Friday, September 12, 2014

Why the behaviors of Chancellor Wise and the Illinois Board of Trustees need to be labeled as uncivil

The Board of Trustees at Illinois voted 8-to-1 to dehire Professor Steven Salaita. Recordings of the meeting and interviews with reporters depict the smugness with which the Chancellor and the Board responded at the meeting and in response to questions about the decision.

These leaders had an opportunity to perform the meeting with civility, a concept they have offered as a core pillar of commitment for the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign.

They had the opportunity to demonstrate the ethic of care and openness to dialogue that the idea of civility depicts.

They had an opportunity to foster a space for humility and acceptance of diverse worldviews and ways of being, commitments that the Chancellor has so often used as a branding strategy in the last few months.

They had an opportunity to foster a space that opens up to diverse interpretations and worldviews.

Most of all, the Trustees had an opportunity to correct their past actions clouded in opaque decision-making.

To acknowledge the donor pressure that was clearly at work, and to respond dialogically to the criticism offered by a large number of UIUC students, faculty, and Departments as well as faculty and students from across the globe would have been reflections of civility in the spirit of dialogue.

Civility would have been reflected in the voicing of vulnerability that acknowledges the complexity of the situation and the extensive faculty and student protests.

Instead, most of the Trustees interviewed feigned ignorance about the pressure exerted by a particular donor or a group of donors. The trustees stuck to their positions and defended their stance, unwilling to engage the large scale criticism that has been directed at the University.

The Chancellor went further to suggest that protestors were confusing between the question of academic freedom and personnel decision. The term "personnel decision," as an exemplar of communicative inversion, adds an opaque layer that leaves the Chancellor's agendas, motives and decision-making processes invisible. Once again, this is a marker of incivility, an unwillingness to truly engage in conversation and instead hide behind the opaque language of personnel decision.

In the midst of large scale student and faculty protests, the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees went about the performance of their routine business, failing to acknowledge the opposing viewpoints that questioned their decisions. This failure to acknowledge oppositional arguments stands as an exemplar of incivility, closing off opportunities for dialogue and ongoing conversation.

To frame the decision to fire Professor Salaita as a personnel decision and not a decision related to freedom of expression once again reflects the incivility of opaque language used by those in positions of power. No justifications are offered. No rationale and arguments are offered. Just a statement is made.

In the face of such incivility, it is appropriate to seek opportunities of communication that work on the principle of foreclosed dialogue.

As faculty and students refuse to bow down to the incivility of the University administrators, recourse to oppositional communication strategies becomes an entry point for securing transformation so opportunities for dialogue and conversation may be opened up. Civility needs to be reworked as an oppositional communicative strategy, disrupting the uncivil behaviors of powerful trustees and administrators. To disrupt the taken-for-granted assumptions of incivility and the privilege these assumptions embody calls for communicative strategies of resistance that intervene in the everyday symbols of power circulated by dominant structures and those that occupy these structures. The challenge ahead for faculty and students lies in rendering visible the workings of power in the everyday languages of the university and its administrators as they perpetuate their acts of incivility, reworked into false accounts of civility, openness, and dialogue.

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