The University of Illinois has reached a tentative settlement with Steven Salaita, who sued the UI after losing his job because of his controversial tweets.
UI trustees will vote Thursday on a proposed settlement with Salaita, though spokesman Tom Hardy said details cannot be released because the item won't be final until Thursday. He said the board had to post the item on its agenda to comply with the Open Meetings Act.
In recent days, UI President Timothy Killeen and interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson had said they were close to a resolution of Salaita case, an important step in removing Illinois from the American Association of University Professors' censure list.
Wilson informed members of the campus Senate Executive Committee of the news late Monday afternoon, though she said she couldn't provide any details.
Wilson told The News-Gazette that a settlement is "very important" to the campus' ability to move on from the Salaita controversy. She declined to say whether it includes a job offer for Salaita.
Wilson said it was "just coincidence" that the news came on the same day as the release of an investigation into the UI athletic program and the firing of Athletic Director Mike Thomas.
Killeen was not available to talk to reporters, though he presided over a town hall meeting in Springfield Monday afternoon.
"It hasn't been any secret that the university has been trying to work with Mr. Salaita and his legal representatives on an agreement that would put this case behind everybody and allow everyone to move forward," Hardy said. "Hopefully we've arrived at that time."
Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan of Loevy and Loevy in Chicago, did not reply to requests for comment. He had continued to push for Salaita to be reinstated by the UI even as settlement talks ramped up in October.
A trustees committee discussed a possible settlement at a closed-door meeting Oct. 22 for "pending litigation and employment matters."
Salaita was offered a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program in October 2013, but former Chancellor Phyllis Wise revoked the job on Aug. 1, 2014 — three weeks before he was to start teaching — after Salaita posted a series of angry, sometimes-profane tweets about Israel.
The decision led to academic boycotts of the campus and no-confidence votes in Wise by campus academic departments, who argued that Salaita was being punished for exercising his rights to free speech and academic freedom. They also took issue with statements put out by Wise and other administrators and UI trustees defending the decision in order to promote "civil discourse" and "civility" on campus.
UI trustees upheld Wise's decision in September and reiterated their stance in a formal statement in January, effectively ignoring the advice of a campus committee that investigates violations of academic freedom, which said Salaita's employment should be reconsidered.
Salaita then filed suit, alleging that the university violated his rights to free speech and due process and breached its contract with him. Listed as defendants were the UI Board of Trustees, former President Robert Easter, Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre, Wise and "unknown donors."
The UI maintained that Salaita never had an official employment contract with the university because his appointment had not been approved by trustees. Critics argued that trustee approval of hundreds of faculty appointment each year are considered a formality.
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. But almost all of the information in the documents is blacked out, according to Salaita's attorneys.
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.
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 documents released in October went beyond those that were made public by the UI 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.