Salaita and the Missing Trustee Oversight

A few weeks ago, I commented on a recent report shepherded through by Benno Schmidt, chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees, on the need for a heftier trustee role in university governance. (I co-signed the report and strongly endorse its conclusions.) The report covered considerable ground, but some of its most thought-provoking recommendations involved personnel matters.

Regarding the faculty, the report touched on two areas where trustees need to play a more active role to fulfill the checks and balances necessary for a system of shared governance. First, the report envisioned a more robust role by trustees in ensuring basic elements of pedagogical or intellectual diversity on campus. The problem is most apparent in U.S. history, where the past generation’s pattern at too many departments has been to exclude or revise beyond recognition areas deemed too “traditional,” such as political, constitutional, diplomatic, or military history. But the issue has emerged in some departments of English, Sociology, and Political science as well.

The second shared governance recommendation regarding personnel matters to come from the Schmidt Report suggests the need for more trustee oversight in outlier actions. That is: envision the academic hiring process as a type of bell curve. Most hires are clearly defensible, if not always perhaps the best choice, and trustee or administrative intervention would cause more harm than good by threatening to erode academic freedom. But at the fringes of the bell curve, a breakdown has occurred, and trustees must act. At one end of the bell curve comes clearly qualified candidates opposed by the faculty majority for academically improper reasons. I obviously have first-hand experience with this, and the CUNY trustees’ handling of my tenure case is a good model.

At the other end of the bell curve comes clearly unqualified candidates, who obtain a majority in the hiring process from like-minded faculty, though again for academically improper reasons. In the news lately, the clearest example of this problem comes with Steven Salaita’s aborted hire at the University of Illinois. It’s virtually inconceivable that for a position in American Indian Studies, the most qualified person in a fair search could be a candidate whose academic publications (set aside entirely his vile tweets) revolve around an obsession with Israel and Israeli government policies. It’s not hard to imagine, however, that a department that seems strongly anti-Zionist could have wanted to hire a fellow anti-Zionist such as Salaita, and would find a way to manipulate the search criteria to bring someone like Salaita aboard.

If university administrators—acting on their own initiative, or from the express command of trustees to look out for such marginal hires—had stepped in at an early stage, the Salaita affair never would have blown up for the University of lllinois. No academic search occurs on a departmental island: clearly someone in the Illinois administration encountered Salaita’s candidacy before the offer was made. Why didn’t the administration ask some hard questions about why the American Indian Studies Department wanted to hire someone whose scholarship, such as it is, focuses on Israel? And given the odd nature of the appointment, why didn’t someone in the administration take a glance at Salaita’s scholarship. Does the University of Illinois, for instance, normally extend tenured offers to professors whose academic publications include such bizarre assertions as “it is well known by Palestinians that anytime one of them enters or exits Israel, regardless of nationality, he or she will likely undergo an anal or vaginal probe. These probes… aren’t intended to be pragmatic. They are acts of psychological domineering and political assertion. The agents of these coercive actions are rehearsing their own depravity through fulfillment of their Orientalist notions of Arab and Muslim sexuality”?

It’s easy to see why defenders of the status quo would feel threatened by the Schmidt Report. (The head of the Brooklyn College branch of the CUNY faculty union recently denounced the report, which he bizarrely called a “book” even as he misspelled Schmidt’s name.) But the Salaita case shows that more active trustee oversight regarding unqualified appointments serves the interest of everyone. In this case, the university community, the American Indian Studies Department, and Salaita himself would have been better served if the trustees had exercised oversight at an earlier stage.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

3 thoughts on “Salaita and the Missing Trustee Oversight

  1. My own reading of the Salaita case is that a big part of the problem is that faculty of the American Indian Studies program at UIUC are clearly not competent to conduct a faculty search. This is probably also true of many university departments where intellectual values have largely been abandoned.

    In every talk I’ve ever been to as a graduate student, where they tell us about future job prospects, I am told again and again that a major part of getting tenure is your ability to get grants. i.e. your ability to bring money to the university. It was clear that Salaita would not only fail to bring money to the university, but he would be a huge financial liability. UIUC has already been having serious financial problems–and these problems get passed on to students in terms of tuition. Keeping Salaita would contribute to rising tuition rates, y for working and middle class students, and student debt. There are times when it is necessary to take a stand and support an unpopular stance, even if it means financial loss. Defending “Let’s cut to the chase: If you are defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” or “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948” is not one of those times, especially for someone who didn’t have tenure.

  2. It’s mind-boggling that K.C. Johnson imagines that trustees will only intervene in the rare cases when mistakes happen, and academics make the wrong judgments. Considering that most trustees get their positions because of their money and influence (by donating to a college, or to a politician), and have no academic expertise whatsoever, it seems highly unlikely that they can identify academic mistakes. And it seems much more likely that trustees will intervene for wholly illegitimate reasons to reject a qualified academic candidate for non-academic reasons, as in the Salaita case (notice how Johnson focuses on his own utterly incorrect theories of Salaita’s lack of academic qualifications, rather than the actual reason why Salaita was dismissed, for expressing offensive and controversial opinions).

    1. You’re absolutely correct to doubt the wisdom of inviting trustees to play a more larger role in faculty appointments, and for the reasons that you stated. But please take a look at Salaita’s CV. There is almost nothing in it indicating research/writing about Native American studies. As far as I can tell, everyone fell down on the job with this appointment/non-appointment.

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