In late December, the faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign issued a Report and recommendations on the refusal of the Board of Trustees to grant tenure to former Virginia Tech Professor Steven Salaita.

We covered the CAFT Report in detail, U. Illinois Faculty Committee fails to call for Steven Salaita position restoration, including responses by Salaita supporters upset that CAFT failed to demand that Salaita be “restored” to his position (he only had a contingent offer subject to Board of Trustees approval, but his supporters consider him to have been hired).

The Report also found that “legitimate questions” were raised as to Salaita’s fitness based on his tweets, and recommended a “panel of experts” be appointed.  That standard of “fitness” came under stinging criticism from Salaita supporters, as detailed in the updates to my prior post.

Now five past Chairs and Vice-Chairs of the UI-UC Faculty Senate Executive Committee have issued a “Response” to the CAFT Report, forwarded today to the President of the University of Illinois Robert Easter, incoming (in July) President Tim Killeen, and the Board of Trustees. The full Response is embedded below.

Response from Faculty to CAFT Report Steven Salaita

The Response rejects reopening the decision of the Board to reject the hire, finds that concerns were more than about “civility,” finds legitimate questions as to fitness based on the tweets, and urges Salaita to find work elsewhere.

The Response is devastating in refuting the attempts by some supporters of Salaita to trivialize the concept of civility and to scoff at the notion that the social media history of a potential hire on the topic on which the potential hire teaches is irrelevant.  The Response also acknowledges, that the questionable conduct in question took place late in the hiring process, and in many ways has continued after the Board made its decision.

While the meaning of the Response will be debated, there was a finding which is sure to cause even more controversy.  The Response backs the finding of legitimate questions of fitness. From the introductory Summary:

5. On professional fitness. We agree with CAFT that there are legitimate questions that have been raised about Dr. Salaita’s professional fitness, and that by our own Statutes as well as AAUP’s principles “fitness” should be the standard on which decisions about hiring or dismissal ought to be based (pp. 27-28, 29).

The Report then goes on in the main analysis to further recognize the potential relevance of the tweets (bold italics added):

3. On academic freedom and extramural speech. The principle that faculty retain the free speech rights of all citizens is crucial. In most instances the positions that faculty might take in the public sphere have nothing to do with their professional competence and responsibilities. But there are two aspects of this issue that are complicated by the facts of this particular case.

One is when public comments do directly relate to the faculty member’s areas of teaching and scholarship, and provide insight into the level and quality of their thought. The CAFT report rightly points to this complication, and adds that it is even more vexed in Dr. Salaita’s case, since he explicitly rejects this distinction in his own characterization of his work (p. 28).

The other complicating issue is the evolving nature of social media and the ways in which faculty use them. A scholar’s reputation, visibility, and influence might be much more widely established through their blog or Twitter postings than through their formal publishing; certainly the number of one’s Facebook or Twitter followers can dwarf the number of one’s article downloads or citations.

Many students actively follow the social media postings of their professors, and this is both a venue of teaching and a position of professional role-modeling. The idea that teaching only pertains to what happens in the classroom and that “extramural” utterances are entirely separate is rendered obsolete by the use and
impact of these new technologies.

In such a world, it is entirely predictable and appropriate that the full gamut of a candidate’s public writings and utterances related to their area of academic expertise will be taken into consideration at the hiring stage. In an era when the first thing people do in a hiring process is Google a candidate’s name, it is only prudent to realize that everything you do and say online is available to decisionmakers.

The Response also found “civility” to be potentially relevant standard (bold italics added):

4. On civility.We agree that the standard of “civility” is not an adequate basis for dismissal. Statements from campus and university leaders in this regard were overly broad and subject to misinterpretation. But there are two complicating factors here.

While public criticism has focused on the civility issue, the CAFT report makes clear that the rationale for the decision to reverse Dr. Salaita’s hiring went beyond a distaste for rude behavior, finding the basis for the rejection of the hiring recommendation in “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them” (p.
7)….

One can dispute these characterizations, but they raise a host of different issues beyond simply the tone or politeness of Dr. Salaita’s comments. They go far beyond matters of “civility” – they go to the heart of Dr. Salaita’s willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of views that differ from his own and his pattern of employing hateful and divisive rhetoric in his scholarly area. These clearly raise questions that are pertinent to an assessment of his qualifications, and while observers differ in their interpretations of these comments, it is misleading to treat the concerns they raise as limited merely to matters of good manners or tone.

Related to this point, while civility (or more precisely, incivility) may not be a criterion for dismissal in itself, it can be an indicator of academic dispositions that are pertinent to professional competence. A person may be occasionally – or even habitually – uncivil as a consequence of a testy demeanor, arrogance, impatience, moments of anger, and so on. These may not reflect well on someone’s personality, but we should and do tolerate this sort of incivility in the academic world.

But the term “incivility” can also indicate something else, which does go to professional competence (or “fitness”): disrespect for other points of view, a tendency to oversimplify complex problems and reduce them to provocative sound bites, personalizing intellectual disputes and attributing to intellectual opponents bad motives, and so on. These are not merely issues of manners or tone: they indicate an orientation toward academic work that is inconsistent with intellectual inquiry and with teaching students to develop critical skills based on that inquiry, as well as a more general attitude and approach to dealing with scholarly disagreement. It is just such aspects of academic disposition that many observers have perceived in the controversial “tweets” and that raised concerns about the professional fitness of Dr. Salaita. Such factors are clearly fair game in an academic hiring decision (CAFT agrees: p. 23).

On fitness, the Response also backed the CAFT Report:

5. On professional fitness. One of the most important points in the CAFT review is that the assessment of Dr. Salaita’s candidacy ought to have gone to matters of professional fitness. They conclude: “We do believe, however, that the Chancellor has raised a legitimate question of whether his professional fitness adheres to professional standards” (p. 31).

We agree: professional fitness is an employment requirement stated in both AAUP guidelines and our own university Statutes. We have tried to show that despite the disproportionate attention to the “civility” issue, many of the concerns raised by the Chancellor and others did go to questions of professional fitness.

None of this negates the fact that both procedurally and substantively, such a review ought to have proceeded differently….

The Response, however, takes issue with the remedy of appointing a panel of expert from Arts and Sciences to assess fitness. This is a particular blow to Salaita supporters, since as a practical matter it would take any such review out of the hands of his supporters in the Humanities and Social Sciences (bold italics added):

Several crucial questions are not addressed by the CAFT proposal. Why should the locus of this review be the LAS college? What is meant by “qualified academic expert”? Who should decide the membership and composition of such a committee? What is the rationale for recommending that Dr. Salaita be afforded
an opportunity to respond to any potential findings of professional unfitness, a privilege never normally given to any other job candidate?

Other questions go to the substance of such a committee review. CAFT proposes that the committee not review again Dr. Salaita’s scholarship (“Dr. Salaita’s scholarship has already been reviewed rigorously, according to all normal and appropriate procedures . . .” p. 29), but simply the question of his professional fitness. But it might be that the content of his summer Twitter comments, which were not available to the committees who reviewed his scholarship, force a reassessment of some of his previous publications. We do not see how a review could be limited only to the summer Twitter comments, several of which are included in the CAFT report.

A further issue is whether Dr. Salaita’s copious comments, interviews, and public speeches made since the decision not to hire him should be taken into account in assessing his fitness today. These were not factors in the decision taken last September, but they are additional evidence available now.

Particularly in light of his comments about the University of Illinois (“My academic career was destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a few 140-character posts.”),3 its administration and many of its faculty (“When we speak of the University of Illinois, there are at least two campuses in evidence: the one represented by upper administration and its handful of faculty sycophants, whose actions have inspired justifiable scorn; and the one inhabited by thoughtful, critical teachers and learners working very hard to maintain institutional decency in dreadful conditions.”),4 it must be asked whether the circumstances of potentially hiring him now have changed. What is the likely impact on the university of hiring someone who has spent months publicly attacking it?

The Conclusion comes out against reconsideration of the Salaita hire (bold italics added):

The Board has voted overwhelmingly not to hire Dr. Salaita. There are no Statutory provisions for revisiting that decision, and no indication that the Board would reconsider it even given a committee recommendation that it should do so.

Many – perhaps most – faculty and students on this campus support the decision not to hire Dr. Salaita, even if they are uneasy about the way in which that decision was made. It is much more important to put policies and procedures in place that will avoid situations like this in the future, than to imagine that this particular decision can or will be changed. Keeping that hope alive simply throws new fuel on the controversy.

It is one thing to say that certain processes ought to have been followed last summer, and on this we agree; but it does not follow that those processes can or should be invoked now, months after a decision has already been finalized by the Board. Nor is it possible, for reasons we have laid out, that a fair and impartial campus review of the substance of the Salaita decision can be undertaken now, or that it could proceed without exacerbating divisions and damage to the campus.

If there were any indication that doing so would attenuate the boycotts, the criticisms of the campus by the AAUP, and the condemnations of the university by Salaita supporters both externally and within, then there might be a reason to go through a new process even if the outcome would not change. The standards of due process would be satisfied, albeit retroactively. But such a process would make none of those things better – and if anything, would make them even worse.

Dr. Salaita retains all the rights of any citizen to seek remedy via the courts, or through a negotiated settlement. This is the one point on which CAFT, the Chancellor, and nearly all observers agree. We urge all parties to pursue a just settlement that fairly compensates Dr. Salaita for his professional losses, and we wish him success in seeking a faculty position elsewhere….

Additional analysis may follow.

(more)

What the Response indicates is that the perception, deftly cultivated by Salaita’s supporters on campus, in the media, and at anti-Israel websites, of widespread support may not reflect reality.  These professors went out of their way to indicate that many, if not most, people oppose the Salaita hire, and that the issues have been oversimplified by those who want a reconsideration.

One of the great leaps in the original CAFT report was that it found Salaita not to be hired and not to be an employee, yet found he should be treated as a faculty member for the purposes of affording him certain procedural protections.  That leap may not be supported by law, yet it drove the CAFT report.  The Response, by contrast, views matters in the light of a hiring decision, not a termination decision.

The American Association of University Professors is scheduled to issue its own report soon, based on the fact finding in the CAFT report.  It can be assumed that the AAUP report will be more favorable to Salaita.

There is every indication from public comments that the University is prepared to cut Salaita a check, but no indication it voluntarily will have him on campus, much less as a tenured professor.

The Response is important in another respect.  Retired UI-UC Professor Cary Nelson has been vilified and personally attacked because of his public support for UI-UC’s decision.  There now are five more prominent professorial names to add to the list, which may embolden even more to step forward.

U. Illinois – Response to CAFT Report Re Salaita – Jan 6 2015