Academic Freedom

Salaita to U. of Illinois: ‘Reinstate Me’ or Brace for Legal Fight

Seth Perlman, AP Images

Steven G. Salaita speaks publicly on Tuesday for the first time since his job offer was rescinded. The decision, he says, threatens "principles of free speech, academic freedom, and critical thought that should be the foundation of any university."
September 10, 2014

Steven G. Salaita wants to continue fighting for a job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he’s ready to take legal action if he doesn’t get it.

Mr. Salaita spoke publicly on Tuesday for the first time since the university revoked its offer to him of a tenured professorship, an action that ignited a backlash from many academics and cast a harsh spotlight on the university’s stance on academic freedom.

"I am here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian studies program at UIUC," he told a crowd of about 200 supporters during a news conference at the university YMCA. "I reiterate the demand that the university recognize the importance of respecting the faculty’s hiring decision and reinstate me."

If that’s not possible, his lawyer said, they are prepared to fight back.

"The goal is, of course, to resolve this amicably and work with the university," said Anand Swaminathan, of the Chicago-based law firm Loevy & Loevy, in an interview with The Chronicle. "But if that doesn’t happen, Mr. Salaita is prepared to pursue his legal remedies."

‘Completely Blindsided’

Mr. Salaita, a former professor of English at Virginia Tech, drew scrutiny this summer for a string of profanity-laden tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that some critics denounced as uncivil. Mr. Salaita had accepted a job at Illinois as a tenured professor of American Indian studies, but his appointment was subject to approval by the university’s Board of Trustees.

Typically, those decisions are considered a rubber stamp. But two weeks before the semester began, Urbana-Champaign’s chancellor, Phyllis M. Wise, informed Mr. Salaita that she would not be forwarding his appointment to the board after all. In a letter emailed on August 1, she offered no explanation for the decision, saying only that an affirmative vote by the board was "unlikely." (Documents obtained later by the local newspaper revealed that a number of wealthy donors had protested Mr. Salaita’s hiring.)

Upon reading the email, Mr. Salaita said, he was "completely blindsided."

"There was no warning, no hint, no nothing," he told The Chronicle. "My first thought was, ‘What?’ I probably had to read it eight or nine times before I could accept what it was saying or suggesting. I was stunned."

At the time he received the message, he said, his family was packing up its Virginia home in preparation for the move to Illinois. Mr. Salaita had resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, his wife had resigned her professional position at the same university, and they had made plans for their new life. They had arranged to leave their home, had hired a moving company, and were less than two weeks away from closing the deal on a new condo.

Now, he said in his remarks at the news conference, "my family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own." Mr. Salaita’s family is temporarily living with his parents in the Washington, D.C., area, he said.

But even worse than his personal hardships, he added, "the administration’s actions threaten principles of free speech, academic freedom, and critical thought that should be the foundation of any university."

After he received the email from Ms. Wise, he contacted Robert Warrior, director of the American Indian studies program. Mr. Salaita said he had no further contact with Ms. Wise after that because her handling of the situation had been "all over the place."

"I wish that, before any of this happened, before she sent that letter, she would have reached out to me and had a conversation," he said. "And we could have clarified some of the misunderstanding."

A 'Personnel Issue'

Ms. Wise told The Chronicle on Tuesday that she did not attend Mr. Salaita’s news conference because of a "full calendar." She has met with various campus and faculty groups in recent weeks but has not budged on her decision to rescind the job offer.

"People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom," she said in an interview. "I stand by the fact that this institution and all of higher education stands on the bedrock of the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and that we should be and are the place where we deal with the most contentious and difficult and complicated issues that face the world, and that we have to provide the platform where discussions that are difficult and contentious and uncomfortable and unimaginable happen."

Ms. Wise expressed similar sentiments in a universitywide memorandum circulated on August 22. In that note, she wrote that administrators remained "absolutely" committed to academic freedom, but that they had to reinforce their "expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship."

Mr. Salaita acknowledged that his tweets were "no doubt passionate and unfiltered," but he challenged the university’s claim that he was uncivil.

"My first thought was that the notion of incivility is really subjective, it’s sprawling, it can mean anything in the context of what the speaker wants it to mean," he said. "It’s also a fundamental mischaracterization of who I am as a scholar, as a teacher, and as a human being. If you read my Twitter feed in its totality, you’ll see that … I’m deeply opposed to all forms of bigotry and racism, including anti-Semitism, which I have publicly spoken against numerous times."

Faculty members at Illinois and elsewhere have criticized Ms. Wise’s handling of Mr. Salaita’s appointment, and the broader campaign to defend him shows no signs of slowing down. The Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet on Thursday, and a large turnout is expected, but whether the board will discuss Mr. Salaita’s appointment remains unknown.

At the news conference, Mr. Salaita thanked the "many hundreds of people and prominent organizations who have raised their voices in defense of the principles of academic freedom," adding that they are part of the reason he continues to push forward.

Another reason, he said, is to uphold the idea that universities are meant to be "cauldrons of critical thinking." "Tenure, a concept that is well over a hundred 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," Mr. Salaita said.

Despite all that has happened, he said, he still wants to give the university a chance to honor those principles. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is "an extraordinary campus filled with wonderful, intelligent, committed students, world-class faculty, world-class resources," he said. "Today, especially, demonstrated the kind of spirit that exists on this campus, and I would be honored to be a part of it."

Asked about his plan for the future, Mr. Salaita said that remains to be seen. "I’m focused on this job, on having the opportunity to teach at the University of Illinois," he said. "And I haven’t thought much past that."

Jack Stripling contributed to this report.