Monday, August 25, 2014

Letter from Vicki Mahaffey, Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies

With Professor Mahaffey's permission we repost her letter to Chancellor Wise:
August 27, 2014

Chancellor Phyllis Wise

Dear Chancellor Wise:

     What follows is a response to your post of September 22, 2014, “The Principles on Which We Stand.”

      I served for two years as the University Ombudsman at my former university, and one of my main responsibilities was to educate (tactfully) faculty and staff about what constitutes professional conduct, and how it is essential for the establishment and maintenance of intellectual community.  One of the things I learned was that professional conduct is not simply a matter of civility. Civility is a form of politeness, but what is most important for professional conduct is respect. In Friday’s posting, you acknowledge the importance of mutual respect, but in a discussion of the importance of mutually respectful discourse. I must nevertheless question whether the actions taken by the administration demonstrate respect toward the faculty: not only Professor Salaita, but also the department that proposed his hire, and the many faculty members who have protested this decision. Does this method of refusing to approve a hire at the last minute without consultation show respect for faculty judgment, or concern for the consequences that are being borne by the faculty?

      It is of course highly desirable for an intellectual community to value respectful discourse, but at the same time it should be clear that when individuals feel passionately about ideas and events, such passion puts pressure on civility. What could the administration have done that would have allowed management to express its concerns while remaining respectful of the faculty? Obviously, consultation with the department in question prior to taking action would have demonstrated greater respect. Clear communication between the administration and the faculty about the ways in which their respective missions may conflict might also be useful. The administration needs to make it more explicit that their mission is to safeguard the image of the University of Illinois (which is important for fundraising) while fostering and protecting intense, thoughtful debate about difficult issues. The faculty’s mission is to think critically, creatively, and often resistantly about issues and presuppositions that might otherwise go unchallenged. Perhaps we need to establish a task force on the use of social media to express personal or political opinions. Is it a violation of ethics to express strong opinions publicly, even when the commentator does not identify himself as an employee of the university? In the information age, isn’t it impossible to keep an individual’s institutional affiliation from the knowledge of anyone who wants it? Was there any evidence that Professor Salaita would not have treated students with respect? Does the fact that he has strong political opinions mean that he would be intolerant in the classroom?

      I am suggesting that the administration has violated—through actions, not modes of self-expression—the very values that your eloquent post professes to endorse: mutual respect. In my view, it is the administration’s disrespect for strong (and strongly worded) convictions, a disrespect expressed through highhanded action (taken without faculty consultation), that is responsible for the widespread reaction of the academy against the position taken by the administration at the University of Illinois.

Vicki Mahaffey
Clayton and Thelma Kirkpatrick Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies

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