Continuing evidence of incivility of the Illinois administration: Chancellor Wise and the CAFT Report

The President of the University of Illinois Campus Faculty Association President Professor Bruce Rosenstock shared today his email exchange with Chancellor Phyllis Wise, requesting the Chancellor to respect the recommendations offered by the CAFT report prepared by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) at the University of Illinois.

The email exchange, carried out between the dates of January 29, 2015 and February 5, 2015, once again is a reminder of the large gap between the rhetoric of civility performed by the Illinois administration as a justification for the decision of the University to de-hire Professor Salaita and the actual practices of incivility reflected in the behaviors of the University administration.

The exchange read in full also depicts the paradoxically closed nature of the University administration and its decision-making processes, scripted in cryptic messages from the Chancellor that stand in stark contrast to the performance of her avowed commitment to protecting openness and diversity on the Illinois campus.

The exchange instead reflects a sense of arrogance and lack of accountability to the broader University-wide faculty on behalf of the administration, revealing the workings of top-down authoritarian power that foreclose opportunities for conversation and dialogue.

To make my argument that the behavior of Chancellor Wise continues to characterize incivility, I will draw upon the definition of incivility in the Merriam Webster dictionary as "a rude or impolite act."

To be rude or impolite is to render conversation impossible through a variety of strategies such as avoidance, silence, non-response, deflection, etc., to shut down possibilities of dialogue, and to limit the possibilities of further discourse. This is especially the case within the context of disagreements on difficult-to-discuss subjects.

More broadly within the context of a University, to close off opportunities for conversation with representatives of an elected campus faculty association by University administration is rude and impolite because it fundamentally undermines the spirit of faculty governance that lies at the heart of Universities. Moreover, beyond the norms of rudeness, to foreclose opportunities for conversation with an elected representative of the academic senate is a threat to the fundamental being of a University as it undermines the very notions of academic freedom and faculty governance that lie at the heart of Universities.

The CAFT report is a carefully considered deliberation on the University decision-making processes in the de-hiring of Professor Salaita, concluding with the recommendation to the University to re-instate Professor Salaita, to withdraw the earlier statements made by the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees on civility as a standard of conduct, and to take responsibility for the financial consequences to Dr. Salaita. The Board of Trustees responded earlier to the CAFT report by reiterating its decision not to hire Professor Salaita.

Professor Rosenstock's email to Chancellor Wise invites her to a meeting in his role as president of the Campus Faculty Association with the objective of sharing with her a petition signed by campus faculty members urging the Chancellor to reconsider her decision of not allowing the formation of a faculty expert committee to evaluate the professional fitness of Professor Salaita. The email also points to the manipulative framing of the CAFT report in an earlier University press release on the lawsuit filed by Professor Salaita against the University on charges of undue donor influence and urges Chancellor Wise to the retract the part of the news release falsifying the CAFT report.

Chancellor Wise responds to Professor Rosenstock's email by stating the following: "I don’t think it is worthwhile for us to meet. The Board of Trustees has spoken clearly that they will not re-consider their decision. They have the final authority in this matter. Therefore, I do not believe that it is worth your time or mine to revisit the possibility to remand the consideration of hiring Dr. Salaita to a committee in LAS."

The invitation to conversation is closed by a response that reiterates the Board of Trustees decision. The possibility of constituting an expert committee is foreclosed by privileging the authority of the board of trustees. The same top-down form of decision-making is reflected in the Chancellor's response that she had earlier observed as a mistake she had committed in earlier processes of decision-making. Also worth noting is the strategy of avoidance in response to the charge of falsification of the CAFT report that is brought by one of the key authors of the report.

In a subsequent email, Professor Rosenstock asks Chancellor Wise to elaborate the basis of her decision-making, asking her to explain the decision-making process and whether faculty members were consulted in deciding the University response to the CAFT report. Professor Rosenstock eloquently notes the very same flawed decision-making being repeated by Chancellor Wise that she had earlier been accused of following and had later owned up to. He notes:

"You have said that your decision-making process in the case of Salaita was flawed because you failed to consult with faculty before taking the step you did on August 1. The reason you offered for making the decision you did on August 1 related solely to the future action of the Board of Trustees in his case. In the ensuing months you came under considerable criticism for the decision you took on August 1 and you have claimed that you would act differently  (even if the decision might be the same) in the future. Looking at your decision to reject the CAFT recommendation concerning the remand of Salaita’s candidacy to an LAS committee, someone might say that you repeated the same decision-making process that led to your August 1 decision."

Chancellor Wise once again responds to this email with a cryptic message that she looks forward to reading the petition and to working together as a campus community to address the challenges and opportunities ahead. The Chancellor's response is typical crisis PR-speak. Keep the message short and offer some rhetorical promise of working together looking toward the future. Her actions however, including her inability to address the questions raised by the CAFT, point to the absence of commitment to working together. Rather, a top-down decision has made with deference to the power of the Trustees, and the power of the Trustees as decision-makers is invoked to not engage with the recommendations made by a faculty committee.

Professor Rosenstock once again invites the Chancellor to a dialogue, stating the following:

"In the email chain below you will also find four questions that I once again respectfully would ask you to respond to on behalf of these faculty and also many others who are members of the Campus Faculty Association. You said nothing in response to these questions earlier, so I would like to give you one more opportunity before I make public the petition, the signatures, and the questions. Thank you for taking the time to consider the petition and our request for clarification regarding your decision in regard to the CAFT report."

Chancellor Wise responds with empty PR-speak of looking forward to working together:

"Thank you for sending this email and the attached signatures. As I have said in a previous email to you I look forward to working with you to address the challenges and opportunities that we face."

The email exchange presented above depicts the absence of a space for deliberation and debate. As Professor makes multiple requests for clarifications, reasons, and transparency for decisions taken by the administration, the Chancellor draws upon her own power and the power of the trustees to foreclose discussion, followed up by an empty promise of working together. As a response strategy, the speech act performed by Chancellor Wise is not only rude in avoiding conversation on the key issues but is also deceptive in couching this avoidance within the language of wanting to work together. As I have argued elsewhere, these communicative inversions, the inversions of symbolic representations to refer to the opposite of what is being practiced, are fundamental forms of incivility as they shut down possibilities of authentic conversation.

Chancellor Wise depicts the incivility that has come to form the cornerstone of the Illinois administration.


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