With a new president in place and the abrupt departure of two top campus administrators, some University of Illinois faculty leaders are hoping there might be a change in heart on the Steven Salaita case.
On Sunday, 41 executive officers of university departments and academic units signed a letter asking UI President Timothy Killeen and Acting Chancellor Barbara Wilson to rehire Salaita.
The letter said the decision to rescind Salaita's appointment following his angry tweets about Israel not only violated shared governance but also may be legally liable. The fallout has harmed the university's reputation, the letter said, citing the censure by the American Association of University Professors and an academic boycott by 5,000 scholars around the globe.
"Such events are part of the exchange of ideas for which our campus has always been known, and their cancellation impoverishes the conversation on campus to the detriment of students and faculty alike. Over the long term, it threatens our competitiveness in bringing in external funding and recruiting distinguished scholars," the letter read.
The 41 executive members were largely from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and many are leaders of humanities departments that voted "no confidence" in former Chancellor Phyllis Wise.
Still, there were some new names. Signatory James D. Anderson, head of the Department of Education policy, Organization and Leadership, was among 400 faculty members who signed a letter in support of Wise last year. Department of Chemistry head Gregory Girolami signed the new letter, despite his department issuing a vote of confidence in Wise last year.
The faculty members asked for a meeting with Killeen and Wilson.
"We are therefore asking you to use the authority of your offices to recommend to the Board of Trustees that they reverse their previous decision and reinstate Dr. Salaita at the next board meeting in September. We firmly believe that this step will help put the university on track toward ending AAUP censure and regaining its place among the most respected public institutions of higher education in the country. The decision to reinstate Dr. Salaita will also make it easier to resolve pending litigation and save the university community and state taxpayers from the high costs of defending a wrong decision in the court of law," the letter read.
The letter was delivered to top campus administrators even as Provost Ilesanmi Adesida was preparing to resign, a decision announced Monday afternoon. It was the second major resignation in recent days, following the sudden departure of Wise amid revelations about top administrators' use of private emails to discuss — often in very frank terms — the Salaita case and other university issues.
Wilson told The News-Gazette that she and Killeen both plan to meet with the authors of the letter to discuss their concerns, but she would not address whether the UI might reconsider the Salaita case.
"I can't say right now what we're going to do," she said.
English Department head Michael Rothberg, a co-author of the faculty letter, said Wilson emailed him on Monday, saying that she "looked forward to working with us for the good of the campus, which was the spirit in which we submitted the letter."
Wilson, named to her current post after Wise's resignation, had been dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for just a few months when the Salaita case erupted in July 2014. Weeks before he was to begin teaching, the university revoked a job offer Salaita had accepted the previous October following his string of controversial, sometimes-profane tweets around Israel's invasion of Gaza. The decision, and the UI's defense of civil discourse on campus, prompted a faculty outcry about freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Wilson declined to sign a letter from other deans last fall supporting the decision to rescind Salaita's appointment because a sizable number of units in her college opposed it. Wilson also brought together faculty in her college who had different viewpoints on the case to explain their positions, Rothberg said.
"I think she played a very positive role last year in a very difficult situation," he said.
Earlier this month, a federal judge allowed Salaita's lawsuit against the university to proceed, rejecting the UI's claim that it never had an employment contract with Salaita because it had not yet been approved by UI trustees.
"I just feel like a shift has happened since the court decision, which ruled pretty clearly on some of the key issues that the university was in the wrong," Rothberg said.
The news about the private email use on campus shows that the Salaita decision "led to further bad decisions," he said.
The only way to resolve the problems, and undo the boycotts and other fallout, is to reinstate Salaita, he said.
A similar group of 34 academic officers wrote to Killeen last December, shortly after he was hired, asking him to address the "damage" to the campus from the Salaita case and affirm the UI's commitment to free speech, academic freedom and shared faculty governance.
That letter did not ask Killeen to rehire Salaita. It was intended to generate broad-based support on campus and help heal divisions caused by the case, according to its authors.
Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan of Loevy and Loevy in Chicago, said Monday that Salaita is still interested in getting his UI job back, though he couldn't teach here until next year. He is currently teaching at American University in Beirut on a one-year appointment.
"That is exactly what Steven's goal remains," Swaminathan said. "Issues with the administration aside, he still has tremendous respect and admiration for his colleagues on the faculty and wants to join them."