been protected from any recriminations for his ill-advised tweets. Faculty members, who enjoy almost unequaled rights to behave as they wish, can't be sanctioned for words or deeds, assuming they are not so far over the line as to be unthinkable.
Salaita was not a faculty member. Until a court says otherwise, he had no binding contract with the UI because the formal hiring process required trustees to approve his contract. So for Salaita supporters to pretend otherwise is to cast the facts as they wish they were, not as they are.
The resolution's second premise is even more ill-conceived than its first. Wise's critics suggest her email of explanation was an attempt to establish arbitrary new campuswide faculty conduct policies that conflict with and dramatically revise existing statutes.
Since when have any top-ranking UI officials simply announced sweeping changes in the rules governing the university by email? The whole notion borders on a willful, but laughable, misrepresentation of the issue.
Wise's email of explanation regarding Salaita was simply that — a missive telling what she did and why she did it.
To read anything more into it than that is simply another overwrought attack on a campus leader who made a decision some people cannot accept.
It's fine if some wish to disagree with Wise's decision. It was a messy and unfortunate process, one it must be noted that Salaita brought on himself.
But his faculty supporters need to remember that they put their credibility on the line when they pursue their grievances. They're not helping themselves when they behave like pyromaniacs in search of a field of straw men.