Email contradicts Univ. of Illinois president’s statement on Salaita firing

A screenshot shows University of Illinois President Robert Easter as he told trustees not to back Steven Salaita’s appointment.

An email obtained by The Electronic Intifada confirms that University of Illinois President Robert Easter initiated contact with Chancellor Phyllis Wise regarding concerns over Professor Steven Salaita in July.

The email contradicts a public statement given by Easter to The Electronic Intifada last week that it was Wise who had brought the matter to his attention.

The discrepancy between Easter’s account and the email record casts further doubt on the credibility of university officials’ explanations for their firing of Salaita and their lack of transparency over the influence of major donors.

Last week, the university’s board of trustees formally rejected Salaita’s appointment to a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program.

This came after weeks of campaigning against him by pro-Israel students, faculty and donors outraged at his tweets criticizing Israel’s massacre in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the faculty of the Department of African American Studies has become the latest to vote no confidence in the university’s leadership.

What the president said

In a video interview after the board meeting, The Electronic Intifada asked President Easter when he first heard there were concerns about Steven Salaita.

“The chancellor [Wise] talked to me back some time in the summer. That was the first awareness that I had and I don’t recall the date,” Easter responded.

Asked what Wise had said, Easter added: “She had concerns. This was when the tweets – she was aware of the tweets. Someone brought that to her attention and she shared some of that with me and said ‘I’m concerned about this.’”

What the emails say

The email record indicates that – contrary to his statement – Easter himself approached Wise about the matter.

On 21 July, Easter received an email from a “proud alumnus” and social studies teacher at private high school in Springfield, Illinois.

This was the same day that press articles criticizing Salaita appeared in a local newspaper and on right-wing websites.

“I am very disappointed in the selection of Professor Salaita, especially given his statements regarding the conflicts in Israel,” the teacher wrote. “With several professors at the university who are Jewish (some of which I had), I find it reprehensible to hire a man that not only feels the way he does regarding Israel but chooses to express it in an inappropriate way (via Twitter).”

“A simple Google search will lead you to see criticism for many outrageous comments made by Professor Salaita, ranging from anti-Israel to criticism of saying ‘support our troops,’” the teacher added.

Finally, the teacher urged Easter to “reconsider” the decision to hire Salaita.

The same day, Easter forwarded this email to Wise, adding this note at the top:

From: Easter, Robert A
Sent: Monday, July 21, 2014 8:43 PM
To: Wise, Phyllis M
Cc: Clements, Vicki
Subject: Fwd: Disappointed in Hiring of Steven Salaita

Phyllis, we should probably discuss this matter.

Bob

Sent from my iPad
Robert A. Easter, Ph.D.
President, University of Illinois

A redacted version of the high school teacher’s email with the note forwarding it from Easter to Wise was included in a trove of documents released by the university under the Freedom of Information Act (see below).

The unredacted email thread obtained by The Electronic Intifada includes the name, place of employment, city of residence and year of graduation (2012) of the letter writer.

It also includes an additional email that does not appear to be included in the documents released by the university – a reply from Wise to Easter.

At 9:27pm, about 45 minutes after Easter forwarded the email, Wise responded:

Bob,

I am trying to learn more about this. When I am better informed, I’d be happy to talk.

Phyllis

Together, these emails confirm that whether or not Wise already knew about the concerns over Salaita, Easter independently initiated contact with her based on nothing more than an email expressing outrage over Salaita’s views about Israel.

The emails also show that Easter did not simply refer the matter to Wise – the chief executive of the Urbana-Champaign campus where Salaita was to teach – but specifically wanted to speak to Wise himself.

As president, Easter’s responsibilities are generally externally focused: fundraising, representing the university, working with legislators and so on. It would be unusual for him to weigh in directly on faculty appointments at the university’s three campuses.

Why did Wise change her mind?

A full video of the 11 September board meeting is now available.

Just before the board voted, with a lone dissenter, to nix Salaita’s appointment, Wise made the following statement (beginning at about 74:30):

Although Dr. Salaita’s appointment had gone through many procedural steps including my initial approval, I cannot recommend that you approve his appointment to the faculty.

Despite adding some boilerplate about her commitment to “listening” and making the campus “stronger,” Wise never explained when or why she changed her mind. She offered no reasons for why she could not recommend Salaita.

Wise’s turnabout is more astonishing given that in January she had personally defended racist and sexist comments directed at her – an Asian American woman – from students angry at her failure to close the university during particularly severe weather.

“The negative comments, as offensive as they were, are protected speech,” Wise wrote in an Inside Higher Ed op-ed.

University of Illinois student Stephanie Skora at the 11 September trustees meeting holds a wad of play money representing what she sees as inappropriate donor influence on the firing of Steven Salaita.

Ali Abunimah

Wise’s double standard prompted the faculty of the Department of African American Studies to observe that while punishing Salaita, the chancellor “tolerates and enables a campus climate of hate speech in which racist epithets, depictions, and racial microaggressions are routinely experienced by Blacks and people of color on this campus.”

This, the violations of Salaita’s free speech rights and the decline of African American enrollment during Wise’s tenure were among the reasons the Department of African American Studies faculty joined other colleagues in voting no confidence in the trustees, the president and the chancellor.

So why did Wise change her position? One hypothesis that now arises: she was simply following orders from above.

“Open and frank”

Following Wise’s statement during last week’s board meeting, Easter addressed the trustees, backing her non-recommendation of Salaita (at about 76:00):

I have an ardent belief that universities must be rooted in the open and frank discussion that is fundamental to democratic society and take seriously our responsibility to prepare the next generation of leaders. In our pluralistic society it is increasingly obvious that forward progress is impeded by polarization, bigotry and hurtful dialogue that inhibits reasoned discourse. I’ve come to the conclusion that Professor Salaita’s approach indicates that he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions need to be given equal consideration regardless of the issue being discussed. I’m also concerned that his irresponsible public statements would make it more difficult for the university and particularly the Urbana-Champaign campus to attract the best and brightest students, faculty and staff. I concur with the chancellor that Professor Salaita should not be appointed and that the board should support this decision.

Easter’s statement uncritically recycles the mishmash of allegations made by Salaita’s critics and completely disregards the extensive faculty process that reviewed Salaita’s work including his stellar teaching record.

Easter’s comments are clear proof that University of Illinois administrators will callously destroy a person’s life and career, subject them to public accusations and slander with no due process and no opportunity for a formal response for no discernible reason except views on Israel that offend the powerful.

While the president claims to believe in “open and frank discussion,” there can be no underestimating the chilling effect on free speech his and the board’s arbitrary exercise of power will have at the University of Illinois and institutions across the country.

Salaita has not yet announced what he will do following last week’s board vote, although his lawyers previously said he is prepared to sue the university.

If he proceeds with legal action, the depositions and document discovery that will be part of the process will undoubtedly shed more light on the contradictions, changing accounts and underhanded dealings at the heart of this sordid affair.

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Comments

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The university keeps digging itself deeper and deeper into lies that must be covered up with new lies. I am old enough to remember Watergate and this smells the same. Hopefully it will work out the same in the end.

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Thank you for holding the university's feet to the fire. I believe you are going a long way toward having this resolved in a way favorable to academic integrity and Dr Salaita. The university's outrageous behavior must not be allowed to stand unchallenged. I look forward to having this issue heard in a courtroom.

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Keep up the really great work you are doing in these reports. I am 100% Jewish ( a Levite) I love Israel and my Jewish friends....and for that reason I am 100% AGAINST what Wise and the trustees have done. They have devalued genuine scholarship and implied that tweets now count more than good books. They have also severely punished political satire and dark humor (the tweets). In these two acts they have struck massive blows against the Jewish Soul (i.e. its foundation in scholarship and satirical humor) , which I feel is ultimately more important for Jews and if I may say so, for all humanity, than even "Israel's Soul" . Those few men and women who struck this damaging blow (including any donors who might be involved) have apparently forgotten what happened to Jewish academics in Germany during the 1930's. They might well reply by insisting that they did what they did precisely because they remember the 1930's. But I say to them: keep on thinking, keep studying and you will eventually see what is wrong with that line of argument.
That video you posted of Wise's "minder" helping her to evade your questions about donors is very significant; it sums up the whole contemporary situation.
Yours sincerely
Alan (Ali)

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there it is in black & white.
someone pretending to care about Jewish faculty tells his buddy at the top that there is no room for criticism of Israel on campus.... because there are Jewish professors ?? I don't buy that - it's because there is no room on campus for ONE specific political opinion! and he compares this to ranting about a US election... that says it all: University of Illinois can only tolerate "Tide"... or is it "Ivory Snow"..? hmmm.
maybe some Illinois professor will have to twitter rants about laundry soap and figure out which is tolerated by alumni with connections.
meanwhile, the US is heavily implicated in a genocide.... again.
good to see the truth in print. thanks.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.