Mukund Rathi

In this Monday, Sept. 22, 2014 photo, protesters stand in the back with signs during the University of Illinois’ Faculty Senate meeting in Urbana, Ill., where university Chancellor Phyllis Wise spoke about the decision not to hire professor Steven Salaita over his profane, anti-Israel Twitter messages.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robin Scholz | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: Rathi is a student who has been involved in a campaign of UT students, staff and faculty against the implementation of Shared Services, which is part of the “Business Productivity” plan mentioned in this article.

Over the summer, Steven Salaita resigned from his tenured position at Virginia Tech to take up a faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After Salaita readied himself to move with his family, ordered course books and had even been invited to the faculty welcome luncheon, he was informed by UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise that his appointment would not be submitted for what was supposed to be a symbolic confirmation by the Board of Trustees. Weeks later, Wise finally released a statement explaining the sudden rejection — her objection was to unspecified “personal and disrespectful words” that Salaita allegedly used, which contradict traditions of “civility.”

In August, Inside Higher Ed published its findings from an open records request for communications regarding the Salaita appointment, and they “show that Wise was lobbied on the decision not only by pro-Israel students, parents and alumni, but also by the fund-raising arm of the university.” The emails sent to Wise object to Salaita’s outraged tweets during the recent Israeli military invasion of Gaza — the invasion destroyed much of the occupied territory and killed over 2,000 Palestinians (disproportionately more children than adults). Tweets cited in the emails include: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”

The criterion of “civility” that drove Wise’s decision has never been an accepted scholarly norm, as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has long held that such a criterion is used to “[ensure] homogeneity” and “threaten academic freedom.” The UIUC faculty search committee that hired Salaita, unlike Wise, included legitimate criteria such as peer and student evaluations from his eight years at Virginia Tech. These evaluations consistently (over 90 percent) attest not only to Salaita’s “knowledge of subject,” but also “concern and respect” for students, pre-emptively addressing Wise’s (illegitimate) concerns about “civility.”  In a statement of support for Salaita, AAUP noted that Wise’s overriding decision may also violate the academic freedom of those “Illinois faculty members who recommended hiring him.”

The anti-Salaita campaign was a concerted effort, as “most of the emails [to Wise] … are nearly identical, suggesting the use of talking points or shared drafts.” One email from a longtime donor states, “Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending,” and that “this is doubly unfortunate for the school” as he has “accumulated quite a balance sheet over [his] 35 year career.” The senior director of development for the University of Illinois Foundation, which handles fundraising and donor relations, forwarded to Wise “a letter complaining about the Salaita hire.” Moreover, a cover-up by UIUC is becoming increasingly apparent, as documents about the decision-making process are being withheld. Wise sent an email to the Foundation which noted that during a meeting with a major donor, “he gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling.” The Electronic Intifada, a nonprofit news source on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Palestinian perspective, FOIA’d this document, and was rejected with the dubious reason that “no records responsive to [the] request could be located.”

The rejection of Salaita is part of a wider campaign in academia against Palestinian solidarity. In March 2014, for example, Northeastern University suspended the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for their activism. SJP had been distributing “mock eviction” leaflets to raise awareness about Israeli expansion into the occupied Palestinian territories. Moreover, the administration launched a police investigation and threatened to expel involved students. However, students are fighting back against these anti-Palestinian politics. The SJP chapter was reinstated after, as The Electronic Intifada puts it, “an outpouring of condemnation by Northeastern SJP activists and supporters across the US.” TV news and syndicated radio program “Democracy Now!” reported that “thousands of academics have signed petitions calling for Salaita’s reinstatement, and several lecturers have canceled appearances in protest.” The Texas State Employees Union passed a resolution, submitted by UT communication studies professor Dana Cloud, in support of Salaita. The resolution notes that “all public employees should be able to speak their mind without fear of losing their jobs” and “labor should not abstain from movements for social justice.”

Students, staff and faculty at UT should be particularly concerned about donor-corporatization of the University and its effect on our community’s free expression. President William Powers Jr. has been touting the importance of the recently completed Campaign for Texas, a fundraising program that successfully raised $3 billion from donors. Infographics on the campaign’s website emphasize “the need for philanthropy,” and Powers has stated that this undergirds core academic projects such as “[helping] our faculty change the world through their research and scholarship.” Powers has long pushed for commercializing faculty, having advocated the January 2013 “Business Productivity” report which recommended restricting recruiting and funding to “commercially relevant activity among faculty.” That report was authored by 13 businesspeople, led by Accenture executive Steve Rohleder, who were given $1 million by the University for these recommendations. As Palestine solidarity activism continues on our campus, we must be vigilant of attempts by the increasingly corporatized UT administration to follow in UIUC’s censoring footsteps.

Rathi is a computer science honors junior from Austin.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Students filled the back of the Student Activity Center’s legislative assembly room during three student leadership meetings last week to oppose a proposal that may recommend an increase in tuition next year.

An ad hoc committee including seven student leaders will submit a proposal that may increase tuition by up to 2.6 percent for in-state undergraduate students and 3.6 percent for out-of-state undergraduate students, which works out to increases of $127 and $609 per long semester, respectively. The proposal will not recommend an increase for graduate student tuition.

By Wednesday, the committee must submit a proposal to President William Powers Jr. who will then make his own recommendations to the UT System Board of Regents. The board typically sets tuition for two-year periods every other year and in the past, has announced its decision during its scheduled May meeting. This time, the board will only set tuition for one academic year.

Computer science sophomore Mukund Rathi, who has protested the proposal, said he was disappointed by the process the student leaders used to court student feedback.

“It’s worth pointing out that, while the student leaders have said they want a full discussion of this issue, their only attempt to contact the student body was one email sent out on the Friday before spring break,” said Rathi, who is a former Daily Texan columnist.

Typically, an advisory committee is created as early as August and committee members meet for months to hammer out a proposal based on directives issued by the regents. This year, the regents originally issued a directive forbidding tuition increases for all in-state undergraduate students, so the advisory committee recommended in December to increase tuition for only out-of-state students. On Feb. 25, the regents issued a new directive allowing a maximum of a 2.6 percent increase.

Andrew Clark, Senate of College Councils president who was a member of both the original and newly formed committees, said that, along with the email, the Senate, Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly used social media as a way to reach out and inform students of the meetings in addition to the email they sent before spring break.

Rathi said he would have preferred to see fliers and announcements made in class to reach out to more students in what became a shortened time frame following the new directives.

“There hasn’t really been a serious attempt made to involve students in this very short time frame of discussion,” Rathi said. “These people on the ad hoc committee should demand a longer time frame from the regents.”

Rathi also said the committee should consider asking the regents to allocate money from the Permanent University Fund to the Available University Fund to offset the cost of tuition. 

The Permanent University Fund is a 137-year-old state endowment that supports the UT and Texas A&M Systems. Though, according to the Texas Constitution, the fund cannot be spent, the fund’s assets are invested and a portion of the profit makes up the Available University Fund. Money from the Available University funds can be used in more flexible ways, including covering university costs.

“It’s supposed to be used to maintain UT-Austin, so there is no constitutional reason that the regents should be withholding those funds,” Rathi said. “The amount they need to allocate from the permanent funds is only a fraction of interest, which is generated on the fund each year.”

Linguistics graduate student Adam Tallman said, even though graduate student tuition will not be considered in the revised proposal, he believes the regents could change tuition every year if students do not resist.

“If you don’t question them and you give them too much leeway, then they could increase graduate students’ tuition,” Tallman said.

The students on the ad hoc committee sent a letter to the Board of Regents on Monday explaining their frustration with the limited time frame they were given to complete the proposal.

“I’m personally very frustrated by the lack of time,” Clark said. “If it is clear that this is not just something UT-Austin is unsatisfied with, we’ll definitely be making sure that opinion is heard loud and clear with the Board of Regents.”