It's becoming more and more apparent that University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the brain-trust at the American Association of University Professors are just going to have to agree to disagree about Steven Salaita.
A week ago, an AAUP committee approved a censure resolution in connection with the UI's Salaita controversy. Asserting that the UI violated Salaita's academic freedom and freedom of speech by withdrawing the offer of a tenured professorship, the AAUP seeks to add the UI to a list of 20 academic institutions it has censured since 2000, including Northeastern Illinois University, Louisiana State University and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Before submitting to a case of the vapors and sprinting for the fainting couch, readers should ask themselves if they know anything about or even care about the controversies at those three institutions, each of which occurred since 2010. Perhaps the purported bark of an AAUP censure is far worse than a bite.
The AAUP, an organization representing nearly 50,000 people, is scheduled to take up the censure resolution at its annual meeting June 13 in Washington. It's hard to imagine it won't be approved, considering that the AAUP has been on the warpath regarding Salaita from Day 1.
While the actual language has not been revealed nor the committee vote total (how's that for professorial transparency?), UI Professor Cary Nelson characterized the language as "reasonably narrowly focused."
How could it be anything else? What wild conclusions could the AAUP draw based on a one-off incident? In this case, a would-be professor eviscerated a golden employment opportunity with repeated vulgar Twitter rants about Israel. In doing so, he raised serious questions about his professionalism, judgment, maturity and self-control, all key components of a faculty member's makeup.
Events like this simply don't happen very often. So what conclusions could the AAUP draw about the actions of UI officials confronted with such an unusual set of facts?
The AAUP prefers to interpret events as follows: The offer of a job by the UI to Salaita and his acceptance made him a faculty member free to say anything he chose, no matter how vulgar, threatening or accusatory, without fear of any consequence. That Salaita was told his employment would not be official until his contract was approved by UI trustees is, to the AAUP, of no significance.
The UI's position, of course, is that it ain't over until it's over, meaning that Salaita's employment status was not official until the UI trustees, the institution's governing body, approved the contract.
Nominal though they may be, trustees bear the statutorily conferred legal authority to make the UI's final decisions and, the UI contends, that is not an authority that can be or ever should be delegated.
So it's essentially a contract dispute.
The AAUP sees it the way Salaita's lawyers have presented it in federal court. But, really, what other position would an organization dedicated to advancing academic freedom and shared governance take? This organization is hardly a disinterested observer when it comes to disputes between a university administration on one hand and a professor on the other.
Asking the AAUP what it thinks of a Salaita-style dispute is like asking the AFL-CIO for its opinion on some labor/management dispute.
It is, of course, understandable that Chancellor Wise would be dismayed to see the censure bull's-eye attached to the UI. All university officials are sensitive — perhaps oversensitive — to unflattering publicity.
"We will continue to move forward by demonstrating our commitment to the principles of academic freedom," Wise has said.
If the Salaita controversy is the UI's only sin, that won't be an overwhelming challenge.