Winning and Losing: The Salaita Affair & A Proposed UIUC/Carle Medical School

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UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise has soiled herself, and the university’s reputation, by how she and her administration have handled the hiring and summary dismissal of Prof. Steven Salaita.

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Up until at least the evening of July 22, 2014 Chancellor Wise supported hiring Salaita. During or immediately after the July 24 Board of Trustees (BOT) executive session, she reversed her position.

Contrasted to the months-long faculty and staff deliberations resulting in Salaita’s hire, it took Wise, in collusion with others, a scant 48 hours to reverse her position between July 22-24, 2014. Now Wise, the administration, and the Board of Trustees (BOT) all want the controversy they manufactured to just go away.

It is not going to go away.

Academic Senate Dissected

Consider the February 9, 2015 UIUC Academic Senate meeting. The Senate, consisting of some 200 faculty and 50 students, passed resolutions regarding Salaita and Wise’s proposed UIUC/Carle medical school. Most Senate confabs are mostly boring. But this one was extremely revealing, laying bare the political machinations. The Senate showed itself to be as polarized as campus: between administration and faculty, and among faculty.

Wise’s medical school proposal constitutes the flipside of the Salaita affair. For the administration, talking about a medical school conveniently changes the conversation. It also further divides the campus between haves and have-nots. The de facto buying off of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) departments with the promise of medical school-related goodies continues the already existing practice of playing off liberal arts departments south of Green against science and engineering north of Green. Wise talks inclusivity – “we are one big touchy-feely campus” — but she walks the walk of exclusivity – “I and my friends against you and yours.”

Wise 1, UI System-Wide Medical School & Hospital 0

The Senate’s discussion of Wise’s proposal boiled down to “we want a medical school, because we want a medical school.” A parade of speakers delivered short presentations short on substance. Wise’s proposal mentions UI Chicago’s (UIC) competing plan only to immediately dismiss it. Critics criticize consultants Tripp Umbach, hired by UIUC, for their tendentious business plan, “making up imaginary numbers,” and proposing a “hopelessly unrealistic” timeline. It makes you want to ask for your money back.

Absent was substantive consideration of the UIC-run UI medical school and hospital in Chicago both by Wise and the Senate. Absent entirely was UIC’s alternative proposal, “Better Together,” which argues that it would be a “win-win” for both campuses. To Wise’s contention that “retrofitting” a biomedical engineering medical curriculum on an already existing medical school will not work, UIC responds that a new Urbana medical school would make for costly and inefficient “redundancies.” UIC proposes to harness UIUC’s engineering, genomic, and computational strengths in a cooperative, system-wide Illinois Translational Bioengineering Institute.

UIC Better Together

A key issue concerns inclusivity versus exclusivity. This is related to Urbana’s dead-set dismissiveness of all things Chicago – because it is Chicago. True: since the 1972 establishment of the UIC medical school, UIC-UIUC relations have consisted of equal parts competition, backbiting, rivalry, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, distrust, and animosity. Discussions held between the spring of 2012 and January, 2014 were broken off unilaterally by UIUC, without informing UIC. Yet, the UIC COM-CU (College of Medicine at Champaign-Urbana) has done an excellent job for more than 40 years – everyone agrees its crown jewel is the outstanding Medical Scholars program – all the while starved of resources.

True: UIUC’s strengths in engineering, biotechnology, and computational science merit more prominence, either UIUC going it alone, or in concert with UIC. True: the UIC hospital has been a “money pit,” a “black hole.” It is also the largest medical school in the country. It serves the largest proportion anywhere of low income folks, largely through Medicaid. Its financial woes are partly due to its patient mix, partly to mismanagement. Can it be turned around and make more money? Unquestionably. There are success stories worthy of emulation, Truman Medical Center in Kansas City for one. Again, it is about inclusivity versus exclusivity. As the flagship state university, do we not want to provide medical care for everyone? Or do we want for-profit-driven Carle piggybacking on Wise’s go-it-alone, developer-friendly, neoliberal plan? It is easy to see that the no-brainer solution is UIC’s “Better Together” cost-efficient, resources-pooling alternative. And even easier to see that, historically and structurally, such an outcome is virtually impossible – especially with our eyes-on-the-money “leaders” today.

The outcome of the Senate discussion, despite tepid opposition, was a foregone conclusion. When the resolution passed easily, grinning ear to ear was Wise.

Salaita & Faculty Governance 1, Wise 0

The next agenda item urged the Senate to implement the campus Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure’s (CAFT) recommendations. If implemented, these would likely result in Salaita’s reinstatement. Constituting a “test” of the Senate’s commitment to shared faculty governance, resolution co-author Prof. Bruce Levine challenged the Senate “to put our money where our mouth is.”

Here is the background. December 19, 2014: CAFT issued a 140-page report that concluded that “Salaita’s academic freedom had been infringed upon,” and that “there had been serious violations of shared governance.” It recommended “that statements… asserting civility as a standard of conduct be withdrawn,” and that his “candidacy be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) for reconsideration by a body of qualified academic experts.” January 4, 2015: Professor Michael Leroy attacked the CAFT report in the local News-Gazette. January 6: five self-anointed, past and current Senate Executive Committee (SEC) members, dubbed the “gang of five,” issued a so-called “response” also attacking CAFT, and de facto supporting the administration. Consisting of a tissue of tendentious arguments, it urged the primary body of faculty governance to give up on faculty governance. Why? Because the campus was “hopelessly polarized,” and a “LAS committee would arrive at a foregone conclusion,” presumably that of reinstating Salaita. Although the gang of five statement lacked any parliamentary standing, both the pro-administration News-Gazette and Wise refer to it as if it was a report – because it is anti-Salaita.

CAFT O'Brien Acad Sen 02 09 15

CAFT Chair David O’Brien addresses Academic Senate, February 9, 2015

Key is that while the Senate mouths allegiance to faculty governance, the SEC, and some Senators, in practice wage a behind-closed-doors guerilla war against it. How can this be? Because the SEC is made up of de facto foremen, the administration’s “trusties.” Theoretically upholders of faculty governance, the SEC and its fellow-traveling Senators have ceded that mantle in practice to Senators often affiliated with the Campus Faculty Association.

All these differences boiled to the surface February 9. Against top-down Senate, and especially SEC, rule by arcane parliamentary maneuvers meant to deflect, stall, and run out the meeting clock, grassroots faculty Senators pushed back from the bottom up. SEC member Prof. Kim Graber argued, for example, that the Senate should not consider the issue, since the matter was in court and, therefore, “moot.” Senator and CAFT member Prof. Mark Steinberg dismissed the idea that an LAS faculty committee is incapable, “as has been implied here,” of arriving at a professional, dispassionate decision with “due care, and diligence, and honesty, and integrity,” and stated the “need to respect foundational principles” of shared governance. To dilatory parliamentary moves could be heard cries of “undemocratic!” Other Senators were clearly upset by references made to letters and documents that only some had seen: Law and Center for Advanced Study Prof. Matt Finkin’s January 8 smackdown of Leroy’s piece; Finkin’s January 23 response to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Committee A’s draft report on the Salaita case; UIUC legal counsel Scott Rice’s response to the AAUP; and Finkin’s February 5 response to Rice’s tendentious arguments.

Beating Up on Faculty Governance

As time literally ran out, the resolution to implement the CAFT recommendations was passed, and the Senate passed the test of faculty governance. But the SEC and its Senate supporters flunked. Wise looked stricken. But she exacted her revenge, in her February 26 massmail, by refusing to follow both the non-binding CAFT report and the Senate resolution. Prof. Mary Mallory said, “shared governance has taken a beating,” and so it has. But Wise had already demonstrated that it is a sham when she panicked July 22-24, 2014 in her 48-hour, rush-to-Salaita-judgment, cutting faculty out of the governance loop.

March 7, 2015

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David Prochaska formerly taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI History Department

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