Letter to the Board of Trustees, UIUC: Incivility and the Illinois Legacy

Board of Trustees
University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

Dear colleagues on the Board of Trustees,

I am writing this letter to respectfully request you to reinstate Professor Steven Salaita in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign.

I am not an alum and not a donor, but a humble Professor of Communication who has been touched in some of the most fundamental ways by your esteemed University. As a student-scholar of Communication, I hold the UIUC in the highest of regard as one of the oldest institutions that served as a springboard for the scholarship of Communication. Professor Wilbur Schramm, acknowledged as one of the founders of the discipline, invested his time and energy at UIUC in building some of the most vital roots of my discipline, and in articulating key principles of free speech. The Department of Communication Studies at Illinois is home to some of my most valued and productive colleagues, and has produced over the years many luminaries of my discipline.

It is therefore with the greatest of sadness that I reiterate in this letter my intent of severing all my ties with UIUC if Professor Salaita is not offered his job back. Let me also respectfully share with you that I will decline to serve on committees, review tenure and promotion cases, and publish with journals/books that have attachment to UIUC.  Moreover, I intend to actively dissuade my students from applying to the UIUC because the University has become now a space where transparency is undermined, communication is subverted, and expression is silenced.

The decision to de-hire Professor Salaita has been tied back to the apparent incivility of his tweets in the backdrop of the Israeli attacks on Gaza. As someone who has written about civility, intercultural communication, and communication in a new media environment, I am struck by the incivility reflected in the decision of the University to de-hire Prof. Salaita, going against the decision of the Department and a Search Committee, the decision-making process through which the decision was made, and the way in which the decision was communicated to the Department and to Professor Salaita. That the charge brought against Professor Salaita is one of incivility is troubling as well because it assumes that Professor Salaita’s tweets close off opportunities for conversation, ignoring the communicative context and normative expectations of communication on social media.

Let me begin by describing what I understand as civility and by extension, incivility. Civility, defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary, as “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior,” reflects norms of acceptable communication in a society. In my field of communication, civility is understood as normative expectations and ideas of communication that foster an open and invitational climate for participation. Civility, therefore, is understood as the nature of communication that generates openness, dialogue, and invitation. This relationship between civility described as normative features of communication and the outcomes of communication as openness and dialogue is reiterated by Chancellor Wise in her statement referring to the de-hiring of Professor Salaita offered on her blog, “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.”

If civility therefore is an opening for diverse perspectives and worldviews, it also needs to be understood as an invitation to forms of communication that are understood by the mainstream at a given point of time as unacceptable. By imposing a narrow set of prescriptions about what politeness norms constitute civility, we often foreclose opportunities for conversation. For instance, in the mainstream US culture, certain features of African American communicative styles might be considered uncivil, in certain instances being labeled by the White mainstream as impolite expressions of anger. Here, the performance of civility in the White mainstream works precisely to silence diversity, to foreclose communication by imposing a dominant set of accepted norms as the universal metrics of politeness. As you see, ironically enough, the language of creating a space for diversity and different opinions is precisely at work here to erase difference.

In the case of the tweets posted by Professor Salaita under question, whether the tweets are uncivil needs to be conceptualized in relationship to the context of war, violence, and large scale civilian casualty in this instance, each of which are fundamentally uncivil manifestations of human behavior. If we understand civility in terms of the closure of opportunities for expression, war represents perhaps the most fundamental form of incivility as it forecloses all opportunities for dialogue and conversation. It assumes, “no more conversation is possible and hence force must be used.” How then can such fundamental forms of incivility as violence be engaged with in our everyday speech? More importantly, how can such fundamental threats to human civilization be engaged with in the language of the civilized, in ways that might be considered as polite by the very structures that perpetuate this violence?

Relating to the appropriate normative expectations is an area of communicative struggle. What most research on communication during war times demonstrates is that much communication during war turns into propaganda carried out by the dominant forces that have the power and the money to shape the narrative accounts of war. Propaganda in this sense is antithetical to any idea of civility that we might uphold. Within this context of violence, propaganda campaigns run by paid public relations firms and the erasure of narrative accounts of people who live everyday with this violence, articulations of lived experiences of everyday people in warzones offer openings for dialogue.

What particular expressions of communication would enable dialogue however remains contested. For example, should we post images of violence marked on bodies of children? Is it civil to share images of children who have been killed? There are many sides to this debate, with some sides suggesting that the images of dead children disrespect the fundamental dignity of the lives of the children and other sides suggesting that the sharing of the images of violence is intrinsic to prying open spaces for conversations within the context of large scale material impacts of violence. As you see, the normative rules of communication become quite murky and need to be actively negotiated, debated, and engaged with through dialogue.
I see Professor Salaita’s tweets in this light, as an invitation to open a conversation by accounting tales of violence that have been carried out by Israel. Salaita’s tweets, expressive, pithy and poignant in their juxtaposition of metaphors, invite us to ponder and to reconsider our taken-for-granted assumptions, creating openings for dialogue. One might not agree with the intensity of the language in his tweeter feeds, but there can be no denying that these expressive accounts of violence cannot even come close to touching the depths of violence that are being experienced by civilians in Gaza.  If expression is a referent to material events and relationships, what might be considered the realm of appropriate language when the textures of materiality have been so fundamentally altered by the weapons of violence legitimized in the language of democracy? I am grateful to Professor Salaita for opening up the space for asking these sorts of important questions that need to be asked about conceptualizations of civility. In this sense, Professor Salaita’s sensibilities of communication are an invitation to conversation, not foreclosures of conversational possibilities. This becomes evident in the talk in the public sphere his tweets have generated about the ongoing violence in Gaza.

Let me now turn to the issue of incivility in the way in which the decision to fire Professor Salaita was carried out.

If civility is defined as openness, the decision-making process to de-hire Professor Salaita was the opposite of being open. The search committee, the Department Head and the Dean were not even informed of the decision made by the Chancellor to fire Professor Salaita, let alone be consulted in the decision-making process. As it now becomes evident, the Head of the American Indian Studies program was figuring out Professor Salaita’s moving expenses as the Chancellor was coming close to a decision of firing Professor Salaita.

If civility is gauged as a characteristic of the communicative process, the entire process of decision-making in this instance was uncivil as it was not respectful or polite, was made in a heavy handed and authoritative way, fundamentally undermining faculty governance that is integral to the spirit of the University. It didn’t matter to the Chancellor what her colleagues at the College, Department, and Search Committee level felt and thought. It didn’t matter to Chancellor Wise that area experts who are actually qualified to comment upon the rigor of Professor Salaita’s work were strongly supportive of the hiring decision.

It also becomes apparent from the now available document threads gathered by the Freedom of Information Act that the Chancellor did not even consult her Provost before making her decision. Instead, in a cursory note, she chose to inform the Provost, ceasing to engage him subsequently on the issue (as depicted in the conversation threads).

Much of the decision-making took place in closed circuits of email exchanges between development professionals, powerful donors, alums, and the Chancellor, keeping the academic decision-making structures of the University in the shadows. This lack of transparency, top-down communication, and disrespect for Departmental sovereignty are reflections of incivility in ways that threaten the integrity of the UIUC. Moreover, as it now becomes evident, that the decision was pressured by outside groups threatening to take away donation funds from the UIUC, that the Chancellor gave in to these pressures in consultation with her development staff, and that she failed to communicate transparently about this pressure in her blog post, instead framing the firing as Professor Salaita’s lack of civility that might have threatened the classroom, are all reflections of incivility.

As it now becomes apparent, the decision to fire Professor Salaita was an economic decision, not an academic decision. If incivility is a marker of discursive closure, the University administration’s decisions reflect incivility in its most fundamental form. This is the form of incivility that threatens the modern University as we know it in very basic ways, constraining spaces of debate and dialogue on academic campuses by the hidden power of money, collected in the form of donor checks, and evident in emails sent out to the Chancellor demanding an answer. That donors place their money where they see most fit is a notion that I believe we can all expect. But to expect the Chancellor to bow down to donor demand, to expect that the University will make firing decisions on the basis of donor whims are the forms of incivility that threaten the very legitimacy of UIUC as a space of knowledge generation.

As the now revealed donor exchanges depict, the tone of communication with the Chancellor, implicitly demanding an answer, as if the University is owned by the donor, is the form of incivility that I find threatening to the function of the University. If civility is an invitation to communication, the pressure of money and the threats attached to it, the workings of economic pressure in opaque processes hidden from faculty governance and faculty structures, and the disrespect for faculty decision-making are the forms of incivility that threaten UIUC and its long standing reputation. Moreover, this sets up the sort of precedence where donors can be led to believe that they can control the mission of Universities as sites of knowledge production through their funds. The objective status of Universities as spaces where knowledge is pursued freely through debate and dialogue becomes compromised in essence.

I hope that as Board of Trustees of this reputed University, you will demonstrate your leadership in re-aligning UIUC with what a University is meant to do, to foster open spaces for dialogue and debate. Your leadership at this juncture of the University’s life has an opportunity to leave behind a legacy of civility, openness, and dialogue that many of you have articulated recently.

Yours sincerely,

Mohan J. Dutta
Professor of Communications and New Media
National University of Singapore


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