Outspoken professor sues U. of I. for lost job

Anti-Israeli tweets cited by officials who pulled offer.

By: Michaelle Manchir & Jodi S. Cohen, Chicago Tribune: January 29th, 2015

Controversial professor Steven Salaita, whose job offer at the University of Illinois was withdrawn last year after he made anti-Israel comments on social media, has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging breach of contract and violation of his free speech rights.

The suit was filed Thursday against eight members of the university’s board of trustees, several of its top administrators and unknown donors who he says put pressure on school officials to rescind his job offer. He seeks his previously offered job and unspecified compensation for “violations of his constitutional rights, including free speech and due process.”

Salaita, 39, accepted the U. of I. position, a tenured faculty job in American Indian studies, in October 2013 and resigned from his position on the faculty at Virginia Tech University later that academic year in anticipation of starting at the U. of I. last fall. But Chancellor Phyllis Wise began raising concerns about his Twitter posts in July 2014 after getting feedback from donors, students and parents.

Over the summer, Salaita posted prolifically about the Israeli government and its military actions in Gaza, sometimes dozens of times a day. He often focused on the number of children killed in the conflict. His academic interests are colonialism and the Middle East, and the last book he published was titled “Israel’s Dead Soul.”

Urbana-Champaign campus officials pulled his job offer in August, and the U. of I. board of trustees affirmed that decision in an 8-1 vote in September.

According to the lawsuit, the vote came after at least three donors wrote letters to Wise that indicated they disagreed with Salaita’s views and were reconsidering their donations to the school. One of them, according to the lawsuit, was a self-described “multiple 6 figure donor” who wrote that his and his wife’s “support is ending as we vehemently disagree” with Salaita.

A two-page statement Thursday from the university regarding the lawsuit said it will “vigorously defend” against the complaint’s “meritless claims.”

The university went on to say that Salaita’s job offer from the school was “at all times subject to the ultimate approval of the Board of Trustees” and that “at no time was Dr. Salaita hired as a faculty member.”

The statement also listed some of Salaita’s controversial tweets and said “these statements and many more like them demonstrate that Dr. Salaita lacks the judgment, temperament and thoughtfulness to serve as a member of our faculty in any capacity, but particularly to teach courses related to the Middle East.”

The board’s decision to reject Salaita’s hiring led to protests on campus and a national debate in academia over whether the U. of I. violated his free speech rights and academic freedom — the principle that protects faculty members who have unpopular and controversial views. Faculty unrest about the decision continued through the fall semester, and a faculty report last month found that the U. of I. erred in the process used to rescind Salaita’s job offer, though it also found there could have been valid reasons not to hire him.

The board of trustees last month issued a statement to make clear that its September decision was final. That set the stage for Salaita to either file a lawsuit or work to negotiate a settlement. University officials had previously said the school would compensate Salaita, including for lost wages.

In a phone call with reporters and his attorneys Thursday, Salaita, when asked, indicated he may not be willing to accept a settlement because “we don’t want a type of precedence to be established wherein … people can be fired for their speech.”

“It’s not as simple as my personal circumstance,” Salaita added.

The lawsuit claims that Salaita’s “academic career is in shambles.” He has not been hired at another university and has spent the past few months speaking at campuses across the country.

Salaita has described his Twitter language as “passionate and unfiltered” and has said his approach in the classroom is different, one in which he encourages debate.

The court decision could come down to whether Salaita was an employee or an almost-hire when the job was rescinded.


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