11 August 2015


It needs to be said more loudly than it has: the program in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did nothing wrong.  You may question their decision to hire Steven Salaita, you may be puzzled by the program's plan to morph into a program in global indigenous studies, you may wish that the traditional academic disciplines gave enough attention to indigenous people to eliminate the need for a separate program.  Sure. Fine. Whatever.  Every innovative academic program has its naysayers. The fact remains: the procedure by which Salaita was selected and vetted was above board, by the book, subject to every procedural check-and-balance the academy has to offer.
Don't believe me?  It's safe to assume that if there were procedural oversights or irregularities, they would have been splashed all over the front page of the Champaign Urbana News-Gazette by now. But go ahead and FOIA them.  They've been FOIA'ed repeatedly on the matter this year, so the relevant documents are all queued up and ready to go.  

When you grant the members of a public institution the freedom to question everything, research everything, cast doubt on everything, procedure and transparency become crucial.  Who gets to say which projects go forward under the protection of tenure?  Who gets to decide what research gets funded and what doesn't?  How do some disciplines rise to the level of Department while others are relegated to Program status?  Why offer this course but not that one?  There are procedures to make it more likely that scrutiny and oversight are distributed evenly and fairly, that the standards that get applied are broadly shared scholarly ones,  that decisions are made on the basis of intellectual merit, not politics, money, and influence.  At a public university, every step of every decision is rendered in a form that can be disclosed to outsiders, and the awareness that a misstep can undermine the months of work that goes into a hire keeps people closely adhering to the rules.  

Like all procedures, they are flawed, inconvenient, cumbersome, riddled with unintended consequences, never quite as fair as everyone would like, and prone to loopholes--but at their best, they afford some measure of protection to ideas that are unpopular or lacking in market value.  They also nudge scholars to return to a few key questions: What if I'm wrong?  What data have I failed to take into account?  What are the reasoned objections to this idea and how can I address them?

Wise wasn't brought down by an unruly cabal of feckless bullies, as some seem to think [UPDATE: don't bother clicking on the link.  Professor LeRoy has removed the post from his blog, http://profleroy.blogspot.com.]  She was brought down by her own failure to adhere to the procedures and standards of scholarly work and interaction at a public university. 

It didn't have to end that way.  If standing in the way of Salaita's hire was the right and reasonable thing to do, if an unprecedented breach of shared governance procedures was the only way to handle the particular problems he presented to the University of Illinois, then Wise could have made the reasonable, scholarly careful case for it.  The depressing evidence of the emails shows, however, that Wise brought to her administrative role none of the transparency, self-criticism, objectivity, or fairness that one expects of the scholar.  She surrounded herself with people who would reassure her that she was making the right decisions, she sought no counsel from smart people who might see these matters from another perspective, she took it for granted that criticism of her decision was necessarily misguided or stupid.

As I argued last fall,  there 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 procedures
She did none of those things.  How could she?  As we know now, the decisions took place in the dark, amidst a closed circle of hand-picked admirers.  In the place of transparency, it seems, we all got to watch her fall on her sword for the BOT and her own dream of College of Medicine.  It was a slow and painful self-maiming as she addressed one irate academic audience after the other with pained and futile dignity, but no answers, no explanations, nothing to suggest that she was a scholar addressing other scholars.  It was a pantomime of collegiality that didn't even attempt to mask what was no more than the exercise of power in the service of non-scholarly ends.

And she never did meet with the Program in American Indian Studies, though they asked.

1 comment :

  1. Kirstin, terrific post. It's such a good description of what we all witnessed. Non-listening listening tours. Blabber about debate and no debate. Stephanie Skora nailed it when she kept saying "Let's HAVE that conversation Right Now" and was met with complete, unembarrassed silence.