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Reading the Salaita Papers

By Corey Robin | September 2, 2014

There are many developments today in the Salaita affair, so I’m going to do this as a two-part post. Part 2 is here.

This morning, the News-Gazette released 280 pages of documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act revealing extensive donor pressure on Chancellor Wise.

As news spread in late July about a new University of Illinois faculty hire and media outlets began publishing some of his profanity-laden tweets, a number of wealthy donors threatened to stop giving money to the university, recently released documents show.

The letters about professor Steven Salaita started arriving in Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s inbox July 21, and the writers did not hold back.

“Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years, I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses,” wrote one UI business school graduate.

The letters from donors, some of them identifying themselves as members of the UI’s $25,000-plus “presidents council,” have also raised questions about the motivation behind the administration’s decision to not forward Salaita’s name to the board of trustees for formal approval last month.

The chancellor, however, through a spokeswoman, maintains her decision was not influenced by them, but was based out of concern for the students, campus and community.

Then tonight Phan Nguyen sent me 443 pages of documents he had posted online. These are all the documents released by the UIUC in response to four different FOIA requests from various news organizations. I’ve now spent the entire evening reading through these documents and here are some of the highlights.

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.

In the background of this change of tune are the donors and the university’s fundraising and development people. In a July 24 email to Dan Peterson, Leanne Barnhart, and Travis Michael Smith (all part of the UIUC money machine), Wise reports about a meeting she has had with what appears to be a big donor. In Wise’s words:

He said that he knows [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] well and both have less loyalty for Illinois because of their perception of anti-Semitism. He gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling. (p. 206)

Once Wise and her team start back-tracking, the trustees are brought into the picture. On July 28, Susan Mary Kies, who is the secretary of the Board of Trustees, writes Wise, who had been apologetic about “filling your inbox” with Salaita info, “No problem, we will place the letters in weekly dispatch (as we did last week) so the trustees can see the depth of the matter!” (p. 62) The next day, Kaler starts writing to complaining alums that the final decision regarding Salaita lies with the trustees (this is the first we hear of what will become the ultimate strategy of the administration: putting it all on the trustees):

While I cannot comment on any specific employment decisions of the university, pursuant to the governing documents for the university the final decision for any faculty appointment at the level of assistant professor or above rests with the Board of Trustees. I, therefore, have passed your concerns along to the Secretary of the Board of Trustees. (p. 62)

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.

Then on August 4, two days after Wise has informed Salaita and Robert Warrior, chair of the American Indian Studies department, that Salaita won’t be hired, Warrior writes Brian Ross, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to find out what happened. Warrior first gets an email back from one of Ross’s associates, who says, “Brian is not in the office today, and I’m not sure he knows anything about this because I presume he would have discussed it with me if he had” (p. 361). And then Ross himself writes back, “i am in NY, traveling back tomorrow. I have not seen the letter but have a request in and will let you know when I hear any more” (p.362). In other words, even two days after the Chancellor has dehired Salaita, she still hasn’t informed the dean of the largest college at the UIUC of her decision.

What’s also clear from reading these documents is just how high up the chain Salaita’s appointment had gone, and how ensconced at the university he was becoming—up until the day that he wasn’t. On September 27, 2013, for example, Reginald Alston, one of two associate chancellors who works directly in Phyllis Wise’s office, writes the following report on Salaita’s candidacy (pp. 238-239):

After closely reviewing Dr. Steven Salaita’s dossier, I support the Department of American Indian Studies’ (AIS) request to grant him the rank of Associate Professor with indefinite tenure at the University of Illinois. The uniqueness of his scholarship on the intersection of American Indian, Palestinian, and American Palestinian experiences presents a rare opportunity to add an esoteric perspective on indigeneity to our cultural studies programs on campus.

Again, I support offering Dr. Salaita a tenured position because of the obvious intellectual value that his scholarship and background would bring to our campus. His presence would elevate AIS internationally and convey Illinois’ commitment to maintaining a leading academic program on the historical and sociopolitical intricacies of American Indian culture.

On January 15, 2014, his appointment is approved by the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Access, which is one of the key and most powerful offices in any university hiring decision; if they don’t sign off, the appointment goes nowhere (p. 398).

Then, between July 22 and July 25, while the chancellor and her aides are formulating their strategy to deal with the backlash, Salaita and Warrior email back and forth about Salaita’s moving expenses. The UIUC had originally promised to cover up to $5000 of Salaita’s expenses (p. 387), but when the University-approved moving company comes back with an estimate of $7500, the department decides to cover the difference (pp. 341-347).

And then, when the tech support start asking Warrior about Salaita’s computer needs (“Did Steven Salaita say he had any special PC laptop needs? Does he run SPSS or any other resource intensive applications? Does he need something geared toward video work or any other special area?”), Warrior replies, “He’s pretty much a meat and potatoes user. Nothing complicated” (pp. 341-347).

That was on August 1. The next day, Chancellor Wise fired Salaita.

Update (12:20 am)

Apparently, Carol Tilley on Twitter revealed earlier today the identity of that the alum whom Wise scrambled to rearrange her schedule over. His name is Steve Miller; the UIUC redactor failed to catch it. Tilley then tweeted some other information about Miller. He’s a huge venture capitalist. In 2010, he donated a half-million dollars to endow a professorship in the UIUC business school. He’s given money for years to endow the Steven N. Miller Entrepreneurial Scholarships. He believes in “venture philanthropy.” And he’s on the board of Hillel.

September 3, 2014 - Posted by | Civil Liberties, Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , ,

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