The University of Illinois has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Steven Salaita, arguing the controversial professor's claim to a job at the UI is unsubstantiated.
The university's lawyers filed a motion to dismiss late Wednesday stating that Salaita had no "binding contract" with the university or an "unambiguous promise" of a job.
"At no time was he ever an employee of the University of Illinois. His entire complaint was an unsuccessful attempt to ignore this critical fact," campus legal counsel Scott Rice told The News-Gazette Wednesday.
Salaita attorney Anand Swaminathan said the UI's motion is "wrong on the facts and law, but it was expected. Ultimately, the university is desperate to avoid discovery that will get to the truth."
The UI's stand "ignores plain language in the university's communications to Professor Salaita, the actions of its officials, and every norm related to academic hiring practices," he said in an email to The News-Gazette.
"Most disturbing is the university's argument that the chancellor and board members could not be expected to understand their free speech and other constitutional obligations."
A former English professor at Virginia Tech, Salaita was offered a job in 2013 in American Indian Studies and planned to start teaching at the UI last August. But Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President Christophe Pierre revoked the offer on Aug. 1 after a series of inflammatory tweets by Salaita about Israel. The decision prompted a faculty outcry about academic freedom and boycotts by some academic groups, but UI trustees voted 8-1 to reject Salaita's appointment in September. The board reiterated that decision last month.
Salaita filed a lawsuit on Jan. 29 in federal court of the Northern District of Illinois, seeking to force the campus to hire him and compensate him for lost income and damages to his reputation.
The lawsuit alleges the university violated his rights to free speech and due process and breached its contract with him. It also targeted unnamed university donors who "unlawfully threatened future donations to the university if it did not fire Professor Salaita on account of his political views," according to his lawyers.
Salaita "remains without a job, without health insurance, in his parents' home, with his academic career in tatters," and the faculty of the American Indian Studies Program still want him to join their ranks, his complaint states.
Rice said Salaita's lawsuit rests on two "entirely unsupported propositions" — first, that Salaita had entered into a contract with the university that granted him an unconditional right to a faculty position; and second, that university administrators and the UI Board of Trustees, "in a conspiracy with unnamed donors," breached that contract.
The lawsuit failed to cite a key provision of Salaita's offer letter, that it "was always subject to approval by the Board of Trustees," Rice said.
Because that approval was not granted, Salaita did not become a UI employee and therefore was not entitled to the benefits and protections given to public employees, the UI said in a memorandum supporting its motion.
Salaita's job offer was made 10 months before he was to begin teaching at the UI, and he and his wife left their positions at Virginia Tech and sold their house over the summer before the job was withdrawn. Salaita's supporters argue that trustee approval of new hires is usually a formality, and that he had the full expectation of a tenured job.
"The mere fact that it hasn't happened much does not prove that the board does not have the authority that they exerted here," Rice responded.
The university's memorandum cites previous legal cases to support its position, though none of them directly involved the UI, Rice said. "We've never been in this position before," he said.
As for donor influence, Rice called Salaita's allegations "unsupported, speculative and illusory."
Wise received hundreds of emails from donors, students, parents, alumni and concerned citizens about Salaita's tweets in the days before she decided to rescind his job offer. But the chancellor has insisted donor communications did not influence her decision.
Documents show that Salaita's "own conduct during the time that his appointment was pending called into question his fitness as a professor, which led to the Board's decision not to approve his appointment," the UI's memorandum states.
The memorandum lists 19 tweets by Salaita before and during Israel's invasion of Gaza last summer that, UI officials believe, show he was "entirely unfit to be a professor at the University of Illinois." They include: "Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime," and "If #Israel affirms life, then why do so many Zionists celebrate the slaughter of children? What's that? Oh, I see JEWISH life."
The university "properly balanced Plaintiff's interest in making his inflammatory statements against the University's interest in providing a safe and efficient educational environment," the UI's motion says.
A campus committee that investigates alleged violations of academic freedom found faultwith the process surrounding Salaita's case and concluded that Salaita's tweets critical of Israel were protected political speech. It suggested that any questions about Salaita's "professional fitness" be addressed by a newly-created panel of academic experts. The campus Academic Senate endorsed that report earlier this month.
Salaita's lawyers will have a chance to respond before the judge rules on the UI's motion.
The lawsuit asks the court for preliminary and permanent injunctive and "equitable relief," to reinstate Salaita and money for compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys' fees and costs. It does not specify an amount.
Salaita and his lawyers also filed a separate lawsuit against the UI in November in Champaign County Circuit Court after being denied access to documents via the Freedom of Information Act. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for April.