Write a Letter to the Trustees of the University of Illinois in Support of Steven Salaita

Sep 04

Despite the vast amounts of negative publicity the University of Illinois has received, and continues to receive as a result of its decision to terminate Professor Steven Salaita, it has yet to reverse its decision.  Its Board of  Trustees will be meeting on September 11, and they should be made aware directly of the consequences their decision will have on the University, both in terms of the law and its academic reputation.  Please take some time and write an e-mail to the trustees expressing your opposition to the decision to terminate Professor Salaita and demand his reinstatement.  The names and the e-mails of the trustees are set out below:

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees:chris@northbankandwells.com

Robert A. Easter, President: reaster@uillinois.edu

Hannah Cave, Trustee: hcave2@illinois.edu

Ricardo Estrada, Trustee: estradar@metrofamily.org

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee: patrick.fitzgerald@skadden.com

Lucas N. Frye, Trustee: lnfrye2@illinois.edu

Karen Hasara, Trustee: hasgot28@aol.com

Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee: pholmes@schiffhardin.com

Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee: timothy.koritz@gmail.com ortkoritz@gmail.com

Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee: dleibo2@uic.edu

Edward L. McMillan, Trustee: mcmillaned@sbcglobal.net ormcmillaned@msn.com

James D. Montgomery, Trustee: james@jdmlaw.com

Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee: pbstrobel@comcast.net

Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel: bearrows@uillinois.edu

Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University: kies@uillinois.edu

Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees: lmckeever@wpmck.com


I have included a copy of my letter below.  Feel free to use it as a model for your own letter.

Dear Trustees,

 I write to you as a friend of the University of Illinois.  I had the pleasure of speaking at the University of Illinois in the past, and it very nearly became my academic home when I was first on the job market in 2005.  Universities are unique sites in our culture where free-wielding discussions are not only tolerated, they are expected and encouraged.  As faculty, not only are we charged with pursuing ideas in our research, but also to communicate those ideas and educate our students, not by indoctrinating them, but buy inculcating a love for free inquiry.  Increasingly, and especially with the rise of social media, academics are being asked to serve public roles as well as their roles as researchers and educators. Indeed, recent pieces in newspapers such as the New York Times only emphasize the increasing demand that university professors make themselves relevant to public discourse.  It is thus ironic that the University of Illinois should choose to terminate Professor Salaita based on his missives on Twitter, a medium not intended for scholarly discussion, but rather for public discussion, in phrases of less than 140 characters.
Your decision to terminate Professor Salaita’s employment or to rescind his offer of employment, however characterized, is not merely unwise or inconsistent with the university’s mission as a site for free inquiry and debate; it is also a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of Professor Salaita which the University of Illinois, as a public university, is legally bound to respect.  Accordingly, the University cannot punish or discriminate against a job candidate based on his or her unpopular political speech.  In this case,  there is no evidence that Professor Salaita’s political views have had any impact on his ability to be an effective scholar or effective teacher. Quite to the contrary: publicly available documents from his previous university, Virginia Tech, indicate that he was a highly successful teacher that consistently received high ratings from his students.  The fact that he was offered a tenured position at the University of Illinois indicates that his scholarship met the high standards of a world-class university.  Accordingly, we can only conclude that his termination (or the withdrawal of the offer) was based solely on the content of his speech.
Chancellor Wise’s August statement in which she defended her decision on the grounds of the perceived need to protect “civility” is not a defense to the University’s violations of Professor Salaita’s First Amendment rights nor does it excuse the University of Illinois from its duty to uphold and defend the First Amendment rights of its faculty, and its prospective faculty hires.  “Civility” is a laudable concept, and surely uncivil remarks by a professor directed at students in a classroom would constitute a serious academic offense, but of course Professor Salaita did no such thing.  First, his remarks on Twitter were not in the academic setting but on Twitter, a forum in which speech is limited to 140 characters; second, even if they were uncivil, they were not directed against any students, but were directed on a topic of immense public interest — the grotesque actions of a US-funded ally in the Middle East, and in particular, the character of that state’s prime minister; third, there is no clear definition of civility that could be applied in a neutral fashion so as to avoid the suspicion that speakers, in this case Professor Salaita, are being threatened with punishment based on the unpopular content of the speech, rather than its incivility.  Indeed, for many, particularly those in privileged positions, any criticism is deemed to be uncivil, and under the demand for civility, much critical discourse could be censored.
Finally, I would like to conclude by reminding of you of your duty to act in the best interests of the University.  In this age of declining state support for public universities, it might appear that the University’s interest lies in empowering the wishes of wealthy private donors, something that appears to have taken place in this case.  (E-mails from the Chancellor’s office indicate that she was receiving direct pressure from the fund raising arms of the University which, in turn, was being pressured by certain wealthy donors who threatened to terminate giving to the University if it went through with its hire of Professor Salaita.) That would be a grave mistake.  The best-interest of the University of Illinois lies in defending its academic values which guarantee that it will remain a place of free inquiry and a haven for curious minds that inculcates a spirit of free inquiry in its students.  The decision to terminate Professor Salaita, or rescind his offer, however characterized, has already done immense damage to the University of Illinois’ academic reputation, with numerous academics announcing a boycott of the institution as a result.  It has also produced a crisis in faculty governance, as the ill-considered decision was finalized without so much as even consulting the department concerned.  This in turn has led to three academic departments in the University expressing no confidence in the Chancellor.
I urge you to reconsider this decision before it results in further damage to the University and reinstate Professor Salaita promptly.

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