As reported by Inside Higher Ed, Assistant Professor Steve Cicala, an economist at the University of Chicago, has decided to boycott the University of Illinois over the trustees' recent decision against hiring Prof. Steven Salaita. In a letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Cicala explained that he would not be presenting a previously scheduled talk at the university's Chicago campus because she had failed to resist the "influence of donors on faculty speech."
Perhaps because he is an economist, Cicala seems fixated on the presumed impact of money on Wise's (and the trustees') decision. He made nine references to donors, donations, contributions, or funds in his eight paragraph letter, although with no actual specifics. In support of his assumption that Wise had simply caved in to financial pressure, Cicala linked to a packet of Wise's emails that had been released pursuant to the Illinois FOIA.
Being a law professor rather than an economist, I thought I would take a look at the empirical evidence, instead of relying on a model.
Here is what I discovered by reading all 361 pages. The disclosure contained approximately 90 emails addressed to Wise, mostly from students and alumni. (I may have missed or double counted a few, as there were many duplicates in the packet.) Their content was as follows:
72 made no mention of donations whatsoever;
8 identified the writers as past donors, but did not threaten to withhold future gifts;
5 said that hiring Salaita might affect future donations;
4 said that they would definitely withhold future donations if Salaita were hired (of which only one mentioned a significant figure);
1 was pro-Salaita.
In other words, Wise received lots of correspondence from university constituents, the overwhelming majority of which said nothing about money. Virtually all of the emails were reasoned and calm; none resorted to the frequent obscenities found in Salaita's own tweets.
Cicala, however, apparently believes that no administrators could possibly disagree with him about Salaita, unless they had been bribed or extorted by, you know, donors. There is a certain intellectual arrogance to that assumption, which refuses to recognize that the trustees might have had principled reasons for their decision (even if it was wrong). One of the trustees is Patrick Fitzgerald, the former United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and a person of absolutely unquestioned integrity. Isn't it possible that Fitzgerald was simply outraged by Salaita's celebration of murder and reinvention of ancient blood libels, and that he paid no meaningful attention to the various emails? Frankly, it is deeply insulting for Cicala to suggest otherwise.
As it happens, I agree with Cicala the Illinois trustees made the wrong decision. As a matter of academic policy and shared governance (though probably not law), it seems to me that the hiring process had gone too far for it to be vetoed at the last minute.
But unlike Cicala, I always try to see the other side. I feel no need to impugn the motives of those who disagree with me, or to attribute their decisions to filthy lucre. The great irony, of course, is that Cicala himself is now attempting to exert outside influence, just as did the Illinois students and alumni – and in a far snarkier fashion, by accusing Chancellor Wise of operating an "intellectual etiquette reeducation camp." Indeed, Cicala's letter, which he evidently released to the press, includes its own implicit threat of "long-term damage" to the University of Illinois.
I am not trying to get Cicala to call off his boycott. As far as I am concerned, he can lecture or not wherever he chooses. He should realize, however, that it is possible to argue that the Salaita decision was deplorable, or even disastrous, without claiming that the trustees were bought off. Not all of your adversaries are mercenaries. Thus, Cicala and his co-boycotters ought to refrain from making accusations in the absence of proof, which constitutes bad practice in every department.