23 September 2014

On Finding a Way Forward

The UIUC Faculty Senate meeting yesterday, its first since school convened for the fall, was electric in a way that faculty deliberations rarely are.  There was vehemence, there was incivility, there were protestors chanting in the corridor and holding up signs.  There were impassioned speeches on both sides of the Salaita issue.

There was one striking moment of moral and procedural clarity, however, when Angela Wiley took the microphone in the public comment portion of the proceedings to deliver the "confidence" vote of her home department, Human and Community Development.   Professor Wiley (as witnessed by me and described by a colleague on FB) explained that her department valued Chancellor Wise's many and varied contributions to the campus, but then she
looked the Chancellor in the eye and said simply, "You made a bad decision. That decision really stunk." And then, very calmly, she told the Chancellor that she could still fix it. There was something personal about it, really stripped down and powerful and shaming, but there was also a way forward: fix your mistake.
Professor Wiley herself was having a rather different experience of the event. She wrote on FB, from the Senate meeting, "Oh my goodness. I find myself dismayed at the way my colleagues are treating one another at the Senate meeting. How does this make any sense whatsoever?" and later, in response to comments and queries from her FB friends, Prof. Wiley glossed her initial response as follows (which I have copied and pasted from her FB feed with her permission):
     I've spent most of my life trying to "speak truth to authority." This has included everything from protests of government decisions (e.g., the Persian Gulf War and others since) to sit-ins at the administrative offices of my undergraduate campus. With that background to establish that I am not opposed to organized action, here is my take on this.
     I believe the central issue is the Chancellor's contravention of the principles of self-governance in rescinding an offer to Dr. Salaita. Clearly this is unacceptable, and it must be remedied. I take it as my duty to make this clear and to pursue it through a variety of means. However, the circus that has emerged is shameful. I saw faculty members at my university hiss at undergraduate students who were brave enough to stand up and recite their (sometimes rather wandering) opinions. There were organized rounds of coughing, designed I can only presume to drown out, discourage, or intimidate the free expression of colleagues who might disagree. Ridicule and sarcasm have shut down any open discussion, not only with the administration but with colleagues across the hall or across campus who may feel the need for more data to fully form an opinion. And when they form that opinion, we may disagree. But I will *not* disrespect them by suggesting that they are less intelligent, less caring about children or important social issues, or less passionate than I am. They may be, but I will not assume that based on our disagreement about this.
     I suppose I’ve been hoping for a dialogue that focuses on the matter at hand. What wrongs were hoisted upon us, how should these be righted, and how can we prevent similar wrongs from being perpetrated again? I am not convinced that Chancellor Wise should be toppled, in spite of the fact that she made an egregious misstep. On balance, I have watch her work exceedingly hard to take this campus forward, not perfect but a vast improvement on some we have had. I had hoped see if this very public misstep with all its fallout could become a cornerstone for improving true shared governance along with an organized faculty.
     Yes, in the past couple of years, I have been working to organize the faculty on this campus. Truth is, I am discouraged. What I have watched emerged over the past month or two feels like an opportunistic feeding frenzy that is quite separate from the matter at hand. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that this has become more than a desire to see a righting of the wrongs associated with Dr. Salaita’s case. It feels more like asserting power purely for the sake of doing so. And I simply don’t respect that.
Full disclosure: I know her as "Angela" and we're friends--she's one of the first friends I made when we moved here. Robert Warrior of AIS has reported on several occasions that when Chancellor Wise first alerted him to potential problems with the Salaita hire, she pointed out that it's a small community, and we run into our colleagues at Target and Sam's Club. It's true. We also pick our kids up from the same school playgrounds, take part in the same community organizations, help each other through life crises and illnesses, navigate our childrens' mutual friendships and enmities, learn more about unfamiliar corners of the university from one another, and operate from very different models of what a professor's work is. I've discovered the hard way that a Facebook thread is a difficult place for people coming at these issues from different angles to navigate their disagreement, so with Prof. Wiley's permission, I offered to respond through my blog instead.

Here's where I agree: Like many on campus, I, too, have been "hoping for a dialogue that focuses on the matter at hand" and I, too, have observed something that feels (as Prof. Wiley describes it) as "an opportunistic feeding frenzy." Hissing, coughing, back turning makes me uncomfortable, too.

(Yes, there is something in the air at these events that feels less like righteous indignation and more like a tipping point having finally been reached. Yes, there are people who find in this controversy a space for their related concerns (stalled union negotiations, the Chief, LBGTQ rights, underenrollment of African-American students) to be heard. Unwieldy coalitions are being formed between people who think *the* issue here is shared governance, those who think it's Palestine, and those who think it's academic freedom, and a lot of pent-up pressure is getting released at the seams.)

Here's where I disagree: that it's "asserting power purely for the sake of doing so."

Prof. Wiley addressed Chancellor Wise in the hope that her dismay over the decision would be heard and that the Chancellor could be moved by a sincere plea to fix it. At this point, most of the departments affected by this decision have lost any hope that any such good-faith dialogue on the issues at hand is possible.

Here are some things that Chancellor Wise could have done at many points in the previous weeks to convey to her divided university that productive dialogue is possible:
  • Respond publicly to the criticisms leveled at this decision by the state and national AAUPs. Are they wrong to take issue with the decision? Are there relevant factors that they haven't taken into account? In what ways does this decision not violate the principles of academic freedom attached to every job letter?
  • Respond publicly to the national scholarly organizations like the MLA and the AHA that have strongly criticized this decision. What have they failed to understand? In what way is their censure misplaced?
  • Recognize that prominent scholars whose work is valued on her campus now have stated reasons for refusing to come here and respond to those reasons.
  • Acknowledge the many scholars who have subjected Salaita's twitter feed to scrupulous close reading, triangulated it with his teaching record and scholarship. Examine, with an open mind, the considerable evidence amassed that Salaita's twitter activity on his private account demonstrates neither his antisemitism no his unfitness to do the job for which he was hired. Explain in some detail, and in the face of this evidence, the nature of the line that Salaita crossed and the point at which he crossed it so that faculty have some clearer measure than "civility" to know when their passion, rage, ill-considered utterances, profanity, and political expressions become actionable.
  • Approach the departments affected by this decision (in advance of the no-confidence votes) and give them grounds for understanding why this particular situation warranted an egregious and unprecedented breach of ordinary academic procedure.
Wise has done none of these things. Her only gestures towards conversation so far have been her August 22 letter and blog post, "The Principles on which We Stand" (a document that came only after weeks of radio silence from the administration), a series of public appearances in which she has ignored substantive criticism by repeating the same talking points, and impromptu second "listening tour" of various departments and campus units rendered solely symbolic by her repeated assurance that she will not undo anything that she has done.

(It would be helpful, at this point, to have a Provost who could bridge some of the divides that have emerged on campus, someone who could articulate for each side the concerns of the other and clear up some of the disciplinary misunderstandings that have made this issue so polarizing. Unfortunately, the chief academic officer on this campus has been culpably, unconscionably, and consistently silent through out these bitter weeks.  The fact that he was appointed by Wise does not help matters.)

Under these circumstances, the scope for civil conversation narrows.  It's hard to converse civilly when you are talking someone who pretends to listen but refuses to hear.  It's hard to converse civilly with someone who responds as if nothing has been said.  It's hard to converse civilly when the futility of doing so has already been amply demonstrated.  At a certain point, civil conversation starts to feel not just like a charade, but like active complicity.

It doesn't have to be like that.  The vision of active, meaningful dialogue that emerged in Prof. Wiley's statement yesterday touched many of the people in the room because we very much want it to be possible.  The Chancellor has let slip many opportunities to make it so, but I, too, hope she heard.

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