Op-ed on Steven Salaita Tenure Travesty at U of Illinois

The News-Gazette of Champaign, Illinois published today in its Sunday paper an op-ed I wrote on the meaning of the American Association of University Professors’ censure of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The censure resulted from the summary dismissal of Steven Salaita for his tweets that some found objectionable last summer.

Restoring Salaita’s position would be right move

By Peter N. Kirstein

The American Association of University Professors censured the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It might be illuminating to clarify what a censure means:

The censure applied to the administration of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The precise language of the motion that was adopted on Saturday, June 13, in Washington, D.C., was: “recommends … that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign be placed on the Association’s list of censured administrations.” AAUP censure excluded the faculty and is neutral whether an academician should seek employment at a censured institution. AAUP does recommend prospective candidates familiarize themselves with a university’s current practices and reputation in protecting academic freedom, tenure and shared governance.

The censure does not apply to the administrations of the University of Illinois at Chicago or the University of Illinois at Springfield. However, in a practical sense, the censure clearly affects those that oversee the three-campus system. Their flagship campus has been identified as violating the guidelines and practices of the AAUP. Presumably, any exit from the censure list will entail actions of administrators, such as President Timothy L. Killeen, whose responsibility is not confined to the Urbana-Champaign campus.

The AAUP is not a policing organization and does not have explicit powers of sanction. It cannot order a post-secondary institution to adopt a specific measure. It respects institutional sovereignty, up to a point. The AAUP is effective due to moral suasion, and its 100-year history of establishing the common law of the academy, that is periodically updated in AAUP Policy Documents and Reports, also known as The Redbook. In particular, the AAUP is proud of its historic role in establishing tenure and the parameters attendant to the probationary period. It is the leader in pursuing shared governance, which is a core principle of any democratic society, and of particular importance in establishing appropriate faculty powers in shaping the mission of an institution. Academic freedom, the bedrock of the pursuit of the truth with students, research and extramural utterances is of special concern to the AAUP.

The summary dismissal of Steven G. Salaita from a tenured position at the rank of associate professor was so inimical to the basic standards of the academy, that the AAUP appropriately censured one of the nation’s leading universities. Usually smaller institutions are censured. Research institutions and flagship campuses are usually more amenable to protecting academic freedom, and resisting the winds of oppression when controversy surfaces. The UIUC is the only Big Ten university on the censure list and is, perhaps, the most prominent institution that has currently earned such a dubious distinction.

If Steven Salaita were restored to his position, in my opinion, it would be an act of courage on the part of the UIUC administration, and would precipitate a quick exit from the censure list. Changing the statutes alone would be an insufficient step to end censure. Requiring the Board of Trustees, for example, to approve appointments prior to the beginning of a semester could lead to more instances of viewpoint cleansing and academic-freedom disruptions. A settlement and statute reform might end the censure.

I am concerned about the future of Dr. Salaita, and urge the UIUC to reflect on the unseemly and cruel treatment of this professor as he was about to assume his duties last year. A humane ending to this trauma would be to honour the contract that UIUC offered and that Salaita returned with his signature

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