New Questions Raised About Who Exactly Made the Decision to Fire Salaita

There’s an excellent piece this morning in the News-Gazette, the newspaper of Urbana-Champaign, raising serious questions about who made the decision to fire Steven Salaita and when/how it was made. Initially, the paper reports, after Salaita’s tweets were publicly criticized in the right-wing media, Chancellor Wise and the UIUC publicly stood by him.

Then, on July 24, 2014, the Board of Trustees met in closed session with Wise, and “something changed,” as Salaita’s attorney, Anand Swaminathan, puts it:

It’s very clear that the university administration understood all the way through, at least through July 24, that they had obligations and commitments to Professor Salaita. Something changed in their attitude since then.

The News-Gazette provides this handy timeline, suggesting that the Board of Trustees may have played more of a role in this decision than we originally realized:

— On July 23, at 5:49 p.m., UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler laid out a plan for Wise: The chancellor would instruct American Indian Studies department head Robert Warrior to contact Salaita and express Wise’s dissatisfaction and send him the UI’s ethics code. Warrior would instruct Salaita to meet with Wise when he arrived on campus in the fall, and she would convey her unhappiness with him. But Salaita was still expected to be approved by the board.

— The next morning, July 24, at 5:44 a.m., Provost Ilesanmi Adesida referred to Salaita’s contract being “delayed” and noted that he had been offered the job almost a year earlier.

— At 7:13 a.m., Wise criticized Salaita’s Twitter comments as “hateful, totally unprofessional and unacceptable” and said they had appeared only “after the decision to hire him and after his acceptance of our offer. It reveals a side of the person that I believe makes it difficult for him to contribute to the culture of respect, collegiality, collaboration that we hold so dear.”

— At 7:25 a.m., going into the executive session, Wise asked Kaler to draft a joint statement with Adesida about how Salaita’s behavior was inappropriate, but she did not say his appointment would not be forwarded to the board.

— The first mention of that occurred after the meeting, at 1:55 p.m. When Kaler asked for an update, Wise said: “Too complicated to do in email. But they will be considering carefully whether to approve in September. Definitely not a given.”

Emails released yesterday also show Wise expressing deep dissatisfaction with the notion—advanced by Chris Kennedy, Chair of the Board of Trustees—that she was the sole or main decision-maker. Wise writes on December 14, 2014:

What angers me about this report is that they believe that I made the decision and that the BOT followed my recommendation. That is just plain not true. I have been carrying the water since (public relations firm) Edelman said that we have to stay as one voice. I don’t think I can do that any longer. I am going to talk with (university counsel) Scott (Rice) about setting the record straight.

A lot of this timeline of the switch in Wise’s tune is in keeping with what I observed last September. Though I was more focused on the question of donor influence than the Board of Trustees, and I treat the Board of Trustees as more reactive than it seems they were, my timing of the decision also places critical emphasis on that July 24 date.

When the Salaita story first broke in the local press, Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs Robin Kaler said, “Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.” That was on July 21. The UIUC documents reveal that not only was Chancellor Wise apprised of that statement minutes after it was emailed to the media, but that she also wrote back to Kaler: “I have received several emails. Do you want me to use this response or to forward these to you?” (p. 101) In other words, this was not the rogue statement of a low-level spokesperson; it reflected Wise’s own views, including the view that Salaita was already a university employee. Even though Wise already had been informed of Salaita’s tweets.

In the days following this forthright defense of Salaita, the Chancellor and her associates begin to back-pedal. Around July 23, Wise starts reaching out to select alumni, trying to arrange phone calls (and in one instance, struggling to rearrange her travel schedule just so she can meet one alum in person [pp. 78-94]). To another such alum, she writes, “Let me say that I just recently learned about Steven Salaita’s background, beyond his academic history, and am learning more now.” (p. 293) That “beyond his academic history” is going to get Wise in trouble on academic freedom grounds.

In the background of this change of tune are the donors and the university’s fundraising and development people. In a July 24 email to Dan Peterson, Leanne Barnhart, and Travis Michael Smith (all part of the UIUC money machine), Wise reports about a meeting she has had with what appears to be a big donor. In Wise’s words:

He said that he knows [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] well and both have less loyalty for Illinois because of their perception of anti-Semitism. He gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling. (p. 206)

Once Wise and her team start back-tracking, the trustees are brought into the picture.

The only wrinkle here, as I say, is that the Board of Trustees may have played more of an initiating role than I initially realized. As the News-Gazette reports:

Emails released by the University of Illinois on Friday may raise new questions about the decision not to hire Steven Salaita, with Chancellor Phyllis Wise saying at one point she was tired of “carrying the water” for the controversial move.

Wise has been the focal point of the faculty uproar about the decision to revoke Salaita’s job offer after his harsh, profanity-laden tweets about Israel last summer, just days before he was to begin teaching. But comments in Wise’s emails indicate that former Board Chairman Chris Kennedy may have played a bigger role than previously indicated.

Though there again, as the controversy began to explode throughout August, Wise began to disavow some of her ownership over the decision. As I reported on September 5, 2014:

And then she drops this bombshell: that in dehiring Steven Salaita, Wise was expressing “the sentiment of the Board of Trustees, it was not mine.”

So not only did her decision not reflect any of the academic voices on campus; it didn’t even reflect her own opinion.


  1. Dolphin Sequin August 8, 2015 at 3:45 pm | #

    So, does this mean it wasn’t the donors?

  2. xenon2 August 8, 2015 at 4:39 pm | #

    ‘Their perception of anti-Semitism’?

  3. VL August 8, 2015 at 7:30 pm | #

    I think it’s important to remember that the structure of the UI-UC situation was very similar to that which took place at UVA last summer, when members of the board felt that President Theresa Sullivan was not acting quickly enough on MOOCs (of all things). The difference is that Sullivan did not buckle under pressure from the Board of Visitors so she was essentially fired, then reinstated after successful campaigning by UVA faculty, and it was members of the Board whose emails were published. One can also think of the closing of SweetBriar College and the recent shuttering of several academic centers at UNC-Chapel Hill due to the intervention of a very conservative board member.

    In other words, I think we have enough case histories by now that we should always be suspicious in situations where academic freedoms are being curtailed that the problem is somehow traceable to moneyed interests, namely, that the ties between upper level administrations and donors/board members are too cozy. I predict the situation will only get worse, since even so-called state schools receive so little funding from the government (I remember an average figure of a mere 4% of their annual budget) that they, too, are forced to bow and curtsy before major donors.

  4. An American Anthropologist in Germany August 9, 2015 at 6:26 am | #

    Your first paragraph makes excellent points, VL. But I am a little confused by what you mean to say in the second.

    On one hand you write, “we should always be suspicious in situations where academic freedoms are being curtailed that the problem is somehow traceable to moneyed interests.” On the other, you “predict the situation [of academic freedoms being curtailed(?)] will only get worse, since even so-called state schools receive so little funding from the government (I remember an average figure of a mere 4% of their annual budget) that they, too, are forced to bow and curtsy before major donors.”

    I must be reading you wrong, but it seems like the second point contradicts the first.

    • Andrew August 10, 2015 at 1:03 pm | #

      How so? If universities are more dependent on funding from private donors, administrators will be more beholden to the whims of said donors and will be more likely to interfere on their behalf.

  5. Nathanael August 23, 2015 at 4:24 am | #

    This is the biggest bombshell. Now that Wise is fighting the Board, it becomes clear that the Board is completely crooked. There are actually state rules about Boards of Trustees; they’re required to comply with their charters, rather than sucking up to moneyed donors. Sounds like the Board violated the university charter. The state could actually prosecute the former chairman and possibly other members of the board…. probably won’t, but could.

Leave a Reply