Last month, I wrote about a report by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), which recommended the university reconsider its decision not to hire professor Steven Salaita following a series of controversial tweets on his personal Twitter account last summer. The report emphasized that the university’s desire for faculty to maintain a standard of “civility” cannot trump principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom. CAFT also found that Chancellor Phyllis Wise disregarded principles of shared governance in blocking Salaita’s appointment without consulting other administrators and faculty.
Despite these findings, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees announced yesterday that it would not reconsider its decision. It wrote, in part:
As Trustees of the University of Illinois we will always listen carefully and thoughtfully to recommendations of every voice in the University, including the fundamental touchstones of any institution of higher learning: the faculty, students and administration.
Here, the decision concerning Dr. Salaita was not reached hastily. Nor was it the result of external pressures. The decision did not present a “new approach” to the consideration of proposed faculty appointments. It represented the careful exercise of each Board member’s fiduciary duty and a balancing of all of the interests of the University of Illinois.
This outcome is sure to chill faculty discussions on a range of important topics. As FIRE and other free speech advocates have argued, much speech deemed not civil—as Salaita’s apparently was by Wise—is nevertheless an important part of political debates, and the vast majority of “uncivil” speech is constitutionally protected. What’s more, speech considered civil by some is frequently considered uncivil by others, and granting colleges the power to penalize certain speech according to this vague criterion can only chill speech further.
All universities, but particularly public institutions like UIUC, should affirm that there is no right not to be offended, and that professors must remain free to explore controversial ideas even when others may find them hurtful. Instead, Wise and the UIUC Board have sent the message that professors must be careful what viewpoints they espouse, even when speaking as private citizens.