University of Illinois Rejection of Anti-Israel Professor Shows How Faculty Power Is Eroding

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has just revoked the appointment of Stephen G. Salaita, an American Studies scholar who specializes in Native American issues and has written about Palestinians as well. Salaita, like many incoming professors, was told he was all set to arrive at the beginning of this semester, teach his classes, and move into his office. But within a few weeks of teaching his classes, he was told his appointment was revoked.

Almost all job acceptance letters in the university contain a clause saying that appointment is contingent on approval by upper-level administrators and the Board of Trustees. Salaita failed to win the approval of that tier of the university.

There was no reason provided by the administration, but the reason seems to be that Salaita had blogged and tweeted very strongly worded statements about the situation in Gaza and about Israel.

Academics and supporters are promulgating petitions, letters, and the threat of boycott. And the issues involved are being discussed on Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere -- these involve academic freedom, freedom of speech, the limits of both, and the technical legal issues of whether the university violated the law in abrogating the contract. The Illinois branch of the American Association of University Professors has called for Salaita's reinstatement.

The legal issues will resolve themselves, and the discussions of academic freedom and freedom of speech will run the gamut from the claim that Salaita's rights were trampled upon to the assertion that he was not protected by academic freedom because he was not technically a professor. Some will claim that he engaged in "hate speech" and others that he was simply exercising the right to robust even vulgar language.

These are obvious issues, but I think the less obvious but very important one is the continuing fall out from the corporatization of the American university. In the past, when search committees and departments chose a candidate, the approval of the upper tier of the administration was basically a rubber stamp, as is the case still in 99 percent of appointments. But with a shift from professorial control of academic issues to one in which management makes crucial decisions about qualifications, we are seeing more and more cases in which Deans, Provosts, Chancellors, Presidents and Boards of Trustees are overturning the decisions of faculty in the realm of hiring and tenuring.

The decision with Salaita, who was approved by a search committee and by his department and presumably his college, is a prime example of the erosion of faculty power. Interestingly, while the University of Illinois at Chicago has won a faculty union for tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty in the past year, its sister school at Urbana has steadily resisted so far a union for tenure-track faculty. Is it merely coincidental that the administration at Urbana was emboldened to tamper with a departmental appointment because it knew it would not face organized faculty opposition? Would a union have made a difference?

Regardless of what one may think about the tone or quality of Salaita's blog posts, he had been vetted, scrutinized, and approved by a search committee that was well aware of his strong opinions on the Middle East as well as his social media involvement. That committee decided that he should be a colleague, albeit an outspoken one. For the administration to overturn the faculty decision, and in such a ham-handed and 11th-hour manner, shows us that Urbana's faculty needs to step up to the plate and exercise their power as professors, teachers, and citizens of the university. The only really effective way they can do this is through a faculty union, as it is clear that the faculty senate will have little or no authority in this case. While a union may not have direct jurisdiction, its opinion, organization, and legal strength would go a long way to preserving the erosion of faculty power.