Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Vicente Diaz, Statement Read at the Meeting of the Whole, 9/22/14

My name is Vicente M. Diaz. I am an Associate Professor in American Indian Studies and Anthropology. I am also an affiliate faculty member in History and Asian American Studies.  I represent American Indian Studies; in fact, I co-chaired the search committee that recommended the hire of Steven Salaita.

I’m here to express moral indignation and outrage at the BOT’s denial of Prof. Salaita’s hire. Far from over, and even further from correct, our leadership’s decision is a wrongheaded and misguided action that has tarnished our university’s reputation among academics who know and understand how academia is supposed to work. It has also put us in actual harm’s way, some of us more than others. Above all else, this administration has willingly placed political expediency and possibly money over academic matters. Indeed, academics is the biggest casualty of our leadership’s dereliction of its duties.

This casualty is most clearly visible and palpably experienced when viewed from our vantage point in American Indian Studies, the originating unit, where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

I begin by addressing a particularly insidious rumor of the sort that can come only from the kind of toxic environment that Chancellor Wise has created and maintained right down to her comments today. It is a rumor that I’ve already had to lay to rest twice in private emails, namely, that our unit Director, Prof. Robert Warrior used his influence and power to hire Salaita, who was a student of his years ago at another university.  I assure you that Warrior did not ask me to bring this up and is not even aware that I’m doing so.

In fact, Warrior maintained his distance from Salaita’s candidacy, and shame on those of you who are spreading this rumor in order to delegitimize him and my unit.

The fact that I even have to state in public that we did our due diligence, that our process and findings were affirmed at the college, provostial, and even by the Chancellor’s own Vice Chancellors, is itself a shameful testimony into just what kind of environment our leadership has plunged us.

Let me state it in the most simple of terms:  this case was a routine academic hire, properly vetted all the way up to where substance matters, and because it concerned tenure, it received additional vetting at the national and international levels.

Contrary to all the accolades about her courage and bravado from people who don’t understand academic process, and from people who do, but support her for other reasons, the only courage that Chancellor Wise needed was to simply tell those donors and lobbyists that the case had been properly vetted and that she stands by the academic process. Period.

For it was actually she and President Easter and the BOT who opened the floodgates by, in effect, capitulating to external pressure to block Salaita’s hire, whether or not she based her decision on their interests.

The simple fact is that she involved herself on non-academic grounds and made a decision on the most unscholarly of approaches and in the most clandestine of ways, with the blessings of the Board and the President – or was it at their behest? – to indeed block Salaita’s hire on decidedly non-academic terms. Of course, it is precisely the contention of thousands upon thousands of scholars, particularly in but not limited to the humanities and social sciences, but scholars of conscience nonetheless, and dozens upon dozens of academic organizations, departments, disciplines, that the real casualty is academic excellence itself.

The chilling effects are now upon us. And this is on the Chancellor, not on Salaita.

Three weeks ago, I received an email from an individual, unknown to me, inviting me to “discuss” the Salaita case at some undisclosed venue in Danville.

Even a cursory read of the letter reveals it to be something other than a genuine interest in civil dialogue, as for instance, when its author addresses me – addresses me -- as “foaming in the mouth” in support of a “rabid” Salaita, who is further described as “anti-Jewish” in a sentence that also conflates Palestine with Hamas.

Contrary to what you’ve heard from a well orchestrated and financed smear campaign aimed at stopping Salaita’s hire because of his political viewpoints, it is in fact reductive and sloppy to equate Salaita’s anti-Zionist stance with anti-Jewish or anti-Semitist ideology, or to equate Palestine with Hamas. Apparently, he has also been charged with siding with ISIS even if he was actually condemning that group in the same period in which he was vehemently condemning Israel’s military assault on Palestinians.  Had Salaita only tweeted about Isis, I dare say that I would not be standing here today discussing the grave consequences of the Salaita debacle.

For what was especially ominous in that letter was how it also urged me to bring to the meeting way over there in Danville, “some of the Palestinian students” from UIUC.  The targeting of this particular group of students should not be trivialized given how the author equates Palestine with terrorism. Nobody can read this letter and conclude that it intends anything other than something sinister passing as an invitation to dialogue.

I received this letter for no other reason than my public defense of Salaita and my disagreement with the University on academic terms.  Precisely because the University musters all of its authority and resources so, we have now arrived at the point wherein to publicly disagree with the University is to be virtually cast as a supporter of terrorism, if not a terrorist.

Neither I nor Prof. Salaita are rabid dogs who hate Jewish people. The preponderance of the evidence show him to be not only a stellar, but also a beloved teacher, one fully capable of subordinating or bracketing his politics in favor of student learning and real critical thinking. Passion, of course, is a prerequisite for compassion, and when combined with the demands and rigors of dispassionate analyses, they become prerequisites for cutting-edge scholarship.

My claims here are best grasped on the grounds of academic discourse, and the negative consequences when these aren’t adhered to. To date, the Chancellor has yet to look us in the eye and explain her actions to us.  I also seriously doubt that she would ever have taken such an action were this a case of a hire in one of the STEM fields, or even in one of the traditional disciplinary departments.  

I think she saw us as collateral damage, but underestimated just how damaging her actions would be for the Humanities and the Social Sciences, which probably accounts for her expressions of regret. But these expressions are way too little and way too late.

In closing, like the heads of the 16 departments, I still don’t have confidence in her words, much less on her abilities to safeguard academic integrity. Because sure as it is true that “an attack on one is an attack on all” the other side of the coin rings even more true: that what is good for American Indian Studies as an academic unit is also good for the entire institution. 

This principle of unit autonomy is the bedrock of shared governance, which is key to proper academic governance, whose ultimate objective is to safeguard academic integrity and excellence.  All other concerns must serve this mission because that is what we do and who we are.

And so, when the Chancellor and her supporters on campus urge us to pick up the pieces and move on, their words ring as vacuous, as hypocritical, and therefore as outrageous as the administration’s reasons for targeting and pre-empting Salaita’s academic hire in the first place.

Thus I call upon the senate to rise and express moral and, I shall coin a term here, academic outrage at the administration’s decision. By its own admission, this leadership – including some in our own body’s leadership – have placed political and other considerations above academics. 

And if, under this new regime, civility be the condition for expressing academic freedom and excellence, then let the appropriate expression be that of civil disobedience.  Move on?  Colleagues, the work of reclaiming this university from those who would sell it to the highest bidder under the suspect mantra of civility has only just begun.  Stand up, stand up like Trustee Montgomery, who had the audacity to look at the evidence, and admit he was wrong in initially supporting the Chancellor. Stand up for academic integrity and the academic excellence that is staked on it.

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