After Three Weeks of Terrible Publicity, 41 UIUC Leaders Call on Administration to Resolve Crisis (Updated)

In what may be the most significant and largest statement by campus leaders at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to date, 41 department chairs and program heads have issued a powerful call for the university to reinstate Steven Salaita. Addressing the new acting chancellor, Barbara Wilson, who recently replaced Chancellor Phyllis Wise, and UI President Timothy Killeen, the writers not only register just how severe the Salaita crisis has been but they also make plain a way out of the mess: reinstate Salaita. In a statement accompanying the letter’s release, English Department head Michael Rothberg said:

The Salaita case has become an international symbol for the precariousness of academic freedom and shared governance in the contemporary university. Until the university reinstates Dr. Salaita to his rightful position, our campus will continue to exist under a cloud of censure and boycott. The university needs to do the right thing: to reinstate Salaita and to take steps to ensure that future hiring is based purely on scholarly review by faculty members and not on political considerations or the influence of interests beyond the university.

In addition to many of the chairs and directors of departments in the humanities and social sciences, the signatories include the heads of the chemical sciences, math, statistics, and animal biology.

The letter suggests that we may be in a new moment of the Salaita fight. After last year’s initial burst of activism—which included multiple department votes of no confidence in Chancellor Wise, a boycott by more than 5000 scholars of UIUC, and censure by the AAUP—we’ve seen, in the last three weeks, the following developments:

  1. The stunning and comprehensive rejection by a federal judge of UIUC’s claim that it had never hired Steven Salaita and thus owed him none of the obligations of academic freedom that it is bound to honor among its faculty.
  2. The sudden resignation of Chancellor Wise.
  3. The revelation that Chancellor Wise and other campus administrators had been using personal email accounts to discuss the Salaita case—and that those emails had not been released in response to multiple FOIA requests and that Wise had admitted to destroying some of them.
  4. The embarrassing pas de deux between Wise and the Board of Trustees over the $400,000 bonus she had been promised, resulting in a frenzy of steps and counter-steps—rejection of resignation; initiation of dismissal proceedings; threats of lawsuit; acceptance of resignation—that would challenge even the most seasoned dancer at Martha Graham.

A story that seemed to be settling into the cozy chambers of a federal judge was now back on the front pages, showing the university once again in a most terrible light. Between the lines of this latest letter from the department chairs and unit heads one can hear a reminder to the trustees and administration: we can’t take another year of this. Perhaps the university’s new leadership will listen.

Here are excerpts from the letter:

We the forty-one undersigned Executive Officers and campus leaders from departments and academic units across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign urge you to help end the crisis that has plagued our university for more than a year….The decision has also inflicted harm upon the reputation and standing of our university.

The AAUP has censured the Urbana-Champaign campus for the violation of academic freedom. An ongoing academic boycott against our campus continues to adversely affect an important dimension of our intellectual livelihood. More than 5,000 scholars around the world, many of them prominent intellectuals, refuse to participate in talks or conferences at the University of Illinois. Such events are part of the exchange of ideas for which our campus has always been known, and their cancellation impoverishes the conversation on campus to the detriment of students and faculty alike. Over the long term, it threatens our competitiveness in bringing in external funding and recruiting distinguished scholars.

We are therefore asking you to use the authority of your offices to recommend to the Board of Trustees that they reverse their previous decision and reinstate Dr. Salaita at the next board meeting in September. We firmly believe that this step will help put the university on track toward ending AAUP censure and regaining its place among the most respected public institutions of higher education in the country. The decision to reinstate Dr. Salaita will also make it easier to resolve pending litigation and save the university community and state taxpayers from the high costs of defending a wrong decision in the court of law.

We ask for a meeting to discuss our request to restore the rightful stature of the University of Illinois.

Update (August 24)

Ilesanmi Adesida, who is the provost of UIUC, just announced that he too is resigning from his position. That means that four of the leaders involved in the original Salaita decision—Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Board of Trustees Chris Kennedy, UI President Robert Easter, and Provost Adesida—have stepped down from their positions. If ever there were a time for the new leadership to announce that they had truly cleaned house, it’s now. REINSTATE SALAITA!

Update (August 25)

In his continuing effort to become this year’s poster child for Irony Watch, UIUC Professor Nicholas Burbules has this to say about the unfairness of Adesida’s resignation:

I didn’t and I don’t know of any specific issues of misconduct, or accusations of misconduct, that would justify this decision. Whatever mistakes have been made, it’s hard to see people lose their reputations and careers in ways like this. I don’t think it’s deserved.

And he had this to say of the effect of the resignations of Wise and Adesida on the campus community:

We can’t and we’re not going to stand still as a campus. But it’s hard to set goals when the goals you’re setting aren’t necessarily the goals of the people who might be implementing them down the road.

Absolutely no sense that the first statement could be applied to Steven Salaita’s situation, and the second to that of the American Indian Studies program at UIUC (which has lost so much of its core faculty that it’s now down to two full-time professors), a thousand times more.


  1. xenon2 August 23, 2015 at 10:12 pm | #

    Looks very good…

  2. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 24, 2015 at 8:48 am | #

    I used the term before and I will again now: “Implosion”.

    As well, and again, I ask: Where are the hasbarists that brought us to this juncture, those brave propagandists, er, defenders of Israel, of tremulous Jewish students cowering at the prospect of having to endure this jihadist Salaita giving them a C-mimus, and of civility on campus? I beseech thee, quash this rebellion of anti-Semites that would dare seek the reinstatement of Professor “terror-tweet” Salaita under the guise of academic freedom! Donors, to you as well I call: Protect your investment before it is too late!

    But seriously folks…

    Wow, just…. just, wow!

    • dtr August 26, 2015 at 9:45 pm | #

      A little primer on the 4 steps of hasbara:

      We rock

      They suck

      You suck

      Everything sucks

      • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 28, 2015 at 9:03 am | #

        Thanks for that link. It was great to re-read it. I am going to save it as my go-to for, as we use to say in grad-school, “unpacking” hasbarist propaganda.

        What I love about it is that it is so easy for anyone to understand. It also exposes the fundamental weakness of reactionary propaganda. The particular species of this known as hasbarist trolling relies on the conventions of what is, in point of fact, a literary genre. The essay at that link simply articulates the rather short collection of tropes that animate that genre.

        Hasbara-as-literary-genre is revealed as lacking in/an imagination, but depends upon “susceptibility” to its appeal in its recipients, who in turn also lack imagination but require and seek out an instrumentality to deploy against critics of Israeli policy.

        The advantage of reality, on the other hand, is that it does not rely on genre conventions or “audience susceptibility” to reach and affect its recipients. Its only weakness is that reality is a weapon of the weak.

  3. Susan Davis August 24, 2015 at 9:28 am | #

    This is an excellent statement, and take quite a bit of bravery on the part of some signers. There are interesting absences on this list. Predictably, many of the tech-grant-heavy executive officers did not sign, although we know that some think a serious mistake has been made.. But other department heads did not sign on due to their closeness (via promotions up into lower administration) to the Chancellor and Provost’s offices. For example — Journalism (!) and Advertising and Communication. Other departments/schools that are feeling especially vulnerable in a time of continuing budgets are also non-signatories, despite the fact that many of their faculty have been very outspoken for Steven Salaita. So this is what academic freedom and shared governance looks like at the neo-liberal university. The very well-funded won’t speak for fear of losing favor. The underfunded who are threatened with reorganziation are terrified. But, delightfully, the head of Nicholas Burbules’ own department is a signatory.

    • Kolin Thumbadoo August 25, 2015 at 1:39 am | #

      These brave individuals no doubt draw their inspiration from the valiant people of Palestine who have resisted the ongoing slaughter(since before 1948) by a nuclear armed army of occupation,racist oppression and continued theft of their land. My congratulations to all.

      • blackcat August 25, 2015 at 8:42 am | #

        Eh, I would use some more greytones there. And no, they didn’t have nukes since before 1948

    • Spiny Norman August 26, 2015 at 1:14 am | #

      The UIUC Chemistry Department is very large, very well-funded, and very techy.

  4. Vince Diaz August 24, 2015 at 12:05 pm | #

    I’m glad they did this, but how is it possible to call for righting a wrong but not calling for holding the wrongdoers responsible? Fear that that logical implication would jeopardize the actual reinstatement? Or threat by some signatories to withhold their signatures if the letter ‘went there?’ What about restitution and reparations to the unit that suffered directly from the wrongdoings and the doubling downs? None at all has been forthcoming from the wrong doers. On the contrary. While I am no longer directly affected by this, I can assure you that my former unit is now in shambles and this was caused by actions and a subsequent climate that has been particularly harmful to AIS, which had been targetted on and off campus as the cause of all of this nonsense. Without shame, the upper administration did nothing to disabuse the charges leveled toward me and my former colleagues; indeed, it can be argued that by continuing to justify its actions, it leads in the process of continuing to victimize the victims in the case.

    • Susan Davis August 24, 2015 at 12:52 pm | #

      Vince is correct. A part of the larger story is the destruction of American Indian Studies at UIUC.

  5. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 24, 2015 at 1:10 pm | #

    — and, importantly, WHO did the destroying! Name all names!!

    Again: note their silence now.

  6. David Green August 24, 2015 at 3:24 pm | #

    Just to emphasize the various aspects of local/state class/race politics, this letter, published in the CU News-Gazette on Saturday, is from a wealthy octogenarian local businessman who had been active in trying to (mostly unsuccessfully) establish an entity under university auspices called “The Academy of Capitalism and Limited Government”, (you can google this) promoted as a kind of Hoover Institute. He has also been an advocate for the “Chief,” the mascot who was retired several years ago. The (privatized) medical school, corporate entrepreneurship, Illinois corruption (save us, Bruce Rauner) the Chief, James Kilgore (the demonization of 60s radicalization, along with Bill Ayers), Steven Salaita, Palestine, and Indian Studies have gotten all mixed together in this ideological stew. Don’t miss the call for “purification” at the end:

    Too many story lines for we mortals in search of a “scandal.” Maybe an intrepid reporter, skilled in newsroom reconstruction, can find a way.
    Can anyone think of a better idea than a medical/engineering college tucked away on this priceless campus, far away and independent from Chicago mayors, University of Illinois Chicago protagonists, big-city aldermen and -women whose record of 29 bribery and embezzlement convictions (through 2012) may never be broken?
    The culprit, I gather — improper email exchanges — is no match for Benghazi.
    A scandal, if you wish, may be in a departed trustee and Chicago collaborators who prefer an existing “regional” designation for this flagship enterprise and its storied Nobel prize-winning history. Or, how James Kilgore and Steven Salaita got here in the first place.
    If a purification process is needed, Phyllis Wise would seem a bad beginning. A better place to start? How about Indian studies?


  7. SC August 26, 2015 at 2:33 am | #

    That Chicago Tribune article is remiss in not letting readers know that, doh, Nicholas Burbules was involved in the actions leading up to the Adesida and Wise resignations.

    This News-Gazette article about an UI Senate Executive Committee meeting two days ago concerning/investigating new rules about private meetings and off-the-record communications has some amusing Burbules coverage.

    “Burbules had little comment during the meeting, but urged the committee to focus on senate policies and procedures, rather than ethics, which he said is outside the senate’s purview. The UI has an ethics office that could investigate any complaint, he said.

    “I’m not at all worried about any investigation into my behavior,” he added.”

  8. Ross August 27, 2015 at 9:11 am | #

    I think the problem is that the wealthy side of campus, i.e, College of Engineering (Adesida was dean here before getting Provost job), Business School and Law School didn’t react to Salaita affair, or worse,sided with Wise. Unless those entities get on-board I don’t see Salaita gets reinstated.

  9. Glenn August 28, 2015 at 12:31 am | #

    The senior US Senator from Illinois privately emailed University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise to offer his backing as she faced a storm of protest over the firing of Steven Salaita.

    The Electronic Intifada obtained Senator Richard Durbin’s 18 September 2014 email from the university under the Freedom of Information Act (see below for full email).

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