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Court Holds That U. of Illinois Broke Contract in Salaita Case

The University of Illinois cannot disavow having contractual obligations to Steven G. Salaita, the controversial scholar whose job offer it rescinded last summer before he could begin teaching on the Urbana-Champaign campus, a federal court ruled on Thursday.

In denying the university’s bid to have Mr. Salaita’s lawsuit against it dismissed, Judge Harry D. Leinenweber of the U.S. District Court in Chicago soundly rejected the university’s argument that it had never entered into a binding contract with Mr. Salaita because its offer to employ him as a tenured professor remained subject to approval by the university’s Board of Trustees after classes started.

The university’s assertion that it can invalidate faculty job offers at the last minute, through a board vote that most faculty members and administrators regard as a rubber-stamp element of the employment process, had been a key element of its defense against a free-speech lawsuit by Mr. Salaita, who sued after Illinois rescinded an offer to him over his inflammatory Twitter posts about Israel.

In making such an argument, the university had caused faculty members throughout the nation to wonder if job transitions carried much more risk than they previously assumed.

Judge Leinenweber’s decision appeared mindful of the broader ramifications of the university’s argument, saying that such thinking, if applied consistently, would “wreak havoc in this and other contexts” and, for example, would let colleges offer the same job to several people at once.

“If the court accepted the university’s argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist, because no professor would resign a tenure position, move states, and start teaching at a new college based on an ‘offer’ that was absolutely meaningless until after the semester already started,” Judge Leinenweber’s ruling said.

Although university administrators had told Mr. Salaita his employment there would be “subject to” the board’s approval, their letter to him did not apply such conditional language to the job offer itself, suggesting that what was up in the air was not the existence of a contract but the university’s ability to follow through on its end, the judge held.

If the university truly regarded such job contracts as hinging on board approval, he said, it would have the board vote on them much earlier in the hiring process, before paying a prospective faculty member’s moving expenses and offering that professor an office and classes. “Simply put, the university cannot argue with a straight face that it engaged in all these actions in the absence of any obligation or agreement,” he said.

The university’s board actually might have undermined itself legally in deciding to hold a formal vote on Mr. Salaita’s employment after Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, attempted to rescind the job by not forwarding it for board approval, the ruling indicated. If the university had not made some sort of offer to Mr. Salaita, the judge asked, “why hold a vote at all?”

Based heavily upon his determination that such an agreement existed, Judge Leinenweber said Mr. Salaita can proceed in trying to prove that university administrators and board members conspired to breach his contract, violate his free-speech rights under the First Amendment, and deny him academic due process.

The judge, however, dismissed Mr. Salaita’s claims that various unnamed donors to the university had illegally interfered with his contractual relationship by voicing opposition to his appointment. In expressing such opposition, such donors were exercising their own First Amendment rights, the judge said.

Judge Leinenweber also tossed out Mr. Salaita’s claims that the university officials had intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him and that Chancellor Wise had destroyed evidence important to his case by disposing of a two-page memorandum related to him. The judge held that Mr. Salaita’s lawyers had not demonstrated that Ms. Wise had an obligation to preserve the memo or that his case hinged upon it.

The university issued a statement saying it was gratified that several claims had been dismissed and “a much narrower version of the case will proceed.”

For more, see this Chronicle article.

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