Chancellor Wise v. University of Illinois Statutes

A little nomenclature. Private post-secondary institutions are governed by charters. Public colleges and universities are governed by statutes. Now that the day’s lesson has been completed, let us proceed.

Numerous reports have suggested that the decision to void a contract offer to Steven Salaita resulted from outside pressure. Inside Higher Ed, The Jewish Forward and the News-Gazette are just some of the publications that revealed efforts were made by local and national Israel Lobby groups to derail the appointment of  Professor Salaita. E-mail, letters, conferences and fund-raising pressures to fire the professor have been documented. Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise has denied that such influence played a role in her August 1 notification that he had been summarily dismissed which the American Association of University Professors has described as a virtual suspension without pay.

Yet the timing of this letter and the evidence that efforts were made from external parties to prevent Professor Salaita from teaching would be at variance with the statutes of the University of Illinois:

The  University of Illinois Statutes state explicitly that:

“It is the policy of the University to maintain and encourage full freedom within the law of inquiry, discourse, teaching, research, and publication and to protect any member of the academic staff against influences, from within or without the University, which would restrict the member’s exercise of these freedoms in the member’s area of scholarly interest.”

Former AAUP President Cary Nelson, for example, while denying any role in the decision to revoke a written contract proffer believes that Salaita’s tweets are an extension of his scholarship and can, therefore, be adjudged in that manner. Of course it was the American Indian Studies Program that has the expertise and unit responsibility to make that decision. My point is: the statutes prohibit the coercion or sanctioning of a professor based upon “influences, from within or without the university” that impinge upon one’s area of scholarly interest. Clearly the destruction of a career, possibly; the immiseration of a faculty member who was promised a job and left a tenured position to assume it, would constitute an assault on the statutory protection of ” full freedom.” It would represent a stark attack on the protection of the academic staff.

While the term “law of inquiry” may require a more informed legal analysis, has anyone claimed that Professor Salaita broke a law? Has the University of Illinois averred that he engaged in illegal actions that constitute actions that are not protected in the paragraph from the Statutes quoted above?  The answer to both questions is “no.” While Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” I think the opposite is the case when applying statutory law or bylaws to the careers of academicians that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign claims it is obligated to defend.

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