A faculty committee report that has nothing — and everything — to do with the Steven Salaita fiasco has concluded that University of Illinois trustees should butt out when it comes to hiring below the dean level.
In other words, let the smart guys and gals from the chancellor on down handle the tough stuff, no matter what the statutory obligations of the trustees. In other words — wink, wink, nod, nod — trustees should pretend they're still in charge and delegate their authority.
How that differs markedly from the status quo is hard to discern. Trustees are in charge, of course, but they largely defer to others in faculty hiring.
Therein lies the tale of how the Salaita case is wagging the dog.
Committee chairman Eric Johnson deserves credit, although marginally so since the suggestion already has been widely discussed, for one good point. The fact that UI trustees sometimes approve faculty hiring after the prospective employees already have started teaching is not the best way to do business. But it's not the end of the world either.
Consider for a moment the hundreds of faculty hires that trustees have approved over the years, no matter what the timing. Insert into that broad context the Salaita controversy.
However one might feel about the Salaita matter, it's beyond obvious that it's an isolated incident. So the notion that some intolerable circumstance has been revealed and must be rectified by neutering trustees is overwrought, to say the least.
To justify their position, committee members have trotted out an old chestnut — faculty recruitment will be made more difficult unless changes are made.
That's hard to swallow. Given the prestige of the UI and the competition for scarce faculty positions, does anyone really believe that prospective faculty members would write off the UI as an employer because of the Salaita case? How many of these prospective employees could reasonably fear that they would engage in the kind of self-destructive behavior that Salaita did between job offer and contract approval?
Even the most slavish Salaita fans have to concede the odds against events of this nature recurring are overwhelming.
Let's revisit the circumstances that resulted in this bizarre controversy. Between the time Salaita was offered a job and his contract was scheduled to be approved by UI trustees, Israel launched an assault in the Gaza Strip. Salaita then went on a tweeting rampage that was, at the least, indecorous and, at the most, a disqualifying indictment of the judgment required of a potential employee.
It wasn't UI trustees who brought the Salaita issue to the attention of Chancellor Phyllis Wise. It was the reverse. Is the chancellor, too, to be excluded from a meaningful role in hiring decisions? Johnson's committee suggests an answer in the affirmative.
The hiring process already is dominated by the faculty, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. For the most part, they possess the background and insight needed to select from applicants interested in important and highly specialized positions. But it would be unwise for higher-ups to cede the total control over hiring that the committee seeks.
There is, of course, tension between the faculty and administration on every college campus, born of the concept of shared governance. In this case, the committee appears to be taking the position that faculty members should have the last word. That's no more acceptable than if administrators requested sole authority to make decisions.
As for the trustees, they bear the ultimate legal responsibility for overseeing university operations. They exercise their duties with the utmost respect for professional judgment down the chain of command. That they have sparingly exercised their prerogatives to save the UI from itself is hardly good reason to overturn a process that's worked long and well.