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UIUC’s War On Academic Freedom

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What could easily be inferred from the administration’s actions is confirmed by internal documents:

When the Salaita story first broke in the local press, Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs Robin Kaler said, “Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.” That was on July 21. The UIUC documents reveal that not only was Chancellor Wise apprised of that statement minutes after it was emailed to the media, but that she also wrote back to Kaler: “I have received several emails. Do you want me to use this response or to forward these to you?” (p. 101) In other words, this was not the rogue statement of a low-level spokesperson; it reflected Wise’s own views, including the view that Salaita was already a university employee. Even though Wise already had been informed of Salaita’s tweets.

In the days following this forthright defense of Salaita, the Chancellor and her associates begin to back-pedal. Around July 23, Wise starts reaching out to select alumni, trying to arrange phone calls (and in one instance, struggling to rearrange her travel schedule just so she can meet one alum in person [pp. 78-94]). To another such alum, she writes, “Let me say that I just recently learned about Steven Salaita’s background, beyond his academic history, and am learning more now.” (p. 293) That “beyond his academic history” is going to get Wise in trouble on academic freedom grounds.

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What’s most stunning about these documents is that they show how removed and isolated Chancellor Wise is from any of the academic voices in the university, even the academic voices on her own team. As she heads toward her August 2 decision to dehire Salaita, she is only speaking to and consulting with donors, alums, PR people, and development types. Ilesanmi Adesida, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, makes exactly one appearance in these 443 pages. That is on Tuesday, July 22. Even though Wise has been inundated with emails about Salaita for days, she only finally emails Adesida about the matter a day after the story has broken in the local press. His response: “Thanks for sending these emails. I was not aware of any controversy on this person until yesterday!” (p. 95) And he’s never heard from again.

You can support academic freedom. You can defend the firing of Salaita. And there’s no overlap between these two categories.

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