Settling With Salaita

U of Illinois settles with professor unhired for his controversial remarks on Twitter. He'll get cash but not the job he wanted.

November 13, 2015
Steven Salaita

After 15 months, two lawsuits, a chancellor's resignation, an academic censure and a boycott, the University of Illinois settled with Steven Salaita on Thursday. The price tag for the university’s unhiring of the controversial professor last year due to his anti-Israel tweets? Some $875,000, including a $600,000 lump sum to Salaita and additional funds to cover his hefty legal fees. While the figure was a bit lower than some had suspected, given the magnitude of the case, it appeared to please both parties.

“This is an important victory, even if the bigger fight isn’t over,” Salaita wrote on his Facebook page as the University of Illinois System’s Board of Trustees approved the deal. “At this point I am ready to move beyond this particular matter and continue doing what I love -- teaching, writing, organizing and contributing in whatever way I can to struggles for justice.”

The university issued its own statement, saying that the settlement means Salaita will drop his pending legal claims against Illinois, including a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and First Amendment violations.

Illinois “believes that reaching a settlement with [Salaita] is the most reasonable option to fully and finally conclude all of the pending issues,” Barbara Wilson, interim chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus, said. “Although the amount is significant, it is less than what we would spend if the case were to continue and proceed to trial over the next year.”

Wilson replaced Chancellor Phyllis Wise as head of Illinois’s flagship campus this year. Wise resigned after a year of criticism from faculty members and others over her actions regarding Salaita -- including not turning over all emails related to her decision to unhire him as a professor of American Studies last August, when concerns about his controversial, anti-Israel rhetoric on social media surfaced.

The new chancellor said Thursday that “considerable time and energy have gone into this case and it is time now to move forward.”

Maria LaHood, one of Salaita’s attorneys and deputy legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said via email that it would be “hard” to say who initiated the settlement, but that the university already had suffered a series of losses, including a censure by the American Association of University Professors and preliminary vindication of Salaita’s legal claims. Echoing Salaita and Wilson, LaHood said, “It was time to move forward.”

Salaita is currently teaching at the American University in Beirut on a one-year contract. It’s unclear what he’ll do next, but one thing is clear: Salaita won’t be teaching at Illinois, since the settlement specifies he’ll stop trying to get a job there.

Urbana-Champaign faced an academic boycott and criticism from many of its professors for how it treated Salaita. Among those critics was Kirk Sanders, associate professor and chair of philosophy. Sanders said he understood Salaita’s willingness to settle rather pursue the matter in court, “despite the clear merits of his case.”

At the same time, he said, concerns about the university’s commitment to academic freedom and shared governance linger with a settlement, as opposed to Salaita’s full reinstatement. Sanders noted that AAUP’s report on academic freedom and shared governance issues in the Salaita case, on which the June censure vote was based, suggested a retraction or clarification of Wise’s initial justification for firing Salaita: that his comments were “uncivil.” The term offended many professors, including many who disagree with Salaita's politics, who said it was chilling to academic freedom.

“Now that the legal issues surrounding [Salaita’s] firing seem to have been resolved, one hopes that such a retraction will soon follow,” Sanders said.

Henry Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said it would be premature to comment on how the settlement will affect the university's censure status. But he said the organization’s been in contact with Wilson and remains “willing and able to continue working with the university to see it get off the censure list.”

Typically a university must offer appropriate redress to the aggrieved party or parties and make policy changes to prevent the academic freedom or shared governance violation from happening again that satisfy the campus faculty to get off the list.

While Salaita has many supporters, others have defended the university’s decision to prevent him from working there, even at the last minute. Among them is Cary Nelson, a professor of English at Urbana-Champaign. Nelson said via email that an agreement had been reached that “apparently satisfies all parties. I had urged a financial settlement from the outset.”


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