In Defense of the Humanities: Professor Anna Westerståhl Stenport for Steven Salaita and for the U of I

Professor Anna Westerståhl Stenport of the University of Illinois
Professor Anna Westerståhl Stenport of the University of Illinois

On Tuesday, September 11th, Professor Anna Westerståhl Stenport led the public comments session of the Board of Trustees meeting with a comprehensive and moving statement about what the BoT’s foregone decision stood to do to the humanities. As many have suggested, this assault on the humanities and, to a similar extent, on the social sciences, stands to reason, as these are the ares of the university from which research and thought most challenging to the status quo tend to emanate. Without further ado, Dr. Stenport, in her own, powerful words:

Anna Stenport, University of Illinois:

Public Comments to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, September 11 2014

I have asked to speak to you about matters of institutional advancement and faculty involvement in fundraising and development. I am a tenured faculty member of Scandinavian Studies, an LAS Conrad Humanities Professorial Scholar, and Director of the European Union Center, an interdisciplinary unit representing faculty and students interests from Engineering to Applied Arts. For almost a decade, I have been wholeheartedly dedicated to providing stellar teaching, scholarship, and academic leadership to the UI.

Three weeks ago, I filmed a segment for the University of Illinois Foundation. In the video, I told my story about the positive impact of private giving on my scholarship and teaching. Such funding has a multiplier effect. It benefits the students I teach and advise and it allows me to bring my research out into the world as a public intellectual.

I currently work with advancement staff to garner grants and donations for the many disciplines I represent. Building on past fundraising successes, I had planned to reach out to new potential high contribution donors and private foundations this month. I am now quite reluctant to do so. I am unwilling to be the face of an institution whose Board of Trustees is seen by global media as failing to respect legally protected first amendment rights of free speech, established practices of academic freedom, and the faculty governance structures in place at Illinois. Interference in the Salaita appointment has made it untenable for me to act in good faith as a public figure for the U of I.

I am strongly opposed to the non-instatement of Dr. Salaita. So are the 300 tenured and tenure stream faculty who have publicly stated so.

Interference in the Salaita appointment has inflamed tensions between departments in ways that impede our work and collegiality. It has pitted faculty against faculty, and student against student. Furthermore, the rescission of a hire after approval by American Indian Studies, LAS, and the Office of the Provost, has been interpreted as a reason for the local community and even some faculty members to discredit the contributions of ethnic studies or the humanities writ large.

The humanities necessarily take positions that challenge and concern deeply-held values. They are “controversial.” In that way, Humanities disciplines are critical contributors to the liberal arts education that is the cornerstone of the UI. The Humanities are the repository of the core principles on which a civil and egalitarian society rests. Every UI alum has experienced and learned about these core principles of the Humanities while studying at Illinois. Donors support the Humanities because they believe in these core principles. This kind of education is what private sector employers seek in new hires.

Interference in the Salaita appointment process is wrecking the humanities, and by extension the institution as a whole, right now. Some departments are considering cancelling their own approved faculty searches because they don’t feel that anyone will want to come to a campus where they perceive the Board of Trustees does not respect faculty governance and intellectual freedom. As long as the international boycott is in effect, there will be pressure on them, and good reasons for them, not to accept positions here. This will have catastrophic long-term effects on our ability to recruit and retain the best faculty.

This perilous trajectory has multiple consequences. Not only do our students have a right to be taught by professors who are leaders in their fields; without these faculty, external grants will plummet. Rankings will be impacted. Donors’ willingness to contribute to the Humanities could be eviscerated.

By interfering in university governance, the heart and soul of this great university risks being destroyed. I am calling upon you to recognize the deplorable situation in which we have now been placed. I ask you to reconsider and reverse this damaging course. This will allow my colleagues and I to help the institution and UI students put this behind them as much as they can and for the university to again reach its full potential.

Anna W. Stenport
aws@illinois.edu

Advertisements