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