University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – 2014 – 2017

Faculty position withdrawn after controversial tweets

Champaign, IL

Steven Salaita’s controversial tweets regarding Israel prompted the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to revoke a previous offer for Salaita to become a tenured faculty member. Salaita sued the university and was awarded $875,000 in a settlement. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) censured the university for violating Salaita’s due process rights and First Amendment freedoms. The censure was lifted in 2017.

Key Players

Steven Salaita planned to begin teaching American Indian studies as a tenured faculty member at the Urbana-Champaign campus in 2014. However, profane and controversial remarks regarding Israel, made on his Salaita’s personal Twitter account, drew national media attention and prompted university administrators to revoke the offer.

Phyllis M. Wise served as chancellor of the university at the time. She declined to forward Salaita’s appointment to the board of trustees, effectively revoking his job offer. Wise resigned as chancellor in August 2015.

Further Details

Steven Salaita planned to begin teaching at the flagship campus of the University of Illinois in the fall of 2014, having been offered a position on the school’s faculty in October 2013. However, university administrators revoked Salaita’s job offer at the last minute, due to controversial comments he had made regarding Israel on his personal twitter account. In July 2014, conservative news outlets, including The Daily Caller, began publicizing tweets that Salaita had authored in which he used vulgar language to accuse Israel’s government of violence. Labeling Salaita a “world-class Israel hater,” The Daily Caller highlighted a selection of his tweets, including “Ever wonder what it would look like if the KKK had F-16s and access to a surplus population of entrapped minorities? See #Israel and #Gaza,” and “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.”

Publicity surrounding Salaita’s tweets prompted supporters of Israel to contact the university and criticize “its decision to hire someone they regarded as an anti-Semite and a threat to Jewish students,” reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. School administrators were initially supportive of Salaita. In July 2014, a spokesman for the university told the News-Gazette that “Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.” However, in August 2014, Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise refused to submit Salaita’s offer of a tenured professorship to the board of trustees for approval. Although Salaita had received a letter containing a job offer from Brian Ross, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in October 2013, the letter also mentioned that his position would not be final until the board of trustees had approved hiring him. The Chronicle reports that “the board generally approves, as a matter of routine, the list of faculty appointments brought before it at meetings.” By refusing to forward his offer to the board, Chancellor Wise, along with Christopher Pierre, vice president for academic affairs, effectively revoked Salaita’s offer. While Wise and Pierre did not specifically mention Salaita’s tweet in their letter informing him of their decision to withhold his offer, they did write that “they believed the board’s approval of his appointment was unlikely,” according to The Chronicle.

Salaita sued the university in federal court for “conspir[ing] to breach his contract, violat[ing] his free-speech rights under the First Amendment, and deny[ing] him academic due process,” according to The Chronicle. Salaita also accused the university of intentionally inflicting emotional distress on him and destroying evidence related to his case. While U.S. District Court Judge Harry D. Leinenweber dismissed the latter two claims, in a ruling in August 2015, he strongly condemned the university’s decision to rescind its offer to Salaita. Judge Leinenweber rejected “the university’s assertion that it can invalidate faculty job offers at the last minute, through a board vote that most faculty members and administrators regard as a rubber-stamp element of the employment process,” reports The Chronicle. Judge Leinenweber wrote, “If the court accepted the university’s argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist, because no professor would resign a tenure position, move states, and start teaching at a new college based on an ‘offer’ that was absolutely meaningless until after the semester already started.”

In August 2015, Wise announced her resignation as chancellor. Following a sabbatical, she will “serve as a tenured faculty member in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology,” said The Chronicle. Wise did not specify the reason for her resignation, saying in a statement, “External issues have arisen over the past year that have distracted us from the important tasks at hand. I have concluded that these issues are diverting much-needed energy and attention from our goals. I therefore believe the time is right for me to step aside,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

In a settlement announced in November 2015, the university agreed to pay Salaita $875,000 on the condition that he not pursue employment opportunities there in the future, according to The Chronicle. Salaita is no longer interested in joining the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a member of his legal team told The Chronicle. Instead, he accepted a position at the American University of Beirut.

The AAUP strongly criticized the University of Illinois’ handling of Salaita’s situation. In 2015, it added the campus to a list of censored institutions. The censure was lifted, however, at the AAUP’s annual meeting in June 2017. Although some members of the AAUP argued that the university “has not demonstrated clear and convincing evidence that it will adhere to AAUP principles and policies,” the organization found that the school’s administration had complied with the conditions originally established by the AAUP for removal from the list of censured institutions, reports The Chronicle.

Salaita’s situation prompted discussion in the academic community about the process by which jobs are offered and accepted. Board approval of faculty hires, sometimes after the new faculty members have started teaching, is a common practice at institutions of higher education, reports The Chronicle. Calling Salaita’s case a “wake up call,” one professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology told The Chronicle, “the harrowing thing for me is that there’s no reason why this couldn’t have been anybody. This is not a special case. This is a thing now. This is a thing we have to ponder and consider.”

Outcome

Professor Won Restitution in Settlement

Salaita was awarded $875,000 in a settlement reached with the University of Illinois. His case was handled by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firm Loevy & Loevy. Salaita subsequently accepted a position at the American University of Beirut.

The AAUP lifted the censure of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign more than two years after the incident occurred

In 2015, the AAUP censored the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for violating Salaita’s due process rights and academic freedoms. The censure was lifted at the AAUP’s annual meeting in 2017.

External References:

A Divided AAUP Lifts Censure on U. of Illinois, The Chronicle of Higher Education

AAUP Censures U. of Illinois and 3 Other Colleges, Vows to Fight On in Wisconsin, The Chronicle of Higher Education

U. of Illinois Settles the Salaita Case, but Will That Help It Move On?, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Avoiding a Showdown, U. of Illinois Accepts Resignation of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Court Holds That U. of Illinois Broke Contract in Salaita Case, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Can the Board of Trustees Really Revoke My Job Offer?, The Chronicle of Higher Education

America 2014: University of Illinois Professor Blames Jews for Anti-Semitism, The Daily Caller

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

August 22, 2017