The Graduate Employees’ Organization strongly condemns the decision of the Board of Trustees and Chancellor Wise to rescind Prof. Steven Salaita’s offer of employment. Such actions set a frightening precedent for our research and teaching environment and will only serve to make the University of Illinois a less desirable institution for academic learning and development. We find the administration’s statements rationalizing such decisions extremely questionable and contrary to both academic freedom and free speech rights. Therefore, the G.E.O. demands the reinstatement of Prof. Salaita with immediate effect, as per the contract he was offered by the American Indian Studies faculty, with full compensation for missed days of work. The statements made by the administration reveal a stark ignorance of academic culture, intellectual integrity and the ability of students, faculty and fellows to sensitively approach contentious discussions. After a prolonged silence, Chancellor Wise has recently expressed concerns about “disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them” Similarly, the email from the Board of Trustees accused Prof. Salaita of “disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice”, besides upholding the word ‘democracy’ and the apparent interests of a “system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend.”
What such statements elide is the fact that speech concerning opposing viewpoints is a common and celebrated facet of academia. Vibrant and open debate often demands frank disagreement, something that we, as graduate students, teaching assistants, research assistants and fellows are very well aware of. In our everyday work at the University, we are extremely careful and contextual when we teach and read texts which are scathing in their criticisms of established ideas. We teach intellectual freedom, even in the case of banned books, so that they may be preserved for posterity. The “system” and democracy, in other words, is defended by us, not the Board of Trustees, each and every day of our graduate careers. This university works because we make it work, based on our principles of academic freedom and the standards of our pedagogy and research. We have practiced academic freedom in our seminars and classrooms, without ever needing the administration to intervene. We see no need for it now.
Prof. Salaita was hired on the basis of his commendable research and glowing class evaluations in his former university. Firing him in our name, on the basis of lobbying by Zionist interests, is an act of administrative interference in academic matters which we thoroughly condemn. This event comes in the light of decreasing annual numbers of under-represented minorities at the University of Illinois, and the firing of Prof. Salaita flies in the face of the discourse of ‘Inclusive Illinois’ that the Chancellor upholds. We consider the disregard for the faculty at American Indian Studies and the use of racially-charged terms like ‘civility’ against Prof. Salaita to be insensitive and extremely detrimental and contradictory to the University’s practices and claims of diversity.
The faculty of the University of Illinois has been, once again, disrespected in a manner very similar to the actions taken against Prof. James Kilgore. In light of such events, we reiterate our long standing commitment to the formation of a faculty union of tenured and non-tenured faculty, which can help the faculty have a voice in the way key decisions are taken at the University. A faculty union at the University of Illinois would reduce the potential for structural abuse and conflict between the university and the workers, improve the working conditions throughout the campus, and ensure departments their autonomous power to build their departments into intellectually curious, scholar-producing, and most importantly, diverse worlds of research.
The administration’s direct attempt at censorship effectively destroys the potential for solving some of the world’s most pressing crises and restricts learning spaces for students and faculty at all levels of academia. The Chancellor’s statement reveals that she will perceive any free speech, even outside the context of university employment, as grounds to dismiss potential faculty and alienate global scholars and academic networks. This is directly opposed to any reasonable definition of academic freedom. Such double standards are evident in only specific cases, such as the occupation of Palestine, even though many members of the University community have possibly made other intemperate statements in the past. The G.E.O. unequivocally opposes such actions which police our freedom of thought.
As a union of students, researchers, and teachers, the Graduate Employees’ Union refuses to stand by the flagrant abuse of academic freedom and free speech by Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees. We stand in solidarity with Prof. Steven Salaita and demand that Chancellor Wise immediately reverse her decision and reinstate both Prof. Steven Salaita and free speech to the University of Illinois. We stand united in struggle against this blatant hypocrisy and abuse of power that damages the academic reputation and morality of the students, workers, faculty, and staff of our university and the Champaign-Urbana community.