The University of Illinois board of trustees voted Thursday not to hire controversial professor Steven Salaita, finalizing a decision that has created much backlash on campus and from academia nationally.
The 8-1 vote came after top university officials explained why they didn't want to hire Salaita, whose job offer was pulled last month after he wrote contentious social media posts about Israeli military action in Gaza, some of which contained profane and inflammatory language.
Salaita's attorneys have said they would pursue legal action if he weren't hired, and Thursday's vote sets the stage for either a lawsuit or a financial settlement.
"I assume the attorneys will reach out and work something out or understand their position more clearly. We are not looking to be held up. We want to be fair but we don't want to be pushovers," board Chairman Christopher Kennedy said after the meeting. "Either they will sue or we will settle. It is hard to predict what another party will do. ... Am I going to give you my playbook on a negotiating matter?"
Trustee James Montgomery voted in favor of Salaita's appointment. After the vote, about 50 Salaita supporters in attendance shouted "Shame on you!"
Montgomery said he was concerned that faculty members from other campuses have canceled scheduled lectures on campus or have vowed not to attend conferences at U. of I. because of the decision to rescind Salaita's job.
"We have had some bad miscues at this university in the past few years," Montgomery said. "We have made some bad choices. We have made some bad decisions and we have a bad name because of it. I don't think we need to add to that at this point in time."
Neither Salaita nor his attorneys attended the board meeting.
In a statement after the vote, Salaita said he was "disappointed," and was consulting with his attorneys about his options. He said board members and top administrators have not spoken with him or "heard (his) side of the story."
"They have no reason to doubt the high standard I have always maintained in the classroom," Salaita said. "As I said in a less-notorious tweet, 'I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs.' If they had cared to learn, they would have seen this and other tweets reflecting a similar sentiment."
Before the vote, board President Robert Easter and Chancellor Phyllis Wise argued why the board shouldn't approve Salaita's appointment, one of more than 100 new faculty hires on which the board was asked to vote today.
"Professor Salaita's approach indicates that he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions could be given equal consideration, regardless of the issue being discussed," Easter said before the vote. "I am also concerned that his irresponsible public statements would make it more difficult for the university ... to attract the best and brightest students, faculty and staff."
Wise, who abruptly pulled Salaita's job offer last month, had not planned to forward the appointment to the board. But she asked the board to vote Thursday, Kennedy said, to affirm her decision as she has faced votes of no confidence from more than a dozen academic departments and boycotts from faculty who have vowed not to come to campus.
Kennedy said the vote reflected the board's desire to "balance academic freedom with academic integrity and active restraint of the board."
"It was a real balance between the competing interests of the university — where anyone can say anything, where freedom of speech is at its most liberal," Kennedy said. "On the other hand, there were (tweets) that can easily be interpreted as basically anti-Semitic. I don't know that in a university that struggles to attract minorities, that we want to alienate yet one more minority population from coming to the university."
Salaita's tenured appointment in the American Indian studies program at U. of I.'s Urbana-Champaign campus was to begin Aug. 16, but Wise informed him Aug. 1 that the job offer was being rescinded.
Wise wrote in an emailed letter that his appointment was subject to approval by university trustees and, because an "affirmative Board vote ... is unlikely," she would not submit it to the board.
Since then, university officials have faced criticism on campus and from academics nationally who say they violated Salaita's free-speech rights as well as his academic freedom, the principle that faculty members can speak on controversial and popular topics without fear of repercussions.
Trustees previously issued a unanimous statement offering their "unwavering support" for the decision and the idea that a university should value "civility as much as scholarship."
Salaita was offered a nine-month job at $85,000 a year and was scheduled to teach two classes this fall semester.
Salaita's offer letter, signed by a university dean Oct. 3, 2013, and by Salaita on Oct. 9, 2013, says the job is subject to the board's approval. But it also says Salaita "will receive a formal notification of appointment" from the board after submitting all the necessary paperwork.
Indeed, board approval is typically a rubber stamp. The U. of I. board has not in recent memory voted against a hire. And Salaita's start date was Aug. 16, even though the board wasn't meeting to vote on academic appointments until September.
Kennedy acknowledged Thursday that there is a "glitch" in the university's hiring system that allows faculty members to start their jobs before being approved by the board.
Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan, has said his client will pursue legal action if the board rejects his appointment, including injunctive relief to allow him to begin working at the university. He said the board does not have the authority to reject the appointment because its role is merely perfunctory.
"The board has limited authority. They have delegated much of the academic hiring role to departments for obvious reasons. They don't know the expertise in a specific area of study. They can't evaluate a scholar and decide if the person is a worthy academic," Swaminathan, of the Chicago-based law firm Loevy & Loevy, said Wednesday. "What the board is left with is sort of a perfunctory role, which is to sign off that this person can lawfully join the university."
Swaminathan said Salaita has multiple grounds for a lawsuit, including that the university violated his constitutional rights of free speech and due process. Salaita also could have breach of contract claims, he said.
In a news conference Tuesday, Salaita, 38, said he was blindsided when he received the letter from Wise pulling his job offer. He and his wife, Diana, had both resigned their positions at Virginia Tech, where he was a tenured professor of English. They had sold their home and pulled their son out of preschool and are now living with his parents in the Washington, D.C., area.
"There have been controversial hirings and firings in academia. It will always come with the territory. I can't think of any other case like mine in which I had one foot in the door already," Salaita said. "It was the 11th hour and 45th minute."
Salaita said the language he uses on his personal Twitter account is different from his approach in the classroom, where he said he encourages debate and has never "browbeaten or criticized" a student who disagrees with him.
He tweeted prolifically in June and July about the Israeli government and its military actions in its latest conflict with Hamas, particularly on the number of children killed in the war. He described his tweets as "passionate and unfiltered." His academic interests are in colonialism and the Middle East.
On Aug. 2 — the last day he wrote extensively before going silent for the past month — he wrote more than 20 tweets. In one, similar in tone to many of his messages, he wrote: "It's a senseless world: a colonial power bombs people in hospitals and shelters and somehow the dead are called 'terrorists.' #Gaza"
Since that day he has posted only two messages, one to thank his supporters and another to announce his news conference.
Robert Warrior, director of U. of I.'s American Indian studies program, has criticized Wise for making a decision about Salaita's job without thoroughly reading his scholarship, or even all of his writings on Twitter. When they met in late July, Wise told him she had read some of Salaita's posts and thought they were "unacceptable," Warrior said. She asked that he tell Salaita that his social media activity would be monitored at the U. of I., he said.
"You can make up your mind about any issue based on what little information you would like," Warrior said. "As a scholar and teacher, I ask people to think a little bit deeper than that."
The U. of I.'s decision to rescind Salaita's job offer has led to a contentious fall semester, with students at the state's flagship campus holding protests while faculty members across the country complain that the university has disrupted the notion of academic freedom.
The decision has had numerous repercussions. Nearly a dozen U. of I. departments, including philosophy, history and English, have voted no confidence in Wise. Professors are boycotting the campus by canceling scheduled lectures or vowing not to attend conferences. National organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association have written strong statements against the university's action.