Academic group censures U. of I. for not hiring prof over anti-Israel tweets

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CHAMPAIGN — A leading academic group voted Saturday to censure the University of Illinois’ flagship campus over its decision not to hire a professor following his anti-Israel Twitter messages, a vote the university’s chancellor said will have repercussions and is being taken seriously.

In a voice vote, the membership of the American Association of University Professors affirmed the censure at the group’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The decision came in reaction to the university rescinding Steven Salaita’s job offer following his posts on Twitter concerning Israel and the West Bank.

The vote hinged on the principle of academic freedom, said Anita Levy, an association staff member involved with the group’s investigation of the matter. A report by the group described Salaita’s tweets as expressions of “outrage in strong language over the war in Gaza.”

Rejecting the professor’s appointment “violated Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and cast a pall of uncertainty over the degree to which academic freedom is understood and respected” at the school, Levy said, reading from a statement after Saturday’s vote.

The academic association currently has 56 institutions on its censure list.

University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the school has an “unyielding commitment to the principles of academic freedom.”

And, in an email sent to faculty on Saturday, U. of I. chancellor Phyllis Wise said the decision was “disappointing, but not unexpected.”

“We take this decision by the AAUP seriously,” Wise wrote. “We understand that it will have repercussions on the scholarly activities of many in our community, and we intend to address both the censure and the underlying concerns through our established processes of shared governance.”

An AAUP censure is a relatively rare condemnation that can damage a university’s reputation in the academic world. Some faculty members at the University of Illinois have said they believe it might lead job hunters working at other schools to choose not to work at the Urbana-Champaign campus, though other faculty members have discounted that idea.

The university rescinded Salaita’s job offer after some donors complained his tweets were anti-Semitic. He has since sued the school. The censure vote came one day after a judge ordered the university to turn over thousands of pages of documents sought by Salaita.

On Saturday, his attorneys issued a statement calling the censure “a serious blemish on the university’s record.”

In October 2013, Salaita was offered a professor’s job in the university’s Native American Studies Department, starting in August 2014. He accepted and quit his job at Virginia Tech University.

But in the summer of 2014, Salaita, whose father is from Jordan, wrote a long series of Twitter messages complaining about Israeli military action in Gaza. Some of those messages included profanity and a few were considered anti-Semitic by university donors who wrote to Wise.

“Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” he wrote in one message.

In August, just before school was set to begin again and after Salaita had received his class assignments, Wise told Salaita he wouldn’t get the job after all. She later said the university was concerned about the “abusive nature” of his messages.

His lawsuit claims he had already been hired. The university counters that the board of trustees had not yet approved his hire, a step required for all tenured faculty members.

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