News Local/State

Trustees Reject Salaita Hire On 8-1 Vote

Backers of Prof. Salaita at the U of I Trustees meeting.

A number of protesters were in the crowd for Thursday's U of I Trustees meeting, most of them backing Prof. Salaita (Hannah Meisel)

The University of Illinois board of trustees voted Thursday not to hire Steven Salaita, the professor whose job offer was withdrawn after he posted controversial, anti-Israel comments on Twitter.

Thursday's meeting was the first time the board publicly addressed the Salaita issue and the first time Salaita supporters could speak directly to the trustees. For weeks, Salaita supporters wanted the trustees to vote up or down on his appointment. In the end, it was one in favor, eight against.

After an hour of discussion, the tone of the meeting gauged by the cheers or hisses from 50 or so protesters, U of I President Robert Easter summed up the argument for those opposed to hiring Salaita. He said he believes that Salaita would not be able to run a classroom where conflicting opinions were treated equally.  

"I’m also concerned that his irresponsible public statements would make it more difficult for the university, and particularly the Urbana-Champaign campus, to attract the best and brightest students, faculty and staff," he said.

Both sides argued they were acting to protect the interests of students and the integrity of the university.

Salaita was offered a job last Fall, teaching in the American Indian Studies department. In early August, after his anti-Israel tweets that some called anti-Semitic, that offer was rescinded by Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

She said at the time that the board was unlikely to approve his appointment.  

While a number of wealthy donors emailed the Chancellor and threatened to stop giving money to the university, board chairman Christopher Kennedy said the decision has nothing to do with pressure from donors.

He described those accusations as untrue and unfair.

"I mean that really is consistent with this use of code to say that anti-Semitic thinking to say that it's really the rich Jews influencing everybody in society," he said.

The one trustee who voted in favor of Salaita was James Montgomery, an attorney from Chicago.

He stressed the importance of free speech and recalled his own efforts as a young, black student protesting discrimination on campus at the U of I. 

His vote, he said, was in support of empowering faculty under the rules of shared governance, He suggested it’s time to move past the controversy.

“We’ve had some very bad miscues at this University over the last few years that I’ve been a member of the board," he said.  "We’ve made some bad choices, we’ve made some bad decisions and we’ve gotten a bad name as a result of it. I don’t think that we need to add to that at this point in time.”

But Montgomery’s vote was outweighed by his eight colleagues, at the end of the meeting, when protesters angrily marched out.

Salaita's situation has led faculty in some university departments to approve votes of no confidence in Wise and has led academics from elsewhere to cancel several appearances at the university.  

Robert Warrior heads the American Indian Studies program at the U of I and was part of the committee that recommended the university hire Salaita.

After the vote, he said that this issue is much bigger than one person or one position -  it’s about the future of the university.

“There will be a lot of people who say they’d rather go someplace else, whether they’re currently on this faculty or when somebody has two job offers, do they want to go to UCLA or do they want to come to Illinois?," he said.  "That a lot of those people will say they’d rather go someplace where the board isn’t going to shoot them down, where the chancellor isn’t going to shoot them down.  The ramifications are real and they’re going to be felt for a long time to come.”

Warrior said the issue is far from over, and that his department has decided not to work with the Chancellor, the President or the board of trustees on any issues until this is resolved.

Salaita was not at the meeting but said in a statement that he was disappointed by the vote.

At a news conference Tuesday on the Urbana campus, has said he still wants to work at the U of I, and will fight for his position -- in court if necessary.