16 August 2015


For those keeping score at home, as of today, Steven Salaita's lawsuit against the University of Illinois is going forward, but the University is NOT being simultaneously sued by Phyllis Wise, because she is stepping into a $300K/year faculty position and foregoing her oddly named $400K retention bonus.  And we all wait to see what happens next.

At a behemoth public R1, everyone is backchanneling.  It's the only way to get anything done in an environment where legitimate procedures are often palimpsests of every crisis that has gone before.  Some backchannels become recognized as a desire paths and get paved and maintained accordingly.  Others eventually disappear having served a brief but unremarkable purpose.  And of course there are those that, when exposed to light, reveal malfeasance and bad faith and get shut down by the ensuing outrage and kerfuffle.  It would be better if some backchannels were front channels: the frank acknowledgment of bachkchanneling is often a clear sign that neither channel is working as it should and the whole enterprise is moribund.

It's also likely that everyone has conducted some work-related business by means other than their university email or telephone.   Google (and other third party) apps are often more user-friendly and accessible than their institutional equivalents--but they often require use of a gmail account.  Social media is increasingly the way to circulate information and publicize events, but some social media platforms (Instagram) are most easily used by cellphone.  Work of all kinds is increasingly done by cell phone or tablet, maintaining firewalls between different accounts on one's personal doodads gets complicated, and no one that I know of gets a university-issued mobile device.

Let me also note that picking up a phone to do underhanded business is less simple than it once was. My university's new phone system is unusable for faculty who don't have their own individual office computers (which is most contingent faculty) or who are unwilling to download the phone-system software onto their personal devices.  Even for those who have access to office phone technology, calling outside our area code is impossible, which means that such straightforward business as returning calls from students (who generally don't have cellphone numbers with the local area code) or collaborating with a colleague at another institution has to take place from one's cell phone.

Many people, then, cope with the inevitable appearance of impropriety by the simple expedient of (a) not drawing attention to it and (b) refraining from doing things that would embarrass them if exposed.

Here's a good way to tell whether the thing you are about to do, the email you are about to send, the conversation you are having in real time is a bad idea or not:

1.  Are you doing the thing because it advances the teaching, research, and service mission of your job or because it will be to your personal benefit (glory, prestige, access to power)?
2.  If it will be to your personal benefit (broadly construed), does that benefit come at the expense of the teaching, research, and service mission of your job?

Obviously, it's a slippery standard and one that's likely to encourage laughable and contorted exercises in self-justification.


Think how different the present moment would be if the FOIA'ed emails contained some--ANY--discussion of how the program in American Indian Studies could be supported in its teaching, research and service despite the apparent necessity of "unhiring" Steven Salaita.  At no point do we read any discussion of the effects that this decision is having on American Indian Studies at the U of I, much less of how those effects might be mitigated.

These particular backchannels destroyed one campus unit's ability to fulfill the university's mission in teaching, research, and service, apparently without taking any note of the fact, so isolated was the conversation from these legitimate concerns about a university program.

One other thing.  Let it be noted that my assertion, throughout this one, of "teaching, research, and service" as the university's mission is anachronistic.  Our mission statement adds a fourth term: "The University of Illinois is among the preeminent public universities of the nation and strives constantly to sustain and enhance its quality in teaching, research, public service and economic development." In more than ten years here, I have seen no meaningful, institution-driven discussion, by any channel, of how to make this fourth addition to the traditional mission of higher education consistent with the aims of the liberal arts.  Yet there it is, framing everything we do.

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