The University of Illinois appears to be moving closer to a settlement with Steven Salaita, who sued the university after losing his job because of his controversial tweets.
UI trustees discussed the case with administrators at a closed-door meeting last week, The News-Gazette has learned.
At a town hall meeting on Monday, interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson said the university is nearing a resolution in the Salaita lawsuit.
"We are working actively to resolve that case," Wilson said. "That's really all I can say. We're in litigation, and we're very hopeful we will be able to resolve it soon."
A hearing that had been set for Tuesday in Salaita's employment lawsuit was rescheduled for early December, according to Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan of Loevy and Loevy in Chicago.
Wilson said resolving the lawsuit in a way that satisfies both parties is an important step in removing Illinois from the American Association of University Professors' censure list.
"The board is very supportive of what we want to accomplish here," Wilson said. "I'm spending more time on this than almost anything."
Though he didn't mention Salaita at Monday's town hall meeting, UI President Timothy Killeen talked about the importance of moving forward as a university. He said litigation doesn't help that.
"Litigation is very expensive. It revisits things," Killeen said.
University spokesman Tom Hardy declined to comment on last week's board meeting or the status of any settlement talks with Salaita. "We've said before that we're making an effort to reach an agreement with Dr. Salaita," he said.
"The executive session was about pending litigation and employment matters, and that's all we're going to say about that."
Swaminathan was unavailable for comment Tuesday and Wednesday, but said last week that work on the federal case is proceeding.
"We don't have any settlement. We don't have any reason to think we've got a settlement," Swaminathan said. "Our position is what it's always been: this can be resolved very easily without taxpayers having to pay a lot of additional money for the university and the university's attorneys by simply reinstating Professor Salaita. It would be a way to get the university off the censure list."
Meanwhile, in response to a court order, the UI has released internal communications to Salaita's lawyers about its decision to withdraw the professor's job offer in August 2014. But almost all of the information in the documents is blacked out, Swaminathan said.
"In a couple of instances they left the person's name ... (but) more often than not, you can't tell anything," he said. "They're essentially completely redacted."
Some things can be appropriately redacted under attorney-client privilege, he said, but "you can't redact entire documents."
"(It's) made the documents essentially useless," he said. "We are in the process of fighting that. They've essentially produced nothing for us."
In June, Champaign County Presiding Judge Thomas Difanis ordered the UI to turn over thousands of pages of documents sought by Salaita under the Freedom of Information Act. Difanis said the public interest in knowing whether outside influence was involved in his hiring decision outweighed the university's claim that producing the documents was "unduly burdensome."
The ruling came in Salaita's FOIA lawsuit against the university, filed last November after he was denied a request for public documents related to his case. The judge's order related to an amended request for documents filed by Salaita in January, after his lawyers had narrowed it twice. It included only one of the nine items in his original request, which asked for records of communications among 37 people over 21 months, according to UI officials.
The Jan. 14 request asked for records to or from former Chancellor Phyllis Wise from July 1 through Aug. 3, 2014, as well as records sent to or from 14 other individuals from July 1 through Sept. 11, 2014. The latter group included former Board of Trustees Chairman Chris Kennedy. It suggested certain keywords to search for, including "Salaita," "Palestine," "Israel," "Gaza," "Jewish," "civility" and "Twitter."
Swaminathan said the documents go beyond those the UI released in August following an ethics investigation which found that some documents were not turned over in response to FOIA requests. It showed that Wise and other officials used personal email accounts rather than university addresses in their communications about the Salaita case, James Kilgore and the new Carle Illinois College of Medicine. In at least one instance, Wise stated she deleted emails afterward.
That revelation prompted the judge in Salaita's federal lawsuit to reinstate a claim from his lawyers accusing the university of destroying evidence about the hiring decision.
Salaita was offered a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program in October 2013, but Wise revoked the job on Aug. 1, 2014 — three weeks before he was to start teaching — after Salaita posted his controversial tweets. UI trustees upheld Wise's decision in September and reiterated their stance in a formal statement in January.