A national academic panel investigating the University of Illinois has concluded that the school violated Steven Salaita's due-process rights and academic freedom last year when it withdrew the professor's job offer days before he was to begin teaching.
While expected, the finding from a subcommittee of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure is the latest step toward a possible censure of the university.
Here is the report.
Committee A has already approved the report and will decide whether to recommend censure at its meeting May 29-30, officials said. If it does, AAUP members will make the final decision at their June 13 national meeting in Washington.
It's possible that a major development in the case before then could avert censure, but "I'm not holding my breath," said AAUP First Vice President Henry Reichman, chair of Committee A and professor emeritus at California State University, East Bay. Reichman also chaired the three-person subcommittee that visited campus in late February.
Avoiding censure would require a significant change in institutional policies to prevent a similar case, as well as a satisfactory legal settlement with Salaita, said Reichman and Joerg Tiede, a member of the subcommittee and a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
The committee would also want to know that "the atmosphere of academic freedom on the campus is acceptable," Reichman said.
"I actually don't see that difficult a road ... if they do some things between now and June," Reichman said Saturday, but added, "I think it's very unlikely."
The AAUP has followed Salaita's case closely from the start, expressing "deep concern" in a letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise last August.
Salaita, a former English professor at Virginia Tech, was hired for a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program in October 2013, subject to trustees' approval, and didn't plan to start teaching until this past August. Wise revoked the offer Aug. 1 after Salaita posted a series of angry tweets about Israel during its bombing of Gaza and before trustees approved the hire. Trustees upheld Wise's decision in September and reiterated their stance in January. Salaita then sued the university to get his job back.
The UI argues that Salaita was never an official employee.
A right to be 'juvenile'
The AAUP subcommittee's report found:
— Salaita's appointment should have entitled him to the due-process rights of a tenured faculty member. Salaita accepted the offer, received course assignments, resigned from his tenured position at Virginia Tech, sold his house and put a deposit on a home in Illinois before being informed that the UI job offer would not be submitted for approval, the report said. It's been a routine practice for trustees to formally approve new tenured faculty appointments after the professors have begun work, a violation of recommendations made by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the panel said.
— The university's rejection of Salaita's appointment without showing cause and without due process amounted to a "summary dismissal," in violation of both AAUP and university policies.
— The decision "contravened widely accepted standards" for shared academic governance, as the chancellor announced it without consulting or informing those who had reviewed and approved his appointment.
— The university's explanations for the decision "have cast a pall of uncertainty" over the climate for academic freedom on campus. The statement by Wise that Salaita's dismissal was intended to protect students was not supported by evidence about his previous conduct in the classroom, the report said. And the reference by President Robert Easter and UI trustees to "civility" as an appropriate standard to judge a scholar's fitness is "inimical to academic freedom," the AAUP said. Salaita's tweets were examples of "extramural expression" by a citizen, and were protected by academic freedom, it said.
Reichman said the case is significant, and not because of the content of Salaita's messages.
"One may consider the contents of his tweets to be juvenile, irresponsible and even repulsive and still defend Salaita's right to produce them," he said in a release.
Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Friday that the UI responded to the AAUP's invitation to comment on the draft report several weeks ago but had not heard back. She noted that the issue is still pending in federal court.
"We would be very disappointed if the AAUP chose to censure the university given the many positive steps we have taken to bring our campus together and move forward," Kaler said Monday, referring to Wise's efforts to "reaffirm our commitment to principles of academic freedom and shared governance."
Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan, said the report confirms the UI's "complete indifference to Professor Salaita's rights and academic freedom generally."
"Ultimately, there is one simple thing that will actually demonstrate the University's commitment to free speech, academic freedom and shared governance: completing Prof. Salaita's appointment," he said via email. "Prof. Salaita is prepared to work with the University to use this as a teaching moment and move forward amicably. Rather than continue to spend taxpayer money to defend the indefensible, the University should do the right thing."
UI emeritus professor Cary Nelson, a member of Committee A and former president of the AAUP, said he did not endorse the draft report approved by the panel but declined to comment further, saying he had yet to see the final version.
Reichman acknowledged that the AAUP's finding was almost a "foregone conclusion" given that the chancellor had acknowledged procedural errors but never suggested that the campus would reverse its decision.
"We had hoped all along that the campus process would work better," he said.
If the committee recommends censure, Reichman expects "considerable debate and discussion" at the AAUP's June meeting, in part because of the political issue underlying Salaita's tweets: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"AAUP takes no position on that," he said. But "it would not surprise me at all if at the annual meeting people have strong feelings on either side and try to debate that as much as the question of whether Salaita's academic freedom" was violated, he said.
"This case has gotten a lot of publicity," he said.
'The Chief came up'
Two years ago, the University of Northern Iowa avoided censure in a case prompted by faculty layoffs during budget cuts. The AAUP report was critical of the layoffs, but Committee A agreed to revisit the case in a year because the school's president left and the interim administration indicated it wanted to resolve the issue, Reichman said. The case has since been closed, he said.
The obvious solution for the UI is a settlement in Salaita's lawsuit — a hearing is set for late May — followed by policy changes and an unequivocal retraction of its statements on civility, Reichman said.
Wise has said she regretted not consulting with administrators who had recommended Salaita's appointment. She plans to bring tenured appointments to the board much earlier in the hiring process and is also creating a Faculty Fellows program to guide her on critical campus issues. And she has issued statements saying she never intended to establish a campus "speech code" and used the term "civility" in the context of the AAUP's own policy statements.
AAUP officials say that's not enough.
A campus faculty committee has recommended that the board delegate its approval of tenured faculty appointments to senior administrators, as the University of California did decades ago after it was placed on censure for not renewing Angela Davis' contract, Reichman noted.
"I think that would be a very important move," Reichman said.
And trustees have yet to rescind or clarify their comments, he said.
"It's not just" Wise, he said. The UI has "sort of retracted, but not really."
Tiede agreed: "Speaking only for myself, I found the public statements by Board Chair Christopher Kennedy that there 'can be no place for (such speech) in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university' absolutely reprehensible. While I am willing to consider any developments in the case on their merits, in my own view, the board needs to repudiate that statement."
In reviewing the climate for academic freedom, the report cited cases involving other controversial faculty at the UI, including former Symbionese Liberation Army member James Kilgore and Leo Koch, an assistant professor who was dismissed in 1960 after publishing a controversial letter about premarital sex in The Daily Illini.
The Koch case, which placed the UI under censure from 1963-67, led to strong new policies on academic freedom at the UI and helped define "the extent of a faculty member's right to extramural expression," the report said.
The report also referenced the fallout from the Chief Illiniwek controversy.
"In interviews with this subcommittee, the issue of the Chief came up repeatedly in the context of the (American Indian Studies) program's advocacy for the mascot's retirement, which made AIS a target of hostility for those who insisted on perpetuating the tradition," the report said.