Salaita’s Desire For His Job Back Never A Reality Under Negotiations

November 13, 2015
 
Steve Salaita at the University of Illinois last September.

Steve Salaita, who lost a job offer from the University of Illinois over dozens of profane Twitter messages that critics deemed anti-Semitic, speaks to students and reporters during a news conference at the University of Illinois YMCA on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014.

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

The University of Illinois is officially done with the case of Steven Salaita, the professor whose job offer there was rescinded last year. The U of I will pay out almost $900,000 to end the 14 month-long legal battle with Salaita.

The professor himself will pocket $600,000 of that money, and the rest will go toward paying legal expenses. That sum, plus the money the University has already spent fighting the case adds up to $2.2 million. This comes just days after the school told students they might be on the hook for their own financial aid dollars if the state's budget impasse continues.

Barb Wilson, interim chancellor for the U of I's Urbana campus says the settlement feels fair, given the disruption Salaita and his family went through.

"So we feel some amount of compensation is reasonable and appropriate given that situation," she told reporters Thursday.

That's as far as any University official went in accepting responsibility for the way the school handled the un-hiring of Professor Salaita.

Back in the fall of 2013, Salaita was offered a tenured position in the American Indian Studies department on the U of I's Urbana campus. The professor delayed his start date to August of 2014. But a little over a month before he was set to begin his term, Salaita's sometimes profane tweets about the conflict between Israel and Hamas was brought to the attention of school officials. Salaita's job offer, which was all-but rubber stamped at that point, was revoked, something the University still maintains it had every right to do.

In September of last year, the professor visited campus to tell lhis side of the story. He received a warm welcome by student, staff and faculty supporters

“I’m here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies Program at UIUC," Salaita told a crowd of hundreds in the University YMCA.

In the year-long legal battle that followed, Salaita maintained that he just wanted the job that had been promised to him.

But as time passed, the professor eventually got another job offer -- a one-year appointment at the American University of Beirutt. He also wrote a book about his experience with the U of I.

While in town promoting his book last month, Salaita spoke with WILL. His demeanor was softer when asked if he still wanted to teach at the University.

"Sure," he said. "There are effective ways of reaching out to people and communicating with folks..."

By that time, however, it's likely Salaita knew that was never a possibility, as negotiations for a final settlement ramped up. Interim chancellor Wilson says making sure Salaita would never be employed by the U of I was important to campus officials.

"It was a particular point that we were pretty adamant about in mediation and that's where we ended," she said Thursday. "From the beginning, the board has voted about the case and we were pretty clear about what our perspective was on that front."

The perspective? "That we were not going to hire him."

That decision rings fair to Cary Nelson, a longtime proponent of "academic freedom," the free speech ideal afforded to tenured professors--and the one that Salaita says the University violated.

Though Nelson is a First Amendment advocate, the U of I English professor became a major voice last year in the camp defending the university for its decision to rescind Salaita's job.

"The potentially anti-Semitic character of his tweets has become so much a matter of public record and so much a matter of public distress that were he to come now, he would carry a lot of symbolic baggage that I think would be unfortunate for the university in a major way," Nelson said.

Nelson, however, says he always had hoped for a financial settlement for Salaita, considering the professor uprooted his life for the promised job which was then taken away. Nelson initially suggested $1 million for the professor.

Now that the University has settled with Salaita, it's completed the biggest of three steps to overcome the most salient consequence of the whole case: Its official censure from the American Association of University Professors.

In June, the influential organization placed its darkest mark on the U of I, saying the school's un-hiring of Salaita was a clear violation of academic freedom. The censure has caused some academics to cancel talks on the campus, boycotts of the school by professional organizations...the list goes on.

Anita Levy, with the AAUP, says the settlement is a move in the right direction.

"We see it as a necessary step toward censure removal," she said.

However, Levy says the case will have long-lasting consequences for the University.

"But I think it's tarnished their reputation."

For his part, Salaita says he's happy with the outcome of the settlement. His lawyer, Anand Swaminathan, says the professor's wishes evolved with time, and he eventually just wanted to move forward with his life.

"As Professor Salaita made the move to Beirut and began teaching again and got a chance to do what he loves, he reached a point where he decided he wanted to move on from the University of Illinois," he said. "So once that was the case, it made sense to get this case resolved and move on."

In a statement, Salaita says he feels "vindicated" by the settlement, and feels the University's agreement is a "victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment."

Story source: WILL