(In)Civility and Phyllis Wise: When claims to academic freedom ring hollow

Chancellor Phyllis Wise has issued a blog post titled "The principles on which we stand" to UIUC colleagues defending her decision to not recommend Professor Steven Salaita for further action to the Board of Trustees concerning his appointment as Associate Professor.  The post responds to the widespread criticism of the violation of academic freedom by the UIUC decision voiced internally by Illinois academics as well as externally by academics globally. The message articulates the resolve of the University leadership to stand by the decision, noting the commitment of the University to the twin principles of academic freedom and civility, observing that the University has a vital role to play in encouraging debate and in doing so in civil and respectful ways.

In this piece, I will draw upon the notion of "communicative inversion" that I have presented elsewhere to argue that (a) the way in which Chancellor Wise went about making/communicating the decision to not recommend Prof. Salaita to the Board of Trustees violates the very principles of civility and respect that she espouses in her message as implicit justifications for the decision; (b) claims to civility in ways such as this render hollow claims to academic freedom; and (c) in this instance, as a classic example of "communicative inversion," the rhetoric of fostering an open climate for debate is a communicative strategy through which the climate of debate is foreclosed and opportunities for disagreement are silenced.

To work through my argument, I will draw upon the Chancellor's blog post and examine closely the instances of "communicative inversions" in her post (Dutta, 2005). I will argue that these "communicative inversions" are vital to understanding the ways in which communication is deployed to silence alternative worldviews and articulations, thus denying academic freedom even as academic freedom is played out as a justificatory narrative. After setting up the context of the decision and after acknowledging the letters expressing concern her office has received, Chancellor Wise goes on to highlight two core values of the University. She notes:
"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."
These first set of articulations speak directly to the apparent commitment of the University to the principle of academic freedom. The message highlights the role of a University as a space for debate and disagreement. It notes the mission of the University is to welcome and encourage different perspectives established in the context of academic freedom. Although the charge criticizing the University is based primarily on the argument that the University did not respect the academic freedom of Professor Salaita, Chancellor Wise does not offer a clear argument responding to this charge. In this instance, for the critics, the evidence that Professor Salaita’s case was not forwarded to the Board of Trustees leads to the conclusion that the University did not respect the academic freedom of Professor Salaita. To this charge, the Chancellor does not offer a counter-argument. 

This encouragement of difference as a value is juxtaposed against a commitment to respect for diversity.
"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."
These second set of principles relate to the idea of creating a welcoming environment through respect for diverse worldviews, histories, and cultural knowledge. Inherent in the notions of respect and "creating a welcoming environment" are normative ideas about acceptable communicative styles, processes, and strategies. The implication is that juxtaposing academic freedom with the notion of respectful communication offers a balanced framework for negotiating the core values of the University.

Let's look carefully at this notion of balance and the competing ideas that constitute it. Chancellor Wise does not inform her readers about the specific criteria that she applies to conceptualize, measure, and evaluate the "welcoming environment" that she envisions for the University. What does she mean by this welcoming environment? What is it going to take to create a welcoming environment? How is an academic working at Illinois to know that she/he is creating an unwelcoming environment? What communicative criteria does Chancellor Wise outline to ensure that the faculty and students are enabled to discuss and debate the "most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today?" How does she interpret the vision of an "inclusive Illinois?" What does inclusivity mean to Chancellor Wise? How does she propose to build a respectful culture where diverse worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge are supported? By extension, how does Professor Salaita violate the principle of the “welcoming environment” outlined by Chancellor Wise? If the implication in the above articulation is that Professor Salaita violated the principle of respectful communication, exactly what criteria were applied to evaluate the respectfulness of his articulation?

As a scholar of communication, I see violence as a fundamental form of incivility and Professor Salaita interrogates this very threat to civility in his tweeter posts. I therefore see Salaita’s tweets exactly in an opposite lens from how Chancellor Wise sees them, that in expressing his sheer disgust for the violent Israeli attacks on Gaza and the civilian casualties that result from the attacks, Professor Salaita opens up an invitation to articulation in a space that is otherwise foreclosed by the mainstream media, mainstream academe, and a corresponding war propaganda machine. As Lorraine Kisselburgh and I (Kisselburgh & Dutta, 2009) have argued elsewhere about the colonial tropes of civility that silence alternative narratives, calls to civility as in this case ironically work precisely as uncivil communicative processes that silence and erase diverse voices, and reproduce chilling effects. As Chancellor Wise reminds us, a communicative style that attempts at capturing the very act of violence that is embodied in war and invasion is coded as “uncivil” by the structures of a US University, a structure that appears complicit with the uncivil agenda of war and aggression.

The blog post further notes:
“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.”
The indirect reference to Professor Salaita’s tweets is situated alongside an articulation of the University’s intolerance for personal and disrespectful words or actions toward viewpoints or toward those that express these viewpoints. The weight of the Illinois decision rests on the administration’s operationalization, interpretation, and understanding of personal and disrespectful words or actions. What does Chancellor Wise understand as personal? Am I being personal if I tweet “I see no argument in Chancellor Wise’s statement?” Am I being personal if I state on my Facebook post the following “ Perhaps Chancellor Phyllis Wise needs an introduction to Toulmin's model of argumentation.” Is Chancellor Wise being personal here in suggesting that Professor Salaita used personal and disrespectful words or actions? Similarly, what does Chancellor Wise understand by disrespect? Is it disrespectful to criticize Chancellor Wise? Is it disrespectful to criticize Benjamin Netanyahu?  What does it mean to demean and abuse viewpoints? If I am critical of US intervention in Iraq, am I demeaning and abusing the viewpoint that espouses war? What does it mean to challenge the assumptions of our students and at the same time respect their rights as individuals? Am I not disrespecting the individual rights of my Christian students who believe in creationism if I teach them evolution? How far do we go with the notion of creating a respectful culture and what standards do we apply in evaluating whether someone is disrespectful? As an academic who worked at a Midwestern University for over a decade, I often found the image of Edward Said placed on my door be torn off my door almost on a weekly basis at one point. How would such disrespect have been operationalized and how would the university administration have implemented remedial strategies? 

Chancellor Wise then outlines the following “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.” What is salient here is the role of communication and the way in which the Chancellor conceptualizes communication. How we communicate as academics at the Illinois campus becomes the subject of governance.  What does the Chancellor mean by the metrics of scholarly, civil, and productive communication? What is civility? What is productive communication? What is scholarly communication? How is Chancellor Wise going to ensure that these metrics are implemented at UIUC with fairness and transparency? In the absence of an outline of the metrics of incivility that Professor Salaita might have violated, the decision itself appears arbitrary, undemocratic, and uncivil. Chancellor Wise’s communication of her decision in this case appears to silence diverse scholarly and creative discourse ironically using the very narrative of promoting diversity.

More importantly and relevant to the case of Professor Salaita, how did Chancellor Wise implement these metrics in the decision to not forward Professor Salaita’s recommendation to the Board of Trustees? Ironically, the language of incivility is put forth as an argument for a University process that was handled I will argue without respect for civility. Civility is described in the communication literature as respect for the dignity of the other. The dignity of the faculty in the American Indian Studies program was violated when the Chancellor made the decision to not forward the file of Professor Salaita to the Board of Trustees without consulting the Department. In the vote of no confidence in the Chancellor cast by the faculty of American Indian Studies, the faculty point precisely to this violation of civility in the Chancellor’s decision-making process:
“Our sentiment is based on Wise's decision to effectively fire Prof. Steven Salaita, whose de facto hire had been properly vetted by the unit and approved by the college through standard academic procedures. This process culminated in the signing of a good-faith contract between Prof. Salaita and our college, and only awaited customary rubber-stamp approval by the UIUC Board of Trustees...In clear disregard of basic principles of shared governance and unit autonomy, and without basic courtesy and respect for collegiality, Chancellor Wise did not consult American Indian Studies nor the college before making her decision.”
The decision to not forward Professor Salaita’s recommendation to the Board of Trustees after an offer had been made to Professor Salaita on University letterhead and after he had signed it is an example of incivility toward Professor Salaita because it violates the dignity of Professor Salaita, goes back on an offer that had already been made, and demonstrates the lack of commitment of the University to a promise embodied in the offer letter. If an employment letter from the University is a representation of a promise, going back on that promise is a sign of incivility that is likely to impact the University over a long period of time in the future as well. How would a faculty member take an offer letter from the University seriously in the years to come, knowing fully well that the University leadership can chose not to respect the offer?

That both Professor Salaita and his partner had already resigned from their jobs, that he had already moved his family to Illinois, and that he is left in the lurch without health insurance and without a job, do not appear to concern Chancellor Wise. The lack of empathy for the situation of Professor Salaita generated by the unfortunate turn of events is a mark of incivility. If civility is defined by an ethic of care, compassion and respect, then Chancellor Wise’s blog post, as the first official response to the public uproar on the Salaita case, is marked by incivility in that it fails to demonstrate compassion for a faculty member in the midst of a crisis.

I wrap up this piece by arguing that the message presented by Chancellor Wise depicts “communicative inversion” by deploying the rhetoric of open communication to accomplish objectives that in reality reflect closed communication, disrespect, and lack of compassion. The rhetoric of creating an open climate for debate is ironically deployed to foreclose the opportunities for debate and difference. The language of fostering respectful communication is put to use to silence opportunities of dissent and difference. The language of promoting inclusivity and diversity is categorically played out to justify the erasure of diverse voices and to exclude. Reflective of the "communicative inversions" that are played out in the content of this communicative articulation, the process through which the decision was arrived at is at its heart uncivil, disrespecting faculty governance, disrespecting the sovereignty of faculty, and imposing decisions in a top-down communicative stance. The lack of transparency throughout this entire process is also a marker of incivility. At a meta-communicative level, "communicative inversions" are paradoxically the very forms of incivility that need to be called out through careful analysis of communication as they depict the powerful role of communication in perpetuating violence. To truly enable respectful communication, I invite Chancellor Wise to carefully reflect upon the communicative processes that were played out in the decision to fire Professor Salaita, to carefully consider what she imagines as an aspiration of civility for the University, and to open up a dialogic space for conversations and debate about the hiring of Professor Salaita. Doing so at the very least would give the University an opportunity for embodying the spirit of openness and inclusivity that Chancellor Wise voices in her blog.  

Dutta, M. (2005). Operation Iraqi Freedom: Mediated public sphere as a public relations tool. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 13(4), 220-241.
Kisselburgh, L., & Dutta, M. (2009). The constructions of civility in multicultural organizations. In B. Davenport & P. Lutgen-Sandvik (Eds.), Destructive organizational communication (pp. 121-142). New York: Routledge.


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