Earlier this summer, our Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, made the executive decision to revoke a job offer extended to Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois, and it was only by public pressure that his appointment was advanced to the Board of Trustees for approval. Last week, the Board voted 8-1 against Salaita’s appointment. You all know the story. But the question remains, why should we care?
The Chancellor has stated that her decision “was not influenced in any way by [Salaita’s] positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel,” and unfortunately, we find this to be true. Her decision was made based upon money. After a request under the Freedom of Information Act was filed for the Chancellor’s emails regarding the appointment of Salaita, it became public knowledge that students, and more importantly donors, were heavily petitioning the Chancellor to deny Salaita’s appointment a hearing. This is exactly what she did.
Some have made the argument that donors can say what they want, but ultimately this was done for the good of the students. This argument entirely ignores not just the Chancellor’s actions, but also the historical actions of the greater University of Illinois administration. Last year, in an overwhelming 6-1 count, the student body voted to defund the University’s investments in coal based energy companies. The official response? That is an unreasonable request. But when a few six-figure donors ask the Chancellor to break protocol and fire a professor over his radical political views protected under the First Amendment? No problem.
This is not the first time that the University has chosen money over ethics. The once infamous case of the quad shantytown is another prime example. In 1986, the University of Illinois had over $15 million invested in companies who profited in South Africa under the government that imposed apartheid on the native South Africans. As is happening today, the administration made numerous public comments about their commitment to ethical principles and their deep concern for the issue at hand, while doing little to back up their words. It was not until the University’s hypocrisy was publicly revealed through a brilliant student campaign that the University partially divested its holdings in those companies.
If that seems a bit too distant, let us not forget that as recently as 2009 we had a president, chancellor, and seven members of the Board of Trustees resign after it came to light that the University was admitting students with political and economic support at a distinguishably higher rate than everybody else. While the current scandal may change from year to year, the catalyst does not. Money matters here.
It is time for the University of Illinois to take responsibility for its actions. This does not rest solely on the shoulders of Chancellor Wise, but she does have blame to bear. This is on all of us. We need to be demanding more accountability, professionalism, and ethical conduct from the institution from which we are either employed or will be issued a diploma. This addiction to money needs to end. We do not need to build the largest net-zero energy building in Illinois if it means that we invest in coal companies to make it happen. We do not need to be preaching freedom of speech if we cannot practice it. We do not need to attend a public university if it practices the ethics of the most corrupt private institutions. We deserve better.