Academic Freedom Cases at the U of I, Part 2

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In the October/November issue of the Public i, I discussed two cases in which the University faced pressure to dismiss professors because of their speech or extramural writing. These cases go back to the 1960s but have recently been resurrected to public view by the book Dangerous Ideas on Campus by U of I Professor Emeritus Matthew Ehrlich.

In one of the cases, that of Leo Koch, the professor was fired. I graduated in January, 1960 and had become involved in the attempt to save Koch’s contractual final year. While the U of I succeeded in firing Koch, it was put on the list of violators of academic freedom list by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Being on the list tarnishes the professional reputation of universities.

In the fall of 1965, I returned to the U of I as an instructor. I immediately joined the local chapter of the AAUP. I found that my colleagues in the AAUP were trying to get the U of I off of the AAUP national’s list. I was upset by that because I thought the only legitimate way for the U of I to be taken off the list was for it to offer Koch an additional year as his contract stipulated, or else pay him the salary.

The local AAUP argued that the university was in the process of changing their official grounds for dismissal so that the criteria of “conduct seriously prejudicial to the university” and violation of “common accepted standards of morality,” which were used against Koch, would no longer be used. Ehrlich claims that the AAUP also gave Koch some money, but he does not specify whether that was the local charter or the national. The only compensation that I remember being told about at the local meetings was that the university bought Koch’s moss collection.

In any case, the local AAUP chapter successfully lobbied the national body to remove the U of I from the censure list. The new policy went into effect in 1966. What I regarded as capitulation in the Koch case was the main reason that I left the AAUP and helped form a faculty union. But I think that with the Koch case behind us, most of my colleagues felt that the future for academic freedom at the U of I looked pretty rosy.

Professors Censured for Statement Critical of War and Repression

That picture changed in 1970 with the war in Vietnam; its extension into Cambodia; the killing of Black activists; the killing of four student protesters, and wounding of many others, at Kent State University by the National Guard; and the killing of Mr. Edgar Hoults, a young Black man, by the Champaign police (see the February 2008 issue of Public i for an article on the Hoults case). Our students were being drafted to fight this senseless war that left over three million Vietnamese and fifty-eight thousand Americans dead. Opposition to the war and racism, especially among young people, was growing, as was repression by the government.

Fifteen members of the U of I’s political science department, including this author, issued a statement saying: “As professional political scientists, we believe that the right of open and effective dissent must be protected at all costs. Therefore, we have agreed to orient all of our courses to the problem of political repression and resistance to the abuses of official authority. By rotating ourselves through each others’ classes in order to provide technical assistance to students seeking to protect themselves against the encroachments of a criminal regime, we hope to intellectually arm a resistance force which is the only possible hope for overcoming our present societal madness.”

The Chicago Tribune editorialized that we should be fired. They contended that the university did not deserve public money with such professors on staff. Chancellor Jack Peltason informed us that the Board of Trustees was particularly incensed that we used the words “criminal regime.” He told us that unless we retracted the statement, the board would fire us. Two of the original signers capitulated to the trustees. The remaining thirteen told the chancellor that we would not capitulate, but we would issue a clarifying statement for the trustees justifying our language. When we showed it to the chancellor he said, ”This is worse than the original. ” Whether or not he showed it to the trustees I do not know. But he did get them to settle for a censure rather than a dismissal.

While he saved our jobs at the U of I ( although one person had a job offer retracted at an Indiana university because of the publicity), we felt that the trustees had no right to censure us for our speech. So I contacted the Academic Freedom Committee of the American Political Science Association. I was invited to present our case and Chancellor Peltason, who was also a political scientist, was invited to present the trustees’ case. After hearing us separately, the committee decided that the trustees had no right to censure us.

To my knowledge, the trustees never withdrew the censure. But the administration took certain measures to try to get more control over the signers. For example, it changed the form of departmental governance from a more democratic chair form to a more controlling headship. It hired a head from outside of the university who clearly was no friend of such dissenters. And it brought the signers, many of whom had offices in a building far from the main office in Lincoln Hall, into Lincoln Hall , where the powers that be could keep a closer eye on us.

The Firing of Professor Steven Salaita

The final case is Professor Steven Salaita’s firing in 2014. Salaita’s heritage was partly Palestinian. And he was a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause and opposed to the way the government of Israel treated the Palestinians.

Salaita had been offered a position at UIUC in American Indian Studies. He resigned from his tenured position at another university. He prepared his course syllabi and ordered books for his Illinois position. And he found housing in Champaign-Urbana. But his hiring was not yet approved by the Board of Trustees. The lag time in board approval is usual and the approval seen as a formality.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center contacted the university and urged the rejection of Salaita. It supplied the university with tweets made by him that it regarded as antisemitic. Perhaps the most controversial one was “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”

The chancellor decided not to present Salaita’s appointment papers to the Board of Trustees. The faculty was very divided. Many professors, both Jewish, like me, and non-Jewish, felt that since these writings were extramural, they should not affect his appointment. We also felt that, as is so often the case, being critical of Israel is unfairly conflated with antisemitism. Unfortunately, a Jewish U of I professor who had also been a past president of the national AAUP sided with the chancellor’s decision.

Salaita sued the university. The court agreed that the trustees’ signing off was a mere formality, and that Salaita had been hired and fired. It awarded Salaita $875,000. But the controversy killed his academic career. Last I heard, he was driving a school bus. This represents a regression in the respect for free speech and academic freedom accorded to overtly anti-Semitic and racist Professor Revilo Oliver that I discussed in part 1 of this article.

Zionist zealots have not ceased trying to tarnish the reputation of those who opposed Salaita’s firing. If one Googles my name, one will find that a shadowy group called Canary Mission has embedded a condemnation of me for opposing the firing. I am retired. But for people seeking employment, this kind of intimidating tactic could be a killer. It is meant to silence them, lest they risk winding up in Salaita’s straits.

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