The Illinois Incivility tales: When you go back on the contract or pretend it does not exist.

On August 6, 2015, almost exactly a year after the academic Steven Salaita had been informed that his services at the University of Illinois were no longer needed, a federal court rejected the University's argument that it did not enter into a binding contract with Professor Salaita because the offer to employ him was subject to approval by the Illinois Board of Trustees.

The court's rejection reiterates the premise under which academic hires are made across campuses in the US, with the signature by the Board of Trustees being just a rubber-stamp, an ornamental step in the hiring process.

Presiding on the case, Judge Leineneweber noted, "If the court accepted the University's agreement, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist, because no professor would resign a tenure position, move states, and start teaching at a new college based on an 'offer' that was absolutely meaningless until after the semester already started."

The judgment points to a fundamental dishonesty in the line taken by the University, which I will argue is a form of incivility, a "rude or impolite attitude or behavior." This argument builds on earlier blog posts in which I have put forth the claim that the University, its trustees, and Chancellor acted in uncivil ways that sought to silence diversity.

As a form of communicative inversion, a reversal of communication from its material basis [the contract], the University's strategy of pretending that there was not really an agreement with Professor Salaita fundamentally disrupts the normative expectations of the academic hiring process. 

As suggested by the Judge's ruling, the Illinois administration walked out of a contract it had entered into by simply stating that it did not exist. In arguing that there was not really a contract, the University demonstrated that as an organization it can't be trusted. In the future, academics entering into a contract with Illinois would not trust the contract, knowing that Illinois could simply go back on its words and play a game of inversions. Communicative inversions in this sense are not only rude and impolite, but are fundamentally threatening to the trust that is essential to the hiring process.

The University administration knew very well this academic norm of hiring and contract offers that is widely held across University campuses, and yet, went on to unhire Professor Salaita on the basis of the technicality that the approval of the Board of Trustees was scheduled to be secured in the Fall after Professor Salaita would have already started teaching at the University. In paying for Professor Salaita's moving expenses, setting up the classes he would teach etc., the University followed the norms that are attached to a contract. Yet, later when it worked to its convenience, the University started pretending that there was not really a contract.

By not respecting its contract with Professor Salaita and moreover by using a technicality (the signature by the Board of Trustees) to argue that there was no contract with Professor Salaita, the Illinois administration demonstrated the incivility that is embedded in its communicative practices. Pretending that there was no contract depicts the face of a University that strategically deploys communicative inversions without the commitment to follow through to a promise made.

The Illinois incivility will stay as the face of the University for many years to come. Hopefully however, the ruling in the current case will stand in as a reminder to Universities about the costs of such incivility.

As an exemplar of the violation of the implicit commitment to respecting a contract made to a new faculty appointment, the University's incivility fundamentally threatens the integrity of the academic hiring process. The ruling pointed clearly to this lack of integrity in the Illinois hiring process.


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