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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
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Mystery in Professor’s Firing Unraveled

(CN) - With a wealthy donor's behind-the-scenes influence and a university chancellor's use of a private email account, the withdrawal of a professor's job offer became both a mystery to unravel and a flashpoint for issues of academic freedom around the nation.

The University of Illinois last week agreed to pay professor Steven Salaita $875,000 to settle his claims stemming from the school's decision to rescind his employment after he made anti-Israel tweets. But the intrigue behind the school's actions were only revealed during the course of the lawsuit.

Salaita, who is of Palestinian descent, accepted a tenure-track faculty position in American Indian studies in 2013 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He resigned from his tenured faculty position at Virginia Tech University to begin the new job in the fall.

Over the summer, however, Salaita posted numerous comments to his personal Twitter account that were deeply critical of Israel's military action in Gaza.

On July 20 he tweeted: "Zionists: transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine."

The same day, he tweeted, "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza."

The Israeli government's 2015 attacks in Gaza killed more than 500 children.

"The speech at issue consists of messages critical of Israeli policy that Professor Salaita posted to his personal Twitter account in July 2014, after the state of Israel launched 'Operation Protective Edge,' an aerial bombardment and ground campaign in the Gasa Strip. Professor Salaita saw the news images of Palestinian children killed and felt compelled to speak out," Salaita's amended complaint says.

As late as July 25, 2014, the university reassured him that it would cover the full cost of his move to Illinois.

But on Aug. 2, Chancellor Phyllis Wise sent Salaita an email withdrawing the job offer, and the board of trustees affirmed the decision 8-1 in September.

Salaita says that certain wealthy donors "cherry-picked" his tweets to present a picture of him as an anti-Semite and advocate of violence.

These donors allegedly wrote the university and "openly stated that they would withdraw financial support from the University if it did not terminate Professor Salaita's appointment," Salaita claimed

Steven Miller, the owner of a Chicago-based venture capital firm and boardmember of the Hillel Foundation, holds an endowed chair in Business in his name at the University, and allegedly told the chancellor he would "reduce or withhold his monetary contributions to the University if Professor Salaita was allowed to teach there."

"The chancellor's letter of termination to Professor Salaita was dated the same day," according to the complaint.

The University's decision was met by an outpouring of condemnation within the academy. More than 5,000 scholars pledged to boycott the University, sixteen academic departments within the University voted "no-confidence" in the Administration, and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) censured the institution.

The AAUP said in its report, "Statements by Chancellor Wise and the trustees insisted that 'civility' was a standard by which the fitness of a scholar and teacher could be judged. They used synonyms such as courtesy and respect, and they maintained that incivility threatened the comfort and security of students. The trustees claimed that disrespectful speech 'is not an acceptable form of civil argument' and 'has no place ... in our democracy.'"

The Association objected, writing, "Historians have shown that over the centuries the notion of civility consistently operates to constitute relations of power. Moreover, it is always the powerful who determine its meaning - a meaning that serves to delegitimize the words and actions of those to whom it is applied." In addition, it argued that the tone of one's expression should not constitute grounds for punishment.

The case took a turn last year when it became apparent that Wise had attempted to avoid making the decision-making process discoverable by using her personal email account, and in some cases, destroying emails. The University began dismissal proceedings against Wise in August.

The American Jewish Committee sought leave from the court to file an amicus brief on behalf of John Doe university donors, but was denied.

The settlement provides that Salaita will receive a lump sum payment of $600,000, plus legal costs totaling $275,000, and that he will not seek future employment at the University. It does not constitute any admission of wrongdoing.

It comes after a federal judge rejected the university's argument that Salaita had not actually been hired, despite a contract and his family's impending move to Illinois.

Salaita is currently teaching at the American University of Beirut on a one-year contract.

"The University believes that reaching a settlement with Dr. Salaita is the most reasonable option to fully and finally conclude all of the pending issues. Although the amount is significant, it is less than what we would spend if the case were to continue and proceed to trial over the next year," Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson said in a press release.

On his Facebook page, Salaita said, "We settled the case against UIUC today, and I am deeply grateful for the support and solidarity from so many individuals and communities. Together, we sent a strong message to those who would silence Palestine activists and limit speech on campus. ... At this point I am ready to move beyond this particular matter and continue doing what I love--teaching, writing, organizing, and contributing in whatever way I can to struggles for justice."

Salaita was represented by attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Loevy & Loevy.

Neither the center nor Loevy & Loevy answered telephone requests for interviews, nor did the university.

But a law professor at the university was scathing in his comment on the settlement.

"Despite whatever spin you might read about the Salaita settlement, the truth of the matter is that the Zionists destroyed and terminated the promising academic career of a young Palestinian professor who spoke out quite actively and effectively for his people for a mere $800,000 in taxpayer's money," said Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, on his Facebook page.

"A great victory for the Zionists," he added. "Another scalp on their belt."

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