The University of Illinois could be writing some big checks this month.
Fresh off announcing a $2.5 million payout for fired athletic director Mike Thomas, the UI has reached a tentative settlement with Steven Salaita, who sued the university after losing his job because of his controversial tweets.
Details of the agreement are still secret, but many observers, including some Salaita supporters, have said they'd be surprised if he wound up back on campus with a job.
UI trustees will vote Thursday on the proposed settlement, though spokesman Tom Hardy said details can't be released before then because it isn't finalized. The board had to post the item on its agenda to comply with the Open Meetings Act, he said.
The resolution of the case is considered an important step in removing the UI from the American Association of University Professors' censure list, and several members of the campus academic senate welcomed Monday's news.
"The only way for the university to get off censure is either settling with Salaita or hiring him, so this had to be done," said Professor David O'Brien, who also chairs the campus Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which had urged UI trustees to reconsider Salaita's appointment last year.
"We, of course, want to get the university off AAUP censure. We have been saying from almost the time this began that it would be very much in the university's interest to settle with him. So in that sense, we're happy to see it," O'Brien said.
Interim Chancellor Barbara 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 the embattled professor. O'Brien said he'd be surprised if it did.
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 Thomas.
The UI had previously offered an undisclosed settlement to Salaita, but it was refused, according to attorneys on both sides. Some professors believe it would take $1 million or more to settle the case.
Professor Bruce Rosenstock, president of the Campus Faculty Association, said he was "quite thrilled" about the settlement and said he hopes it does include a job for Salaita — and not just for the sake of the professor, who he believes was "unjustly fired."
"I don't believe that it is now in the best interest of the state or the university to pay million-dollar damages if another resolution can be found," Rosenstock said.
Salaita, who currently has a one-year appointment with the University of Beirut, did not reply to an email request for comment.
Salaita's attorney, Anand Swaminathan of Loevy and Loevy in Chicago, said he couldn't comment until Thursday. He had continued to push for Salaita to be reinstated by the UI even as settlement talks ramped up in October.
UI President Timothy Killeen was not available to talk to reporters Monday, though he presided over a town-hall meeting at the Springfield campus.
"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."
Wilson and Killeen said recently that they were close to a resolution of the case, which they'd made a priority after Wilson replaced former Chancellor Phyllis Wise in August. They met last month with 41 executive officers of campus departments and academic units who had written to them in August, urging them to rehire Salaita. They also met with the local chapter of the AAUP and talked with national AAUP officials.
A trustees committee discussed a possible settlement at a closed-door meeting Oct. 22 for "pending litigation and employment matters."
AAUP officials have said the key to censure removal is an "appropriate resolution" of Salaita's case.
"I'm glad to know that we're working to resolve the issue. I will look forward to hearing what the outcome is. I just hope it allows our campus to move forward in the most positive way possible," said Professor Kim Graber, vice chair of the campus Senate Executive Committee.
Rosenstock said he's glad Salaita won't have to live with a legal battle any longer, and believes the university will "make good" on any economic hardship he has suffered.
"I am very happy that this unfortunate chapter in the history of the university is coming to an end," he said.
Rosenstock also congratulated Wilson and Killeen for "having the courage to bring this legal battle to a conclusion. They saw that the university was not going to come out of this battle without suffering tremendous losses to its prestige and they decided to cut their losses now and come to a fair settlement with Steven Salaita."
Salaita was offered an $85,000-a-year tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program in October 2013, but Wise and Vice President Christophe Pierre 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 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, other administrators and 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 January. Salaita then filed suit in February, 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, Pierre, Wise and "unknown donors," whom he accused of pressuring administrators to terminate his job.
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 appointments each year are considered a formality.