Many of you have probably learned about the circumstances surrounding the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne’s (UIUC) recent revocation of a tenured appointment in the American Indian Studies Program to Associate Professor Steven Salaita, formerly of Virginia Tech, nearly ten months after Salaita was offered the position. The undersigned ask you to add your name to a petition calling for the reinstatement of Salaita’s offer and agreeing not to visit UIUC until this has happened: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/995/171/092/rhetoric-composition-and-communication-scholars-statement-on-salaita-case/
A number of organizations, including the AAUP, Center for Constitutional Rights, and the MLA have urged UIUC to change its course. We urge the leaders of our professional organizations, particularly RSA and CCC, to follow suit and make public statements regarding this case.
Below, we provide some background on the case, rationale for the petition, and links to further resources for those with additional questions or concerns:
Background: No explanation for the firing has been given, although many have connected the timing of the decision with Salaita’s tweets during the month of July in response to the war between Israel and Gaza. On Friday August 22, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise issued a statement in which she refused to acknowledge any connection between the revocation and the tweets, but she also provided no other explanation for the firing. In her statement, Wise reaffirmed the decision to the university community, stating that: “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” The UIUC Board of Trustees issued a statement of its support of Wise shortly thereafter.
Rationale: The UIUC decision carries serious consequences for all scholars who hold academic appointments in the U.S. A few points stand out in particular:
1. The UIUC administration made its decision unilaterally, without consulting the American Indian Studies Program recommending his hire or the body of scholars, including the Faculty Senate, which subsequently vetted and supported the Program’s recommendation. This action is a violation of the principles of shared governance and academic due process that are grounding principles of every American university, including UIUC. In point of fact, the American Indian Studies Program at UIUC issued a vote of no confidence in UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise on August 24, 2014.
2. The UIUC administration’s decision to rescind a job offer on the grounds that faculty must engage in a particular kind of discourse (in this case Wise appeals to her audience by calling for “civil” or “respectful” language) clearly violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the rights of U.S. citizens to free speech and opinion.
3. Similarly, Wise’s statement that UIUC “cannot and will not tolerate… disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them” essentially closes the door on faculty’s rights to pursue basic academic research, scholarly debate, or inquiry. UIUC’s policy, as framed by Wise, implicates and threatens every UIUC faculty member, tenured or not.
UIUC’s decision is especially troubling given its profile as a Tier-1 research university, as well as a home to one of our discipline’s most well-respected graduate programs at the Center for Writing Studies. If the university’s decision stands, other universities of similar repute could use the precedent to follow suit, a move which threatens our rights as scholars to expect protection of academic freedom and inquiry within our institutional homes, as well as the basic right to free speech, whatever our political, professional, or personal allegiances may be.
Although we believe that the right to free speech, the protection of academic freedom and shared governance is central to this case, we know that many of you may have concerns about the content of Salaita’s tweets. In response, we would urge our disciplinary community to apply its considerable expertise in rhetorical analysis and consider the tweets as we would any text: place them in context and read them carefully (you can read them for yourself here: https://twitter.com/stevesalaita). As rhetorical scholars, we know how easily public speech and writing can be twisted by those in power. After our own careful review of Salaita’s tweets, we – like many others who have written publicly about the case, including Michael Rothberg, Holocaust and Jewish Studies scholar and Head of English at UIUC – have not found Salaita’s tweets to be anti-Semitic. In fact, we found many examples of Salaita’s tweets that express tolerance and respect for a wide range of views and diverse groups of people, including Jews.
As scholars of rhetoric and advocates of public discourse and academic freedom, therefore, we believe it is our responsibility to encourage all in our community to take a strong stance against the decision made by the UIUC administration. If you are as troubled as we are by UIUC’s blatant disregard for the protection of shared governance, academic freedom, and free speech, as well as the rhetorical appeals to “civility” and “collegiality” that are being used to mask what’s at stake, we again ask you to consider signing this petition for members of our field: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/995/171/092/rhetoric-composition-and-communication-scholars-statement-on-salaita-case/
We have also created an online space geared toward Rhetoric and Composition scholars in particular where you can read more about the case: https://rcsupportstevensalaita.wordpress.com
If you would like to read more about the case, we have compiled below a list of references:
• (8/7/14) “Statement on Case of Steven Salaita,” AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure: http://www.aaup.org/media-release/statement-case-steven-salaita
• (8/7/14) Center for Constitutional Right’s Letter to the UIUC Chancellor: http://ccrjustice.org/files/CCR Letter to University of Illinois re Prof Salaita 08 07 14.pdf
• (8/15/14) MLA’s Letter to the UIUC Chancellor, authored by the Executive Committee: http://www.mla.org/ec_univ_illinois
• (8/17/14) “Anitsemitism and Salaita,” an open letter to Chancellor Wise by Michael Rothberg, the Head of the Department of English at UIUC and Holocaust and Jewish Studies scholar: http://academeblog.org/2014/08/20/antisemitism-and-salaita/
• (8/20/14) “Don’t Speak Out: The Message of the Salaita Affair,” David M. Perry, Associate Professor of History, Dominican University: http://chronicle.com/article/Dont-Speak-Out-The-Message/148393/
• (8/22/14) “Chancellor Decrees Faculty at Illinois Are Subject to Civility Test; Trustees Back Her to the Hilt,” Illinois CFA (faculty union): http://cfaillinois.org/2014/08/22/chancellor-decrees-faculty-at-illinois-are-subject-to-civility-test-trustees-back-her-to-the-hilt/
• (8/22/14) “On the Salaita Decision,” Timothy Burke, Professor of History, Swarthmore College http://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/blog/2014/08/22/on-the-salaita-decision/
• (8/23/14 and ongoing) “More than 3000 Scholars Boycott the University of Illinois,” Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center: http://coreyrobin.com/2014/08/23/more-than-3000-scholars-boycott-the-university-of-illinois/
• (8/23/14) “University of Illinois Repeals the First Amendment for Its Faculty,” by Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values, University of Chicago: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-leiter/university-of-illinois-re_1_b_5703038.html
• (8/23/14) “Scholars Sound Alarms about Being Judged on Their Civility,” Nick DeSantis, The Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Sound-Alarms-About/148469/
• (8/23/14) “Updated: Wise Explains Salaita Decision, Gets Support from Trustees,” The News-Gazette: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-08-23/updated-wise-explains-salaita-decision-gets-support-trustees.html
• (8/24/14) “AIS Faculty Cast Vote of No Confidence in Chancellor Wise,” American Indian Studies Program at UIUC: http://www.ais.illinois.edu/news/current/noconfidence
• (8/24/14 and ongoing) Blog postings by Peter N. Kirstein, Professor of History at Saint Xavier University, http://english.sxu.edu/sites/kirstein/
• (8/25/14) “The Emails on Salaita,” Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/25/u-illinois-officials-defend-decision-deny-job-scholar-documents-show-lobbying
Matthew Abraham, Associate Professor of English, University of Arizona
Lisa Rebekah Arnold, Assistant Professor of English, American University of Beirut
Seth Kahn, Professor of English, West Chester Univ.
William Thelin, Professor of English, Univ. of Akron
Nancy Welch, Professor of English, University of Vermont