An Open Letter to Chancellor Wise of the University of Illinois
The chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Phyllis M. Wise, has faced a rising tide of criticism from across the academic community since early August of this year for her handling of the appointment of Professor Steven Salaita.
In late August, American Historical Association President Jan Goldstein, President-Elect Vicki L. Ruiz, and Immediate Past President Kenneth Pomeranz wrote an open letter to Chancellor Wise, urging her to “honor and, therefore, reinstate the offer of a tenured position” that the university extended to Professor Salaita last October.
August 31, 2014
Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise
Swanlund Administration Building
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
601 E. John St.
Champaign, IL 61820
Dear Chancellor Wise,
The American Historical Association has followed the Salaita case with grave concern and mounting alarm since it began to unfold in early August. We write now to urge you in the strongest possible terms to honor and, therefore, reinstate the offer of a tenured position that your University extended to Professor Steven Salaita last October.
We did not speak out earlier because of the ambiguity initially surrounding some of the facts of the case. Professor Salaita’s status with respect to the conventions of your hiring process was at first unclear, but we subsequently learned that your Board of Trustees votes on appointments only in September, so that scores of new University of Illinois faculty begin teaching each fall without Board approval. In addition, your administration initially offered no substantive explanation for its last-minute withdrawal of the offer. We naturally gravitated to the universal assumption that Professor Salaita’s suddenly high profile on social media as an opponent of Israeli military action in Gaza had prompted the decision. But, still, despite our awareness that the case might involve a violation of the right of free speech, we chose to remain silent until the facts had been clarified.
That clarification came with your open letter of August 22, in which you stated that your administration objected not to Professor Salaita’s pro-Palestinian stance on Twitter but rather to the style in which he expressed it. Specifically, you held up “civility” as a necessary attribute of free speech in a university community. Even assuming that Professor Salaita’s tweets, sent from a private account, should be considered part of the campus environment—which is far from evident—revoking his job offer because of them is unacceptable. The insistence that all speech must be “civil” harbors serious danger for the health of our institutions of higher learning and for American democracy generally. Especially when used as an administrative guideline at a great research university like Illinois, it requires us to raise our voice in protest.
The First Amendment protects speech, both civil and uncivil. It does so for good reason. The United States made a wager that democracy can flourish only with a robustly open public sphere where conflicting opinions can vigorously engage one another. Such a public sphere rests on the recognition that speech on matters of public concern is often emotional and that it employs a variety of idioms and styles. Hence American law protects not only polite discourse but also vulgarity, not only sweet rationality but also impassioned denunciation.
“Civility” is a laudable ideal, and many of us wish that American public life had more of it today. Indeed the AHA recommends it as part of our own Statement on the Standards of Professional Conduct. But imposing the requirement of “civility” on speech in a university community or any other sector of our public sphere—and punishing infractions—can only backfire. Such a policy produces a chilling effect, inhibiting the full exchange of ideas that both scholarly investigation and democratic institutions need.
If allowed to stand, your administration’s punitive treatment of Steven Salaita will chill the intellectual atmosphere at the University of Illinois. Even tenured professors will fear for their job security, persuaded that their institution lacks respect for the principles of academic freedom. The unhappy consequences for the untenured will be even more pronounced. A regimen of defensive self-censorship will settle like a cloud over faculty lectures and classroom discussions. Faculty will be inclined to seek positions elsewhere. This, surely, is not the future you wish for your historically great institution.
While we have thus far dwelt at length on the justification that you gave ex post facto for the rescinding of Professor Salaita’s offer, we find the procedural irregularities entailed in that decision equally troubling. On this score, too, the facts of the case have emerged more clearly since August 1.
The recruitment of Professor Salaita was carried out with scrupulous care and adherence to prescribed procedure. The American Indian Studies Program chose him as their preferred candidate after a national search; every subsequent level of the University administration below the Chancellor endorsed that choice. His scholarship passed muster with your trusted colleagues. Especially important, in light of your remarks of August 22, he has a record of teaching successfully at Virginia Tech, and by all indications, students of every stripe felt welcome in his classroom. Finally, your University provided him with a standard written job offer of the type that routinely guarantees appointments at Illinois. By depriving him of that appointment, you do him a personal injustice. You also disrupt your own system of internal university governance, sowing distrust by ignoring its counsel. And, at the national and international levels, you risk saddling your institution with a reputation for arbitrary administrative practices. Certainly the American Historical Association would have concerns about our members applying for positions at Illinois.
In sum, every aspect of this case points to the reinstatement of the offer to Professor Steven Salaita as the only satisfactory outcome. We implore you to reverse your decision and to put your great university back on a course worthy of its history.
President, American Historical Association
President-Elect, American Historical Association
Immediate Past President, American Historical Association
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