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U. of Illinois: Donors Didn’t Derail Salaita Hiring

Report finds ‘no evidence’ job offer was revoked due to donor pressure

Liel Leibovitz
December 30, 2014
Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. (Shutterstock)

Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. (Shutterstock)

Having spent considerable time interviewing the key players and reviewing reams of documents pertaining to the decision to refuse a tenure track position to Steven Salaita, the academic better known now for his tweets than for his scholarship, the faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign released its report last week, just a moment before Christmas.

As one might expect from the professoriate these days, the report contains no broad strokes of moral clarity and condemnation, which, to the chorus of Salaita’s supporters, itself qualifies as some sort of victory. It’s not: not only does the committee stop short of calling for Salaita’s restoration, it also cites “legitimate concerns” about whether Salaita’s anti-Israel expressions on social media make him ill-equipped to stand before a classroom.

Such small illuminations are all good and well, but they add up to little more than footnotes to the Salaita story. One of the report’s other points, however, looms much larger. It is this: “On July 21,” reads the report, “the Chancellor began receiving emails protesting the appointment of Dr. Salaita because of his tweets. Many of these emails have been made public as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request, and the fact that some came from donors has been widely reported. The Chancellor has stated that donors in no way influenced her actions with regard to Dr. Salaita. This investigation found no evidence that they did.” This assertion is seconded in the report by James Montgomery, a prominent civil rights attorney and a university trustee who had cast the sole vote in support of hiring Salaita. (For more on the report’s intricacies on the donor question, read Steven Lubet’s excellent account).

But let us not allow the facts to spoil a lovely conspiracy theory: In the days following the rescinding of Salaita’s offer, a phalanx of faculty members in some of America’s most prestigious universities made very public statements that, even if they did not support Salaita’s opinions, fiercely argued that he was being censored by donors who pulled on their purse strings and had Salaita’s job offer pulled out from under him.

“The real issue at hand,” Steve Cicala, an economist at the University of Chicago, wrote in a letter to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign’s Chancellor Phyllis Wise, was “the influence of donors on faculty speech. We know that Salaita was fired for upsetting donors.” Writing on, Denise Cummins, a psychologist who had taught at Yale and other noted universities and research institutes, was even more decisive. “In the Salaita case,” she wrote, “wealthy donors overrode faculty governance in order to control faculty hiring. They did this because they vehemently disagreed with the job candidate’s political beliefs as expressed on Twitter.”

One hardly needs to bother mentioning the noxious allusions such a claim evokes—a shadowy cabal of unnamed moneyed gentlemen exerting their will on the world. Reached for comment, both Cicala and Cummins had little to say, the former misreading the report as simply relaying Chancellor Wise’s denials of donor influence—the committee went much further, examining emails and talking to other members of the administration and board of trustees—and the latter arguing that the report was deeply flawed without supplying any further explanation. Never mind: those of us who still have a strong interest in keeping academia from succumbing completely to the fevered ideology of a handful of zealots can find comfort in one more wild canard being laid to rest.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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