Board of Trustees votes against Salaita appointment

Patrick Fitzgerald

The board’s responsibility is to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for students, says trustee Patrick Fitzgerald. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

University of Illinois Board of Trustees voted 8-1 to not appoint Steven Salaita as a tenured professor in American Indian studies on the Urbana campus.

The board’s decision at the Sept. 11 meeting in Urbana-Champaign supported the recommendations of University President Bob Easter and Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

Easter said he made his decision following widely reported controversial online comments Salaita made concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“In our pluralistic society, it is increasingly obvious that forward progress is impeded by polarization, bigotry and hurtful dialogue that inhibits reasoned discourse,” Easter said.

“I have come to the conclusion that Professor Salaita’s approach indicates that he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions could be given equal consideration, regardless of the issue being discussed.”

Easter said hiring the professor ultimately would negatively affect student and faculty recruitment.

Wise said she will use the controversy as an opportunity for continuing campus dialogue on academic freedom and shared governance.

“My goal has always been to make decisions that are in the best interest of the campus, and to further its vision, goals, objectives and reputation,” she said.“To my campus faculty colleagues who are frustrated and angry about this case, I pledge that I will continue to listen and learn, and work hard to bring the campus together. We will be stronger because of this, and I look forward to the engagement of our entire community.”

Supporters of Salaita packed the board meeting room at the Illini Union. After the vote, they chanted “Shame on you!” as they filed out of the meeting to protest outside.

Board of Trustee member James D. Montgomery

Trustee James Montgomery, a Chicago attorney, voted in favor of Salaita’s appointment. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

Professor Robert Warrior, director of American Indian studies, made a last-ditch plea to the board, asking that they accept the department’s recommendation to hire Salaita. He said in addition to academic freedom, the administrative action against Salaita threatened campus shared governance and is “an abrogation of authority.”

Warrior defended the online comments attributed to Salaita, saying “None were obviously or apparently troublesome. Nothing is so obvious as his detractors would believe.”

Anna Westerstahl Stenport, professor of Germanic languages and literatures, said the decision not to hire Salaita would have “catastrophic, long-term effects” on faculty recruitment and donations.

Student Josh Cooper, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, presented trustees with a petition with 1,300 student signatures supporting Wise’s decision. “Hate speech is never acceptable for these appointments for tenured positions,” Cooper said. “This candidate (Salaita) is completely intolerant of anyone who does not agree with his views.”

Trustee Patrick J. Fitzgerald said the board’s first responsibility is to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for students. He said some of Salaita’s statements had the same hurtful intent as homophobic or racist comments.

Trustee James D. Montgomery, the lone supporter of the Salaita appointment, said he changed his mind after reflecting on his days as a student on the Urbana campus in the 1950s, when he protested housing discrimination.

“I guess I was about as vocal as Dr. Salaita,” he said.

Montgomery said Salaita’s comments “were not in the context of the university or of the classroom,” which should make it constitutionally protected and not “in the context of seeking employment at this university.” The trustee said his support is not an indictment against Wise, who he called a “visionary leader,” nor an indication he supports Salaita’s specific comments.

He said his support stems from commitment to freedom of speech, “the greatest value I cherish in this country.”

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