News Local/State

Does Prof. Salaita Have A Compelling Argument For Reinstatement?


Professor Steven Salaita won't be at today's U of I Board of Trustees meeting, but his presence will be felt.  He's been at the center of controversy since his tenured position was rescinded.  And in a last minute change, the Trustees will vote on his appointment today.

First, some background.  Last fall, Salaita accepted a position with the American Indian Studies Department at the U of I and resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech.

Then came those controversial tweets about Israel. And By late July, U of I chancellor Phyllis Wise was tipped off that the Board of Trustees wouldn't approve Salaita's hiring, normally little more than a procedural move. Wise says because of the narrow window of time before Salaita was to arrive on campus, she took action quickly -- more quickly than she usually would -- and let Salaita know his job offer was cancelled.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh my goodness, this man must be packing,"  Wise said.  "I can't let him risk bringing his whole family from Virginia all the way to Urbana-Champaign and then not really have a position.'"

But Salaita said there's a flaw in that argument: He claims he has a right to the position promised to him when he accepted his job ... and will fight to get it back.

“I’m here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies Program at UIUC," exclaimed Salaita, upon the start of his press conference at the University YMCA Tuesday.

Salaita said his First Amendment rights were violated and that he's due protections under a concept known as "academic freedom." He said the administration is effectively censoring him by not completing his hire to the tenured position he'd accepted.

"Tenure, a concept that is over 100 years old, is supposed to be an ironclad guarantee that University officials respect these ideals and do not succumb to financial pressure or political expediency by silencing controversial or unpopular views," he said.

But....  does Salaita even have tenure? Can his comments be protected by academic freedom if his hiring wasn't 100 percent official?

Contract law expert Michael Dorf says yes.

Dorf, a professor at Cornell University, said Salaita's acceptance of the job offered to him was the beginning of a contract. Although the Board of Trustees hadn't yet rubber stamped the hire, Dorf says their approval was assumed by Salaita.

Then, Dorf says Salaita's next steps -- like leaving his home, resigning his former position and so on -- were based on reliance of the promise of employment.

Therefore, Dorf believes the University should have acted as if Salaita was already a tenured professor, and he should be protected -- even if his speech offended some.

"Academic freedom is supposed to protect people with a very wide range of substantive views and a very wide range of means of expressing those substantive views," he said.

But other scholars argue there was no contract and aren't so sure Salaita can claim protection under academic freedom.

Cary Nelson, a professor emeritus at the U of I, has long been a defender of academic freedom; from 2006 to 2012, he was head of the American Association of University Professors, which wrote the book on academic freedom.

While the AAUP supports Salaita in this matter, Nelson says Salaita's allies are missing key nuances about the case.

Nelson doesn't think Salaita should be recognized as a tenured professor, as his hiring hinged on a full review of his dossier - which happened last year.

Nelson said Salaita's tweets and other comments about Israel should be taken into consideration now that they've drawn so much attention and criticism.

He said it's not just Salaita's tweets that are concerning; he's read Salaita's books and says their overall tone leads him to believe Salaita's classroom would not be one for open and free discussion when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

"He has a position, a political position, on the Middle East," he said.  "And he explains that position in detail in several of his books. But they're not based on research, they're based on his opinion. So I wouldn't count objectivity as one of the defining characteristics of his work at all."

For her part, Chancellor Wise has been quoted as saying there's "no possibility" of reinstating Salaita, though Salaita's lawyers beg to differ. And though Salaita's case isn't mentioned on the Board of Trustees' agenda, it’s likely to dominate the public comment period. 

U of I Administrators tentatively plan a press conference to follow the conclusion of the board meeting.  A news release specifically says 'a media availability is anticipated.'  

The U of I Board of Trustees meeting begins at the Illini Union at 8 a.m. Thursday, and are scheduled to wrap up at noon.