Translating UI President Phyllis Wise’s letter on academic freedom for the uninitiated

By now, you’ve probably read about the controversy surrounding American Indian studies professor Prof. Steven Salaita for angry tweets regarding Isreal and its Prime Minister Netanyahu, in particular. The divide goes along typical political lines, with supporters of Israel on the right nodding their heads and noting how shameful his tweets are, and how it’s about time somebody learned those liberal proffies a lesson, that rich people are in charge and they don’t like things said that upset them any, and people on the left noting geez, these were tweets. On the one side “civility” and other the other…”shit, what do you mean civility when children are dying?”

I don’t like the content of the tweets, and I doubt I’d like Salaita much, but I have to say, I don’t like what I’ve seen of UI President Phyllis Wise, either, largely because her conduct epitomizes the craven corporate “leadership” that has a stranglehold on US universities.

So for those of you who don’t work at a university, let me explain Wise’s letter for you.

The Principles on Which We Stand
Aug 22, 2014 1:15 pm by Phyllis M. Wise

Dear Colleagues:

As you may be aware, Vice President Christophe Pierre and I wrote to Prof. Steven Salaita on Aug. 1, informing him of the university’s decision not to recommend further action by the Board of Trustees concerning his potential appointment to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Um, yeah, I’m going to try to spin this to make it sound like he hadn’t really been appointed with tenure yet so that when he sues (not if, when ) I will at least looked like I tried to cover the university’s ass here.

Since this decision, many of you have expressed your concern about its potential impact on academic freedom. I want to assure you in the strongest possible terms that all of us – my administration, the university administration and I – absolutely are committed to this bedrock principle. I began my career as a scientist challenging accepted ideas and pre-conceived notions, and I have continued during my career to invite and encourage such debates in all aspects of university life.

I know some of you little people are worried, but I wanted to reassure you: I’m awesome. Ok? Remember. I’m a scientist. A paradigm-shifting scientist. An awesome scientist am I, and I am looking out for you here.

A pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas. One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives. Robust – and even intense and provocative – debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university.

We believe in debate. In theory.

As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.

We believe in debate. Really we do. Really really. There are no wrong answers, there’s no evil, let alone political evil that should be condemned. Just differing world views. That’s how we seek the truth.

Our university isn’t a corporation predicated on manufacturing young adulthood lifestyle communities centered on beer and football and sweaty incompetent sex or anything. We’re intellectuals! There’s a competition of ideas going on right here. The endeavor! Be awed by our commitment to the endeavor. And your checks can be sent to…

The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel. Our university is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy. Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate.

See? I tell you, again, the decision was not a firing. Totally not. Absolutely not. It was a decision regarding him.

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.

This is what the lawyers wrote, and it really sounds good, doesn’t it, even though I have no idea what I am actually talking about here. Salaita’s tweets were a potential rights violation! That’s the ticket. I clearly have no clue what rights really are, but I know if there is one thing that plays on American’s emotions, it’s the allegation that a right might be violated. Rights! Did you know you have a right not be upset by something somebody says? That’s important. Really crucial.

But you don’t have the right to get upset about war. That’s over the line. We have standards.

Yes, I know, some misguided souls might note that most of our students are getting butt reamed by our tuition and it takes a nuclear warhead to dislodge a sexually harassing professor or a date rapist from our hallowed halls, but we stand firmly against the possibility that our students might see an upsetting Tweet or a have a professor who might not be a compliant, easily managed robot because he pops off at the mouth when he’s upset.

As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner.

It’s my responsibility to make sure that donors are happy and feel confident that they are supporting an institution that doesn’t upset the social order very much.

A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.

See, I’m just looking out for our world-class status. By warning you about how upsetting tweets might threaten our status within the hierarchy, I accomplish two clever things. 1) I appeal your own careerism; after all, we all know that faculty want to be up, not down, in the universal pecking order of universities and 2) I subtly hint that we currently *are* a world-class institution since we can’t lose something we don’t have. Clearly, I’m running a world-class institution. Yay, me, and yay us! World class, we are.

As a member of the faculty, I firmly believe that a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois is a tremendous honor and a unique privilege. Tenure also brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.

Remember, I am one of you. Yes, I make six times what you do, and I’ve gotten myself one enormous pay raise after another can’t, but it’s important to me that you all understand that our tenured positions only go to those who have drunk most deeply of the Kool-Aid because those ones can’t be fired, I mean not hired, and we can’t have those ones being too…messy or disruptive of anything. This here is a subtle reminder of everything that my patrons hate about you people with tenure, how they absolutely loathe the very idea that somebody is not an economic slave to them, and it is a reminder not to try them too high because I don’t have the guts to stand up to them.

I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.

Yes, I am so committed to working with you closely by virtue of this ex poste rationale of a decision that I made without you. See how efficient and collaborative I am?



Phyllis M. Wise

Did I mention that I am awesome?

[cue finger guns]