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AAUP Blasts U. of Illinois for Violating Salaita’s Rights

U. of Illinois administrators may face censure by the American Association of University Professors for violating the principles of academic freedom.

Administrators at the University of Illinois – home of the offensive Chief Illiniwek sports mascot – may face censure by the American Association of University Professors for violating the principles of academic freedom. The violation occurred last summer when the administrators dismissed Professor Steven Salaita from his tenured teaching position in the American Indian Studies program after he tweeted criticisms of Israel’s 51-day siege of Gaza that left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead, including 500 children.

The report clears the way for the association’s general membership to vote on a motion of censure at its annual meeting in June. A censure vote is a serious black mark against a university “informing Association members, the profession at large, and the public that unsatisfactory conditions of academic freedom and tenure have been found to prevail at these institutions.”

The report, released April 28 finds the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) administration and the board of trustees of the University of Illinois violated principles of academic freedom as well as Salaita's due process rights as a faculty member when they dismissed him just weeks before classes were to begin on August 16.

“The dismissal of Professor Salaita has roiled the UIUC community and much of academia; it is one of the more significant violations of academic freedom this decade," Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, said in a statement. Reichman chairs the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and also chaired the investigating committee in this case. "The issue in the case has never been the content of Salaita’s message. One may consider the contents of his tweets to be juvenile, irresponsible, and even repulsive and still defend Salaita’s right to produce them.”

Salaita is a Palestinian American scholar in American Indian studies, who has done groundbreaking work in comparative analysis of the Native American and Palestinian peoples’ experiences. In October 2013, he accepted the UIUC tenured job offer, which was subject to approval by the university’s board of trustees. He had received course assignments, resigned from his existing tenured position, sold his house, and put down a deposit on a condo in Illinois before being informed by UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise in an email August 1 that she would not submit his job offer to the board for approval after all. The next board meeting with approvals on the agenda was scheduled to occur after Salaita was to start teaching, which in itself was a violation of recommendations made by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the report says. “Professor Salaita's appointment should have entitled him to the due process rights of a tenured faculty member,” the report says.

The AAUP report came as no surprise, Salaita told ICTMN in an email, “because every other body to investigate UIUC's administrative decision has reached the similar conclusion that the university acted against both its own rules and the principles of academic freedom to which it claims to be committed.”

The censure would be on the UIUC administration collectively, AAUP Associate Secretary Anita Levy told ICTMN. “We’re careful to indicate that the censure is not on the university per se and it’s not on the faculty and we’re not censuring the students, that we’re calling attention to the fact that the climate for academic freedom and tenure – when and if we censure – is not favorable to faculty and to students,” Levy said.

Robin Kaler, the UIUC’s associate chancellor, said in a statement that he hopes a censure won’t happen. “We would be very disappointed if the AAUP chose to censure the University given the many positive steps we have taken to bring our campus together, move forward … and reaffirm our commitment to principles of academic freedom and shared governance: the Board of Trustees will make decisions on proposed new hires well in advance of their arrival on campus; the chancellor is beginning the process to create a Chancellor’s Faculty Fellows program that will facilitate frequent and rapid faculty guidance around critical campus issues,” he said.

The AAUP report was written by an investigating committee and was based on an investigation and report conducted by the UIUC academic senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Other findings include:

—Rejecting the appointment without demonstrated cause and without due process amounted to a summary dismissal, in violation of both AAUP and university policies.

—Rejecting the appointment without … even informing those involved in several previous levels of evaluation contravened widely accepted standards for the conduct of academic governance. 

—The climate for academic freedom at UIUC is uncertain. The chancellor’s and the board of trustees’ stated reasons for Salaita’s dismissal – that his tweets were uncivil – “have cast a pall of uncertainty over the degree to which academic freedom is understood and respected at UIUC. The chancellor and the board claimed on multiple occasions that ‘civility’ is an appropriate standard by which the fitness of a scholar and teacher may be judged, a claim which is inimical to academic freedom.”

If an institution is censured, the AAUP immediately makes efforts to remove it from the censure list, Levy said. “We try to come up with mutually satisfactory resolutions to the issues that led to the censure in the first place,” she said. “In fact, we look at the censure almost as a failure because our goal is to try to remediate the situation rather than have to end up censuring.”

If the UIUC administrators and board were censured in June, AAUP would start working with them to correct the policies that led to the problem and urge them to redress the violations against Salaita, Levy said. Redress in this case would likely be his reinstatement.

Salaita has said all along that he wants his job back. After unsuccessfully seeking reinstatement last fall, Salaita’s lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Chicago firm of Loevy and Loevy filed a lawsuit on his behalf in January against the administrators, members of the Board of Trustees and a group of “John Doe” defendants who had threatened to stop donating to the university if Salaita wasn’t fired because of his criticism of Israel. The lawsuit alleges violations of Salaita’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process of law, as well as the basic principles of academic freedom, breach of contract, conspiracy, tortious interference, promissory estoppel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit seeks reinstatement and unspecified compensation for the economic hardship and damage to his reputation.

RELATED: Salaita Seeks Reinstatement

RELATED: Salaita Sues University and Donors over Firing for ‘Uncivil’ Criticism of Israel

The Center for Constitutional Rights issued a statement in response to the AAUP report. “The AAUP’s detailed investigation of the events surrounding Prof. Salaita’s firing should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that, in dismissing Prof. Salaita, the UIUC violated principles of academic freedom, standards of academic governance, and its own policies,” the Center said. “Noting that ‘the issues raised by the case were of the highest importance for the university and for higher education nationally,’ the report rejects UIUC’s claims that its actions were justified by the lack of ‘civility’ in Prof. Salaita’s tweets and not its content. Consistent with the AAUP’s findings, the university should admit it was wrong and reinstate Prof. Salaita.”

A section of the report reviewing conflicts over academic freedom at the UIUC raises the issue of the sports mascot Chief Illiniwek, relating it to the Salaita case, “Of some relevance to the concerns dealt with in this report is the controversy over Chief Illiniwek, commonly referred to as ‘the Chief,’ that has gone on for more than two decades,” the report says. The offensive official mascot and symbol of the UIUC intercollegiate athletic programs was portrayed by a student dressed in Sioux regalia and leaping about at athletic events and rallies.

‘’Several American Indian groups and their supporters charged that the Chief was a misappropriation of indigenous cultural figures and rituals and that the use of the mascot perpetuated stereotypes about American Indian peoples,” the report says. Several groups both within and beyond the university called for the offensive mascot’s retirement, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Education Association, Amnesty International, the Modern Language Association, and the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas.

In August 2005 the National Collegiate Athletic Association said Chief Illiniwek was a “hostile or abusive” image and banned the university from hosting postseason activities as long as it continued to use it. The UIUC board chair of trustees passed a resolution in 2005 calling for “a consensus conclusion to the matter of Chief Illiniwek,” but in February 2007 the chair of the board issued a unilateral directive retiring the mascot and a month later the trustees voted to do the same, the report says.

“The controversy over the Chief that roiled the campus – with students and alumni often passionately defending the tradition and faculty members generally supporting the mascot’s retirement – nonetheless continues today as unofficial student groups have maintained the tradition” the report says.