Professor Steven Salaita, whose job offer was pulled by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of his controversial social media posts about Israel, plans to kick off a weeklong speaking tour Monday night at Northwestern University.
While Salaita is scheduled to speak at five Chicago-area campuses about academic censorship and U.S. policy in the Middle East, his attorney said he is preparing a lawsuit against the U. of I. for violating Salaita's constitutional rights of free speech and due process, as well as breach of contract.
Salaita's speaking tour comes weeks after the U. of I. board of trustees voted 8-1 not to hire him, finalizing a decision that led to a backlash on campus and from academia nationwide.
Salaita, 38, lost the job opportunity after he posted tweets about Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip, some of which contained profane and inflammatory language. Salaita tweeted hundreds of comments during the Middle East conflict this summer, a time when he was between jobs after leaving his tenured position at Virginia Tech University and before he was to start at U. of I. on Aug. 16.
On July 20, he wrote: "Zionists: transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible to something honorable since 1943. #Gaza #FreePalestine." He also wrote: "Let's cut to the chase: If you're defending #Israel right now you're an awful human being."
Salaita has described his tweets as "passionate and unfiltered," and many focused on the number of children killed in the conflict.
Critics have said U. of I.'s decision is an affront to free speech and academic freedom — the principle that protects faculty members who have unpopular and controversial views. Salaita, a Palestinian-American who studies colonialism and the Middle East, had been hired for a tenured position in the university's American Indian studies department.
In addition to Monday night's appearance at Northwestern, Salaita has scheduled talks through Thursday at the University of Chicago, Columbia College and DePaul University. The speaking tour is organized by various campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and the group Gay Liberation Network.
"My personal goal, first and foremost, is to get professor Salaita his job back," said Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, which organized the tour. "The main thing is to get his voice out here in Chicago so that the U. of I. board sees that so many people in Illinois do not support this censorship. ... If this firing is allowed to stand, even with a very good monetary settlement, it sets a horrible precedent."
Thayer said the group has been collecting donations to provide Salaita with an honorarium. A separate online fundraising effort has yielded more than $17,000.
Salaita is not employed and he, his wife and son are living with his parents in the Washington, D.C., area.
Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan, said his client is prepared to pursue legal action.
"That is where our energy is focused — getting our lawsuit prepared," said Swaminathan, of Chicago-based law firm Loevy & Loevy. "I have spoken to opposing counsel. There is no imminent settlement at this point."
U. of I. board Chairman Christopher Kennedy, in an interview with the Tribune last month, did not seem eager to reach a deal, referring to Salaita's tweets as anti-Semitic and bigoted.
"We are not willing to underwrite his life," Kennedy said. "Is he looking at this as a gap year, where he will have employment in a year and he is looking to us for a year of income? That is one thing.
"If he thinks, 'Well, I will never work again, what does it cost to underwrite my life for the next 25 years?' "
Swaminathan said it is "completely false" to call Salaita anti-Semitic.
"It reflects a complete failure to consider professor Salaita's complete record," he said. "They merely need to look at his other tweets. He specifically disavows anti-Semitism."
Salaita's U. of I. job was scheduled to begin Aug. 16, at $85,000 a year, but Urbana-Champaign campus chancellor Phyllis Wise informed him in an Aug. 1 email that the job offer was being rescinded. Since then, Wise has been the target of more than a dozen no-confidence votes from U. of I. departments, and some faculty at other institutions have said they would boycott scheduled lectures or conferences at the campus. The American Association of University Professors is investigating the matter.
Kennedy said Wise shared her concerns about Salaita with the board in a closed-door session in late July after she received feedback, some from donors, about Salaita teaching at U. of I. During that board meeting, someone pulled up Salaita's Twitter posts on a laptop and said, "'Wow, this stuff is unbelievable. Listen to this,' " Kennedy recounted.
"And everybody is like ... 'that sounds awful,' " Kennedy said.
Wise then said she didn't think he should be hired, and the board agreed, he said, noting that the conversation lasted about 10 minutes. About a week later, Wise wrote Salaita an email to revoke the job.
"Then it blew up," Kennedy said. "It was super surprising."