Ahead of a final vote this weekend, a key committee of the American Association of University Professors has recommended lifting a two-year censure of the University of Illinois over the Steven Salaita case.
Delegates to the AAUP are scheduled to take a final vote at their annual meeting Saturday in Washington, D.C., after deciding last year to leave the 2015 censure in place.
A report from an AAUP representative who visited the UI in April found that the climate for academic freedom is "robust," said Anita Levy, senior program officer for Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance.
On that basis, the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure recommended that the campus be removed from the list of censured administrations, Levy said.
The Urbana campus AAUP chapter also voted to support a removal of censure, Levy noted.
"We were almost to this point a year ago," said Committee A Chairman Hank Reichman, a history professor at California State University. It's "not impossible" that some members may disregard the committee's recommendation, Reichman said, but the support from the UI's representatives is important.
"You never know. It's called democracy," he said.
In fact, the Illinois AAUP chapter's Committee A — an early critic of the UI's decision to withdraw Salaita's job offer — strongly opposes lifting censure. A resolution unanimously approved by the panel says reforms adopted by the UI haven't gone far enough, and it calls for a public apology by the university for its "appalling termination of a signed contract" with a tenured professor.
"I don't believe the University of Illinois has demonstrated, unless they present a really strong case, justification to have the censure removed," said St. Xavier University Professor Peter Kirstein, vice president of the state chapter, who plans to read the statement to AAUP delegates on Saturday.
The AAUP placed the UI on its censure list in June 2015 for revoking Salaita's job offer after he posted a litany of controversial, and sometimes profane, tweets about Israel during its bombing of Gaza.
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, but didn't plan to start teaching until the following August.
Then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise revoked the offer on Aug. 1, 2014, after consulting privately with UI trustees about Salaita's angry tweets, which some considered anti-Semitic. Her action came before trustees formally approved the hire but after Salaita had been given course assignments and resigned from his tenured position at Virginia Tech. Trustees voted to uphold Wise's decision in September 2014.
The AAUP said the university rejected his appointment without demonstrating cause, violating his due-process rights and academic freedom. The UI argued that Salaita was never an official employee because the board hadn't officially approved his appointment. Salaita sued the university and later agreed to a settlement of $875,000.
'Exhaustive' report in hand
That was a key step in getting the censure lifted, and the AAUP said most other conditions were met last year. The campus changed its hiring procedures to ensure timely UI Board of Trustees' approval of new appointments, and more faculty consultation if questions arose. Top UI officials publicly reiterated the UI's commitment to the AAUP principles of academic freedom.
Committee A agreed that the university had adopted all of its recommendations, but it was too late to arrange a campus visit to certify that before the annual meeting in June 2016, Levy said.
In a departure from usual procedures, Committee A asked AAUP members to delegate authority to the panel to lift censure in the fall, once its representative had a chance to visit campus. But some delegates objected to the timing.
And at the urging of the UI's faculty delegates, AAUP members agreed to delay lifting censure for a year so that UI trustees could consider a statutory change to hiring procedures approved by the campus Academic Senate. Under the proposed change, trustees would no longer vote on individual academic hires below the level of dean, but rather delegate that authority to the president and chancellor.
That measure has yet to be presented to the UI board, and it's unclear when it might be. Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson said administrators are still working through a number of proposed changes to the statutes, including that one.
"It hasn't been approved by trustees, but it hasn't been rejected either," Reichman said.
Regardless, that was never a condition for lifting the UI's censure, Reichman and Levy said. The UI's delegates to the AAUP have agreed on that point, Reichman noted.
The campus visit finally took place this spring, by Illinois Wesleyan philosophy Professor Mark Criley. He met with faculty senate leaders, Wilson and other administrators, and representatives of the local AAUP chapter and prepared an "exhaustive" report, Levy said. She declined to release it before Saturday's vote.
'Are we a better place?'
Wilson, who shepherded through many of the changes as interim chancellor, said she was "thrilled" by Committee A's recent recommendation. She was caught off-guard by last year's vote, saying, "Maybe we were a little too hopeful."
"Nobody likes to be under censure, obviously. The more important thing is, are we a better place after all of this? And I would say yes," Wilson said Wednesday. "We've put into place better procedures, better processes. We've recommitted ourselves to principles around academic freedom. We've had lots of conversations about shared governance. And all those things are good for institutions to do."
But Kirstein said the UI's procedural changes are not "significant" and would not have helped Salaita.
His committee's resolution also notes that the UI's American Indian Studies program has lost most of its core faculty because of the controversy.
"The American Indian Studies program has been completely wrecked. That should be restored before any censure is removed," he said.
Reichman said he hopes the university rebuilds the department but said that wasn't a condition of the censure.