A trustee of the University of Illinois has added to public criticism over the decision to fire Palestinian American professor and Israel critic Steven Salaita.
“I think it would have been far better had it been dealt with differently and had it been done with more consultation with faculty,” James D. Montgomery told The Electronic Intifada today.
He also acknowledged the “adverse” impact that a growing boycott was having on the university’s ability to function.
Montgomery, a prominent Chicago attorney, echoed the regrets expressed by Chancellor Phyllis Wise over her own role in the affair.
Montgomery was careful, however, to say that he was undecided about the merits of the case, but he sounded far less certain and more circumspect than a public statement he signed last month along with other trustees forcefully backing Wise’s decision.
Earlier this week, Wise, who heads the Univerity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where Salaita was due to start teaching last month, told students “I, in hindsight, wish I had been a little bit more deliberate and had consulted with more people before I made that decision.”
Wise also backed away from the decision, stating she was simply doing the bidding of the board.
“The judgment I made in writing him was to convey the sentiment of the Board of Trustees, it was not mine,” Wise was quoted as saying by Illinois Public Media. “And I did it because I thought I was doing something humane for him.”
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.”
Wise herself reorganized her schedule to meet with one particularly generous pro-Israel donor who objected to Salaita’s hiring, just days before Wise took her decision.
Montgomery laid out some of the issues that the board would be faced with at its upcoming 11 September meeting.
“Obviously there’s a lot of uproar on both sides of the issue from the perspective of students and alums who are offended by the manner in which Salaita spoke,” Montgomery said.
“And there are folks who are claiming that is a violation of the right to academic freedom. It’s a difficult decision in terms of what is right and what is wrong,” he continued.
“I know we’re going into executive session and obviously there are people who are seeking to pressure the university to reverse its decision. It’s coming from very significant places. It’s had an adverse impact because people are declining to participate in university activities and there have been a number of events canceled.”
Montgomery was apparently referring to the growing boycott which more than three thousand scholars have endorsed.
Several conferences have been canceled and some two dozen academics have canceled planned appearances at the Urbana-Champaign campus.
Asked how he thought the issue of Palestine and Israel played into the controversy, Montgomery stated: “Well I think that it’s a highly controversial situation going on between Israel and Gaza and clearly there are strong opinions against the actions that are being taken by Israel and certainly in my opinion some of them are justified.”
“On the other hand this situation has created issues that go beyond the merits of the controversy between Gaza and Israel and the issue has become very esoteric about academic freedom and freedom of speech and whether as a public institution one can act based on not what someone said but how it is said.”
In a 22 August statement justifying Salaita’s removal, Wise had claimed that her decision “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.”
Rather she claimed it was because he’d expressed them in an manner that lacked “civility.” Civil and academic rights organizations have long rejected the use of vague “civility” standards as cover for what amounts to censorship.
Wise’s controversial position was endorsed at the time by the trustees’ statement that Montgomery signed and by board of trustees chair Christopher Kennedy in a Chicago Tribune interview.
“How it will turn out is anybody’s guess and I would not hazard one at this point,” Montgomery now says, adding he personally has not made up his mind about the issues the board would have to decide.