The University of Illinois made a costly decision to take the controversy involving would-be Professor Steven Salaita off the table.
Steven Salaita hit the jackpot Wednesday, when the University of Illinois agreed to pay him $600,000 and his lawyers an additional $275,000 to go away.
That's roughly seven times what his annual salary would have been if Salaita had become a member of the UI's American Indian Studies faculty. Plus, he gets to claim the exalted status of a victim who spoke truth to power and made a substantial profit in the process.
No wonder his lawyers took a victory lap after the deal was closed. One claimed his client "scored a major victory for those who care about free speech and academic freedom," asserting that the Salaita example will force university administrators "to think twice before they choose the interests of wealthy donors and alumni over upholding their constitutional obligations."
That's not, of course, what happened. But the power of myth is such that it's how this sorry chapter in UI history will be portrayed in some quarters.
The settlement is a classic example of both sides opting for an acceptable deal now to avert a potential disaster later.
Many readers know the history of this dispute. But it never hurts to revisit the facts.
Salaita was offered and accepted a tenured faculty post and was scheduled to start teaching in fall 2014. He was informed at the time that the offer was contingent upon final approval by UI trustees.
Fate, however, intervened. In the summer of 2014, before he was scheduled to start teaching, Salaita sent a series of profane and belligerent tweets criticizing Israel and anyone who supports it for military attacks on Hamas and its underground tunnels in Gaza.
Salaita's tweets, though protected by free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution, are below the expected standards of public discourse for UI faculty members. Disturbed by Salaita's display, then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise, then-President Robert Easter and UI trustees conferred and decided they'd rather not have Salaita on campus. They withdrew his job offer, trustees later voting officially to reject Salaita's contract.
Salaita then sued, charging violations of his rights to free speech and academic freedom. The dispute essentially revolved around the vagaries of contract law.
If Salaita did not have a valid contract, the UI had no obligation to put up with a person of his demonstrated lack of judgment and character. If he did have a valid contract, the UI was legally obliged to honor it.
The lawsuit didn't get very far along the legal track. But Salaita achieved a victory a couple months ago when U.S. Judge Harry Leinenweber denied the UI's motion to dismiss the case
That set the stage for lengthy and costly legal proceedings, pushing both sides to start negotiating the settlement that culminated with Thursday's vote by trustees.
Based on a strictly dollars-and-cents equation, the UI made the right move. The institution already has spent more than $1 million in inflated legal fees for its lawyers in the Salaita case.
That number would have skyrocketed had the case continued for another year or two.
If, ultimately, the UI had lost, the financial consequences would have been even more outrageous.
As for Salaita, he also made a pragmatic decision. He once vowed to accept nothing less than the faculty post denied him. But, no matter what he said, Salaita had no real emotional stake in or allegiance to the UI. It was far easier and quicker for him to take the money rather than take the risk of losing.
Besides, Salaita is now a martyr, and a rich one at that. Politicized academic departments in universities across the country will be bidding for the services of a polemicist of his pedigree.
The Salaita controversy was the result of a highly unusual set of circumstances not likely to be repeated. That's a good thing.