Illinois chancellor says she should have “consulted with more people” before firing Palestinian scholar

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Chancellor Phyllis Wise has said she regrets she did not consult with more people before taking her decision to fire Palestinian American scholar Steven Salaita.

“I, in hindsight, wish I had been a little bit more deliberate and had consulted with more people before I made that decision,” she said.

Wise made the comments in an appearance before the student senate on Wednesday, indicating that she and other administrators are feeling the pressure of the outpouring of protests, boycotts and faculty votes of no confidence over the decision (video above and transcript below).

She was also directly confronted by students objecting to her decision.

Wise acknowledged the negative impact her decision is having on the university: “There have been a lot of criticism of his [Salaita’s] recruitment and now a great deal of criticism of us not following through. There have been boycotts by other universities.”

In early August, Wise abruptly terminated Salaita weeks before he was due to start teaching in a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program, setting off a national and international firestorm and condemnations from individual academics and academic associations around the world.

The faculty in six of UIUC’s departments have cast votes of no confidence in the chancellor, the university president and the board of trustees.

Wise’s decision followed a massive letter-writing campaign by pro-Israel students, alumni and donors claiming that Salaita’s tweets criticizing Zionism and Israel’s massacre in Gaza constituted “anti-Semitism.”

What remains unclear is whether broader consultation would have actually led Wise to make a different decision, given the corporatization of decisionmaking at the University of Illinois and other institutions. It may simply be that Wise believes that by “consulting” more widely, she would have been able to pre-empt the crisis now engulfing her institution.

Efforts to appease donors

Despite mounting evidence of her efforts to appease major, pro-Israel donors who were angered by Salaita’s appointment, Wise continues to maintain that she was not influenced by the university’s financial interests.

“If you read the News-Gazette you will read articles that state that I made my decision because I was afraid we would lose donors,” Wise said. “What I can assure you is that … whether or not someone had been a donor, is a donor, or would like to be a donor, is not at all considered in our decision.”

On 2 September, the Illinois newspaper the News-Gazette revealed that “a number of wealthy donors threatened to stop giving money to the university” because of Salaita’s appointment.

Among hundreds of pages of correspondence requested by the News-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act are emails showing that Wise rearranged her schedule to meet with one particularly wealthy donor to discuss Salaita’s hiring just days before it became public that she had fired him.

That donor has been named as Steve N. Miller, a Chicago-area venture capitalist and a major donor to the university.

Miller is also on the board of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, almost certainly the most influential and active pro-Israel advocacy organization in Illinois.

Confronted by students

Following her comments, students made statements challenging Wise’s decision.

Several students also read prepared statements praising Wise and repeating the false accusations of “anti-Semitism” that were pervasive in the letter-writing campaign.

As the chancellor listened, graduate student Rico Kleinstein Chenyek read a letter from members of the university’s Jewish community rejecting Wise’s earlier claim that she was acting to protect students from Salaita’s supposed lack of civility.

“Your decision to fire Professor Salaita is in fact what threatens us as Jews,” Chenyek said. “By pointing to anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism in an attempt to obscure politically and financially-motivated university actions, you minimize the Jewish voices of those who have resisted real and violent anti-Semitism,” Cheyenek added.

“By conflating pointed and justified critique of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism, your administration is effectively disregarding a large and growing number of Jewish perspectives that oppose Israeli military occupation, settler expansion and the assault on Palestine,” Chenyek said.

“The firing of Professor Salaita is the Israeli attack on Palestine coming to our campus. Just as we work tirelessly to oppose Israeli ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians taking place in our name, we will ensure that the silencing of Professor Salaita and others like him does not take place in our name either,” Chenyek stated.

Other students statements can be seen in the video at the top, following Wise’s comments and in this last clip:

Transcript of comments by UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise

I learned that the board of trustees was unlikely to approve of his appointment and I went ahead with Vice President Christophe Pierre and wrote Professor Salaita and told him that the last step in his recruitment meant that the approval by the board of trustees was unlikely to happen and therefore his appointment was not being realized.

I, in hindsight, wish I had been a little bit more deliberate and had consulted with more people before I made that decision but because of the timing of the issue and that is to say I found out about this at the very end of July. And I knew he [Salaita] was going to be moving here in probably the third week in August. I felt it was more humanitarian to let him know that it was unlikely for his appointment to be finalized. Now again, and hindsight is always 20-20 and I wish had done some more consulting before I had made the decision to write him a letter.

There have been a lot of criticism of his recruitment and now a great deal of criticism of us not following through. There have been boycotts by other universities. There have been repercussions [unintelligible]. If you read the News-Gazette you will read articles that state that I made my decision because I was afraid we would lose donors. What I can assure you is that even though as Provost Adesida said that both he and I are on the road a great deal to try and raise money for scholarships and also other issues like the renovation of Altgeld or the renovation of other buildings that whether or not someone had been a donor, is a donor, or would like to be a donor, is not at all considered in our decision. I think it is absolutely critical that we raise more money because the state is gradually decreasing the amount of money – and just today I saw the slide over the last twenty years – but that was not any factor in my decision, but I wanted to let you know about this in case you [unintelligible].

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Comments

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Just an update. It's actually 8 departments now, not six, that have cast votes of no confidence in Chancellor Wise: American Indian Studies, Philosophy, Asian American Studies, English, History, Latino/Latina Studies, Comparative and World Literature, Anthropology.

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It seems clear now that UIUC Professors work for Steve Miller NOT for the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne.

I am boycotting this university until I know who exactly who are UIUC Professors working for. Is it UIUC or for Mr. Steve Miller .

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Gratifying to see that Ms Wise has been obliged to face the consequences of her shameful firing of Dr Salaita.
Her feeble excuses and her poor command of what I presume to be her native language are astonishing for someone occupying the position of university chancellor (just by the way!)

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Salatia should sue the university but more importantly should sue Steve Miller , the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, all for defamation.

Hold them accountable and do not settle . Let it go throw the full course . They attacked your reputation without cause.

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A COWARDLY and rushed decision brings shame to the university. A sincere apology looks much better, along with reinstating Professor Salaita.
And the University maintains its' integrity....unbeholden to ANY DONORS. (As it should be.)

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.