Nathan Brown’s open letter to colleagues at UIUC

(with thanks to Nathan for sharing and to Sarah Brouillette for the hand-off…)

Open Letter to Colleagues at UIUC

September 11, 2014

Dear Colleagues at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,

I am writing to you in your capacity as heads of those departments that have voted “no confidence” in Chancellor Wise, following her decision to terminate Dr. Steven Salaita’s appointment as a tenured faculty member at UIUC. I admire the resolution of your respective departments in issuing these no-confidence votes: it is never easy to reach consensus on such issues among faculty with widely differing views on constitutional law, middle east politics, and the governance of the university. It speaks to the clarity of this case, and of the wrong that was done to both Dr. Salaita and your university, that fourteen UIUC departments have issued unified no-confidence votes stemming from this breach of academic freedom and the norms of shared governance.

Today the UIUC Board of Trustees voted to uphold the Chancellor’s decision to terminate Dr. Salaita’s position. Despite the strong support for Dr. Salaita that has emerged since his firing, despite the condemnation of Chancellor Wise’s decision by prominent academic organizations, and despite a growing boycott of UIUC in support of academic freedom — despite all of this, the Board’s decision today comes as no surprise. “Stay the course” has become the unwavering motto of university administrations in times of crisis, particularly when managing the fallout of unpopular or unjust decisions. At UC Davis, where I was Assistant Professor of English from 2008-2014, the pepper-spraying of student protesters in 2011 drew international condemnation. The administrative response to this incident followed the same playbook as that which now appears to guide your Chancellor. Investigations were called for, meetings for dialogue and conversation were convened, and the matter made its way through the Academic Senate. But at the end of the day, and after some apologies, what emerged were new guidelines for managing student protest that were more restrictive than those in place before. A protocol was established that implicitly warranted future violations of free speech and the right to free assembly on campus. I fear the same outcome at UIUC. Already, a Special Committee of the Faculty Senate has called for a protocol specifying the role of the administration in faculty hires, a measure which may open the door for further interference by donors and senior administration, rather than closing that door and reestablishing the power of faculty over hiring decisions.

The problem that we face as faculty is that when shared governance is violated by upper administration with such catastrophic results, recourse through normal channels of complaint and investigation too often fails to correct the violation. In short, it alarms me that the case of Dr. Salaita’s unjust firing may follow such channels, and in the end the injustice will nevertheless be upheld. It alarms me that he will eventually be offered a settlement by UIUC’s legal team, have no choice but to take it, and that will be the end of the matter. It seems imperative that faculty make manifest our uncompromising refusal to accept unacceptable decisions by the administrations of our universities: decisions that compromise the very nature of the institutions at which we teach. It is important that we write letters on behalf of Dr. Salaita, that we organize petitions, boycotts, and no-confidence votes in support of his reinstatement. But when these measures are ignored, I think we are left with no recourse but to refuse to work for an institution that overrules shared governance, violates academic freedom, and makes a mockery of respect for its faculty.

It is under these conditions that I write to urge your departments to begin organizing a faculty strike for the winter semester at UIUC. Such an action could rally around one clear, simple, and just demand: until Dr. Salaita is teaching at this university, we are not teaching at this university.

I have no doubt that considerable obstacles will have to be overcome in organizing such an action, and that it will face significant logistical challenges. But I also have no doubt that, short of a faculty work stoppage, Dr. Salaita’s termination will remain a fait accompli, a decision upheld by the Chancellor, the UI President, and the Trustees against all internal and external pressure. On the other hand, a determined strike carried out even by those departments which have already voted no-confidence would pose an insurmountable problem for the university, which would have to be answered by administrative action. I believe that if the single demand of Dr. Salaita’s reinstatement were insisted upon with consequences that became inescapable, that demand might be met.

I also believe that a faculty work stoppage on this basis would draw broad support, nationally and internationally. Indeed, the violation of academic freedom in this case is so flagrant and so publicly visible, the demand for the reversal of that violation so clear, that UIUC has an important opportunity to take the lead in ensuring that such violations do not become the norm. If you agree that further action must be taken on this case, and that a work stoppage presents the most forceful and consequential means of insisting upon Dr. Salaita’s reinstatement, a faculty strike support committee of supporters outside of UIUC could be organized to help you carry out this action and to support it nationally and internationally.

Doubtless conversations about this possibility are already taking place at UIUC. I write simply because I know of no other efficacious route, at the moment, to pledge my support for consequential action. My hope is that faculty around the country can come together in helping your departments insist that administrative violations of shared governance and academic freedom are not only unacceptable, but also that they will not be accepted.


Nathan Brown
Assistant Professor of English
Concordia University, Montréal


One comment

  1. (as posted also on John Protevi’s blog): Striking without the legal protection of a recognized union would be insane. Forming a union would require more buy-in from the STEM/professional faculty than the nascent organization currently has. Threatening a strike over academic freedom is–bizarrely enough–not likely to sway STEM faculty on the fence about unionizing. Unionizing efforts ARE moving forward, but in the meantime, anyone have any other ideas?

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