University of Illinois trustees on Thursday approved a $600,000 settlement withSteven Salaita, the controversial professor whose job offer was rescinded last year over his string of anti-Israel comments on social media.
The university also will pay $275,000 to Salaita's attorneys to end the 14-month dispute, which already has cost the U. of I. about $1.3 million in legal fees related to lawsuits that Salaita filed after he lost the tenured faculty position.
Salaita has agreed to drop the lawsuits against the university, including a federal suit that alleged breach of contract and violation of his free speech rights. The settlement also makes it clear that Salaita would not get a job at the university now or in the future.
Trustees voted 8-1 to approve the agreement, in which the university admits no wrongdoing, at their regularly scheduled board meeting in Chicago. The settlement will be paid for by self-insurance and institutional funds, which includes some taxpayer money.
"The university believes that reaching a settlement with Dr. Salaita is the most reasonable option to fully and finally conclude all the pending issues," Urbana-Champaign interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson said in a statement. "Although the amount is significant, it is less than what we would spend if the case were to continue and proceed to trial over the next year."
In an emailed statement, Salaita called the settlement "a vindication" for himself and a "victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment."
"The petitions, demonstrations, and investigations, as well as the legal case, have reinvigorated American higher education as a place of critical thinking and rigorous debate, and I am deeply grateful to all who have spoken out," Salaita said.
The agreement could help the campus move forward from a particularly unpleasant and divisive time in its history, marked by faculty boycotts and protests, and votes of no confidence in the former chancellor.
Perhaps most notably, it could help the campus get removed from the American Association of University Professors' list of censured universities. The group put the school on the list after finding it had wrongly rescinded Salaita's job offer.
The controversy began in July 2014, weeks before Salaita was to begin a tenured faculty job in the American Indian Studies program on the Urbana-Champaign campus. He had accepted the $85,000-a-year job the prior year and resigned from his position on the faculty at another university.
But that summer, then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise began raising concerns about his anti-Israel Twitter posts, many of which contained profane and inflammatory language, after getting feedback from donors, students and parents. Salaita had been posting prolifically about the Israeli government and its military actions in Gaza.
In one tweet he 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.
But Urbana-Champaign officials decided they didn't want him in the classroom, and they pulled his job offer in August. The U. of I. board of trustees affirmed that decision in an 8-1 vote the next month.
Salaita contended that the U. of I. violated his rights to academic freedom and free speech when it rescinded the offer, and that it breached the contract to hire him. The university claimed that the job offer was at all times subject to the ultimate approval of the board of trustees and that "at no time was Dr. Salaita hired as a faculty member."
The settlement deal is an attempt to move past a controversial and difficult time for the campus that predated university President Timothy Killeen and interim Chancellor Wilson, both of whom have expressed a desire to settle the matter.
The university's decision to reject Salaita's hiring led to fallout on campus and nationwide. The American Association of University Professors' report found that the U. of I. violated Salaita's due process rights as a faculty member, acted outside the widely accepted standards of academic governance and created an uncertain climate for academic freedom on campus.
On campus, there were protests and votes of no confidence in the chancellor, and a faculty committee urged administrators to reconsider Salaita's employment. Faculty from other campuses boycotted the U. of I. over the issue.
Salaita currently has a one-year faculty appointment at the University of Beirut in Lebanon. He also recently wrote a book about his situation, "Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom."
One of his attorneys, Anand Swaminathan of the Chicago-based firm Loevy & Loevy, said the sizable settlement should send a message to universities.
"In the future, university administrators will have to think twice before they choose the interests of wealthy donors and alumni over upholding their constitutional obligations," he said. "This legal victory could not have been possible without the support of a large and committed movement of activists and academics."