Phyllis Wise spoke about the importance of diversity in the quest for excellence in higher education on Monday evening at the Knapp Center for Biomedical Discovery. Wise is the chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and the first Asian American to lead a major research university. During the Q&A session, many attendees raised questions about her role in the recent termination of UIUC professor Steven Salaita for his critical tweets of Israel’s actions in Gaza.
Wise emphasized the role of racial and gender diversity in higher education for fostering richer conversation and better solutions to complex societal challenges. “Higher education is the key to the future of the world, and if higher education is not made up of diverse students, faculty, and staff, we’ll never be able to be global leaders,” she said.
Wise’s talk was a part of the Diversity Speakers Series, hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Chicago Medicine and Biological Sciences. Dean of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine Kenneth Polonsky gave the opening remarks.
Wise also spoke of the importance of diversity to a school’s academic success. “Diversity and excellence are so interwoven that you can’t have one without the other,” Wise said. “You cannot be excellent, you cannot be preeminent without being diverse and inclusive, and you cannot be diverse and inclusive without having a goal of excellence and preeminence, so they are inextricably tied.”
During the Q&A session that followed the talk many attendees expressed dissatisfaction with the perceived hypocrisy of Wise’s remarks in light of her actions regarding Salaita. The Palestinian-American professor’s offer to teach in UIUC’s American Indian Studies program was rescinded following controversy over his allegedly anti-Semitic Twitter comments on the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.
“You mentioned that the reason you chose not to hire professor Salaita was his activity on social media,” commented one audience member. “I was wondering if it was the official position of UIUC to judge a professor’s teaching record based on 140 character tweets.”
In response to the various inquiries about the motivation behind the actions taken against professor Salaita, Wise maintained that his un-hiring had nothing to do with his political beliefs.
“We were disquieted by the way he was using social media and did not believe that he could have a classroom that would be inclusive of all students…. We do not hire or promote or retain based upon political views,” she said. “What was interpreted was that the way that he was communicating was intimidating, harassing, and hate speech. And we believe that that is not tolerable in the faculty of our university.”
Several attendees alleged that the Q&A session ended earlier than scheduled, despite many remaining raised hands. Wise was absent from the post-lecture reception.
Third-year Hoda Katebi expressed her disappointment at not being able to share her thoughts.
“As someone who stands for human rights and the freedom of speech, I had a lot of trouble reconciling many of the things Wise was saying,” she said. “It’s definitely a contradiction and a hypocrisy to shut down the Q&A of someone who’s talking about freedom of speech.”
Wise’s talk was the second in the annual series.