A proposal to reconsider the appointment of embattled Professor Steven Salaita won the backing of the University of Illinois campus senate, but it's unclear what the next steps will be.
The Academic Senate approved a resolution calling on the UI to "promptly" implement the recommendations of the campus Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which urged the campus to reconsider Salaita's candidacy for a faculty job. The vote was 51-41.
Specifically, the tenure committee's December report said a panel of qualified experts in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences should review concerns raised about Salaita's "professional fitness" for a tenured faculty position in American Indian Studies. Salaita's job offer ran into trouble over a series of controversial tweets about Israel last summer.
UI trustees, however, last month dismissed the committee's recommendation, saying their 8-1 vote to reject his appointment last fall was final. A board statement said the decision was made carefully, balancing "all interests."
"The trustees were awfully quick off the mark to say they weren't going to reconsider the situation," said history Professor Bruce Levine, who co-authored Monday's senate resolution.
"Now that the official body of the university faculty has added its voice in support of that report, my hope is that in the spirit of shared governance that we're always being told the faculty shares in, both the administration and the Board of Trustees will, in fact, reconsider. I think if they don't, it's a very bad sign of what shared governance really amounts to."
UI spokesman Tom Hardy reiterated the trustees' stance: "The Board of Trustees has stated emphatically that its overwhelming 8-1 vote not to approve the hiring of Steven Salaita is final and won't be reconsidered."
In a statement, Chancellor Phyllis Wise said the university is working on processes to ensure the Board of Trustees approves faculty hires before their proposed start date, a problem central to the Salaita controversy.
Monday's senate meeting, she said, "was a robust conversation about very important issues and initiatives. It is an honor to be a part of a shared governance process and tradition as strong as is present at Illinois. I strongly believe that shared governance, academic freedom and freedom of speech are foundational to the missions of all universities."
Wise also said her July mass mail to the campus explaining the decision to withdraw Salaita's job offer and emphasizing the need for civility was not intended as a "speech code policy," as some have interpreted it.
"That was not my intent at all," Wise said.
A former English professor at Virginia Tech, Salaita was offered a tenured job at the UI in October 2013 in American Indian Studies and was planning to join the Urbana faculty this past fall. But the university withdrew his offer during the first week of August, after he had resigned his previous post, following Salaita's inflammatory blasting of Israel and its supporters on Twitter. Trustees ultimately rejected his appointment in September 2014.
The Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the campus body that investigates alleged violations of academic freedom or faculty governance, was asked to look into the case.
Chairman David O'Brien, a professor of art history, said Monday that the panel found "serious violations" of the shared governance process in Salaita's case. The committee concluded he was "more than an applicant and less than an employee" and wasn't entitled to a full dismissal hearing, but that his academic freedom was violated because his tweets constituted protected "political speech."
The committee said "civility does not constitute a legitimate criterion for rejecting his appointment," and said the statements by Wise and President Bob Easter should be withdrawn. But it also found that the campus had raised questions about Salaita's professional fitness for that job that should be explored.
Salaita filed a federal lawsuit against the UI last month to force the campus to hire him and compensate him for lost income and damages to his reputation.
Professor Kim Graber argued Monday that the senate resolution was moot because the courts will determine what happens now, not a committee in Liberal Arts and Sciences.
"Why put a dean in the position of putting a committee together when we already know what the answer is going to be?" Graber said.
Opponents also said the resolution was unlikely to prevent a censure by the American Association of University Professors, which is investigating the case.
"I think people are pretty well convinced that the administration acted wrongly and dangerously in this matter, and wanted at least this body to go on record as to what was right and what was wrong, and what should be done," Levine said. "Frankly, we have clean hands now."
"I think it was a great day for the Academic Senate. I am absolutely delighted and proud of my fellow senators that they did the right thing," he said.
On Friday, Steven Salaita and his lawyers will face the UI legal team in Champaign County Circuit Court.
Last fall, the would-be UI professor filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the university for various communications about his appointment. After hitting roadblocks, his lawyers filed an appeal in court, per the law. The university filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, stating that the appeal should have been filed by Salaita, not his lawyers. A hearing on the case is set for Friday.