An official investigative committee at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is calling for the decision to fire Steven Salaita to be reconsidered.
The report by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) states that:
“In light of the irregular circumstances leading up to the Board of Trustees’ disapproval of an appointment for Dr. Salaita, the Committee recommends that Dr. Salaita’s candidacy be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for reconsideration by a committee of qualified academic experts.”
Salaita was fired from a tenured position last August after pro-Israel donors, faculty and students mounted a campaign against him because of tweets he made excoriating Israel’s attack on Gaza.
His case has become an international cause celebre in the struggle for academic freedom and against censorship on campus of views critical of Israel.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), whose attorneys form part of Salaita’s legal team, warmly welcomed the CAFT report.
The committee “has found that UIUC’s actions with regard to Professor Salaita were wrong,” CCR said in a statement. CCR added that the report had affirmed that “the university had clear contractual obligations to Professor Salaita” which had been violated along with basic commitments to academic freedom and free speech.
Bruce Rosenstock, president of the Campus Faculty Association at the University of Illinois, told WUIS public radio that the CAFT report is a “bombshell and a game changer” that would force university officials to revisit their decision to rescind Salaita’s appointment.
University violated policies and procedures
In its summary, the report states:
The process by which Dr. Salaita’s proposed appointment was withdrawn and eventually rejected did not follow existing policies and procedures in several substantial respects, raising questions about the institution’s commitment to shared governance. The reasons given – the civility of tweets made by Dr. Salaita in the summer of 2014 – is not consistent with the University’s guarantee of freedom of political speech. Statements made by the Chancellor, President, and Trustees asserting that the incivility of a candidate’s utterances may constitute sufficient grounds for rejecting his appointment should be renounced.
“We do not believe that Dr. Salaita’s political speech renders him unfit for office,” CAFT states. “We recommend that statements made by the Chancellor, President, and Trustees asserting civility as a standard of conduct be withdrawn.”
CAFT is part of the university senate, a legislative body established under the University of Illinois statutes.
Supporters of Salaita may find the report troubling in at least one way: while the report affirms that Salaita’s tweets did not “render him unfit” and that “civility” is not grounds for refusing his appointment, it now introduces another new, vague standard of “fitness.”
In an apparent concession to administrators, the report adds, “the Chancellor has raised legitimate questions about Dr. Salaita’s professional fitness that must be addressed.”
CAFT acknowledges that in giving credence to concerns about Salaita’s “fitness” – unrelated to his scholarship, teaching record and political speech – it “might appear to allow the Trustees to ask for a review of the professional fitness of any candidate who makes remarks that they deem unpopular or offensive.”
CAFT adds, “Our opinion derives from circumstances that are extraordinary and unlikely to be replicated.”
But the CAFT report at least calls for Salaita to be “provided the opportunity to respond to any proposed findings of professional unfitness before the body concludes its proceedings.”
It also recommends “that the university take responsibility for the financial consequences to Dr. Salaita of its irregular adherence to its own policies and procedures.”
Nonetheless, the substantive findings clearly fault the university administration’s handling of the case. Administrators have always ruled out reinstating Salaita, but this report calls for that option to be considered.
It remains to be seen if the university will dig in its heels or whether further litigation is the next step in Salaita’s struggle to regain his rights. Salaita has already filed one lawsuit against the university for its refusal to release emails related to his case.
The 140-page report, of which I have only made a preliminary review, is attached. It will undoubtedly require further, close study.