Academic Freedom

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

November 13, 2015

The University of Illinois will pay $875,000 to settle lawsuits brought by Steven G. Salaita after the university revoked its offer of a tenured position at the Urbana-Champaign campus in 2014.

The university’s Board of Trustees voted on Thursday to approve the proposed settlement under the condition that Mr. Salaita not accept or seek employment at the university in future.

The settlement helps close a case that has rocked the university for more than year, leading to pointed criticism of the institution and the resignation of Phyllis M. Wise, chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus. Yet despite the end of the lawsuits and all sides' saying they’re ready to move on, the controversy continues to affect Mr. Salaita’s career and divide the university as it seeks to restore its dented reputation.

Mr. Salaita called the settlement a vindication for himself, 'but more importantly, it is a victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment.'
Last year Ms. Wise and Christophe Pierre, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for academic affairs, refused to submit Mr. Salaita’s job offer for approval by the board after he made controversial statements about Israel on social media. Effectively denied the position he had been offered, Mr. Salaita filed two lawsuits. Scholarly groups condemned the university’s action as a violation of academic freedom and pledged to boycott the university. In June the American Association of University Professors voted to censure the institution.

In a written statement, Mr. Salaita called the settlement "a vindication for me, but more importantly, it is a victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment."

Mr. Salaita had originally hoped to be reinstated in his promised position at Illinois, according to Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which handled his lawsuits with the law firm Loevy & Loevy. In the past few months, however, Mr. Salaita realized that "as much as reinstatement would be a just solution, he’s ready to move on," Mr. Azmy said. Mr. Salaita is in a one-year position as chair of American studies at the American University of Beirut.

Barbara J. Wilson, interim chancellor of the university, said she considered the settlement "a good outcome in the sense that we can move forward."

‘Real Ill Will’

But moving forward isn’t a simple or immediate prospect for administrators and faculty members at Illinois. The boycotts and the AAUP censure have led speakers and scholars to cancel their appearances and have caused job searches for some faculty positions to be suspended because of a lack of qualified candidates.

The AAUP censure will remain in effect until at least June, which is the next time the organization’s committee on academic freedom and tenure will meet, according to Anita B. Levy, its associate secretary of academic freedom, tenure, and governance. If the committee recommends lifting the censure, the members would also have to approve it.

Ms. Levy said she was encouraged by the settlement, and she called it a credit to both parties. "Assuming that the climate for academic freedom on campus is sound, my guess is that censure would be removed," she said.

Ms. Wilson, the interim chancellor, acknowledged that Illinois has "got work to do." The university is in the process of examining and revising its policies and practices surrounding hiring and academic freedom, she added.

Strengthening those policies and practices is important because "no one wants to go through anything like that again," said Nicholas C. Burbules, a professor of education-policy studies and a member of the faculty senate's executive committee. Mr. Burbules said he considered Mr. Salaita’s social-media comments about Israel "bordering on hate speech," but he lamented the disagreements between faculty members who wanted to reinstate Mr. Salaita and those who supported his ouster.

The rift has resulted in "not only fights and disagreements, but real ill will" between colleagues, he said. "I hope that with this settlement we can move and put some of these fights behind us."

Kim C. Graber, a member of the faculty senate executive committee, agrees. The professor of kinesiology and community health wrote in an email that completing the healing is important, "so we can focus on our primary mission, which is educating our students and conducting research."

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and assorted other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at lee.gardner@chronicle.com.