The saga of controversial anti-Israel professor Steven Salaita is coming to an end, at least as concerns the University of Illinois.
Salaita, whose inflammatory tweets prior to and during the 2014 Gaza conflict caused the Board of Trustees not to approve his conditional offer of a tenured position, sued in federal court. The University indicated early on that it would cut Salaita a check, but Salaita has been insistent as a matter of principle and justice for the Palestinian cause that he would accept nothing less than a tenured position.
But Salaita has given up that principled position and accepted money in settlement of all claims.
The University of Illinois just issued the following press release:
The University of Illinois and Steven Salaita have reached a negotiated resolution regarding all legal claims, putting an end to a 14-month employment dispute that allows both parties to move forward while focusing on their respective priorities.
Under the proposed settlement, Salaita will receive a lump sum payment of $600,000 but will not be hired by the University, nor will he seek or accept future employment at the University. The University also agrees to pay Salaita's attorneys for legal costs he incurred. Legal claims Salaita made against the University in federal and Illinois courts will be voluntarily dismissed.
The proposed settlement agreement will be considered by the Board of Trustees at its Nov. 12 meeting in Chicago, and it will be recommended for approval by the administration. The settlement payments would be covered by University self-insurance and by institutional funds. The proposed agreement stipulates that it does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the University.
Urbana-Champaign campus Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson said the proposed settlement respects the best interests of all parties.
"The University believes that reaching a settlement with Dr. Salaita is the most reasonable option to fully and finally conclude all of the pending issues. 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," Wilson said.
"Considerable time and energy have gone into this case and it is time now to move forward. This negotiated agreement will allow the Urbana campus to focus on our goals of excellence in teaching, research and public engagement," Wilson said. "And it will allow Dr. Salaita to move forward with his academic career."
The two sides voluntarily agreed to engage a mediator, former U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen, who was invited into the settlement negotiations in October and assisted in reaching the proposed agreement.
The case arose in 2014 when Salaita, a former Virginia Tech university professor, had a pending faculty job offer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and posted on social media several controversial statements concerning conflicts in the Middle East. The University exercised its option not to hire Salaita, and he sued alleging breach of contract and violation of free speech. The University was represented by the law firm Perkins Coie.
The University's position from the outset had been that Salaita and his family should be compensated for the financial disruption they experienced.
By any measure, this is a loss for Salaita and his supporters. Gaining a tenured position was the dividing line between the parties.
It also is a loss for the massive propaganda machine led by websites like Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss, and pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions faculty, students and activists who falsely portrayed the tweets as a reaction to Israeli killing children, when in fact some of Salaita's most inflammatory tweets were before the fighting started.
This also is a vindication for U. Illinois Professor Emeritus Cary Nelson, who defended the University's position, but suggested Salaita get paid $1 million. Nelson has been under withering attack by pro-Salaita supporters, including faculty. Author Phan Nguyen at the anti-Zionist Mondoweiss website disreputably tried to blame Nelson (and me!) for Salaita's loss of his contingent offer.
My apparent crime was calling attention to Salaita's claim that Zionism causes anti-Semitism.
But there were others who were far more harsh in criticism of Salaita's tweets. Salaita supporter UI-UC Professor Feisal Mohamed in an exchange between him and Cary Nelson on the pages of theChronicle of Higher Education, wrote:
"Those who claim [Dr. Salaita's] tweets are completely devoid of anti-Semitism are not quite right...Salaita's tweets frequently traded in a kind of anti-Zionist rhetoric that summons and sustains millennia of anti-Jewish sentiment hardwired into Western culture...Salaita may not be an anti-Semite but he can certainly tweet like one."
Moreover, the settlement amount is less than the cost of defense. The University already has spent $1.3 million defending the case, and likely would have spent millions more. From the University perspective, it was an economic win.
Moreover, the offer Salaita finally grabbed apparently has been on the table since last June:
Salaita settles with University of Illinois for $875000. I heard last June this offer was on the table. There is no restoration of position.
— Peter N. Kirstein (@PeterKirstein) November 12, 2015
Based on my experience representing employees, the settlement almost certainly will be subject to taxation as wages, so Salaita will not receive the full amount net of taxes. Even worse, unless properly structured (we likely will never see the settlement agreement itself), Salaita may have to pay taxes on the attorney's fees paid ($275,000) in addition to the $600,000 without being able to deduct the attorney's fees as expenses if he is pushed into the Alternative Minimum Tax. This is a tax nightmare I saw multiple times when I was in private practice. I assume Salaita's attorneys explained this to him.
The crux of the settlement dispute was over whether Salaita would get a faculty position. And on this Salaita gave in, as the News Gazette reports:
Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson says the UI never considered reinstating Professor Steven Salaita to his job in American Indian Studies as part of the settlement approved today.
"From the beginning, we were pretty clear about what our perspective was on that," Wilson told reporters after the Board of Trustees' meeting in Chicago. "We were not going to hire him."
To Salaita's critics, Wilson said the university felt some compensation was appropriate.
"I think the university from the beginning recognized that we disrupted Dr. Salaita's career and made it difficult for his family, so we feel some amount of compensation is reasonable and appropriate," Wilson said.
In a statement issued by his attorneys, Salaita sought to declare victory:
"This settlement is a vindication for me, but more importantly, it is a victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment," said Professor Salaita. "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."
One of Salaita's attorneys also claimed victory:
On his Facebook page, Salaita wrote:
We settled the case against UIUC today, and I am deeply grateful for the support and solidarity from so many individuals and communities. Together, we sent a strong message to those who would silence Palestine activists and limit speech on campus. The activists, students, academics, and others who spoke up with petitions, demonstrations, and investigations proved that grassroots organizing can make a difference. This is an important victory, even if the bigger fight isn't over. At this point I am ready to move beyond this particular matter and continue doing what I love–teaching, writing, organizing, and contributing in whatever way I can to struggles for justice.
Not every Salaita supporter is buying the victory claim:
The Electronic Intifada, which has been Salaita's core media outlet, focused its headline (properly) on the fact that Salaita is not getting a faculty job as part of the settlement:
The Angry Arab News Service also recognizes that Salaita did not win:
If Steven is happy, as he has indicated on Facebook, I am happy for him but for a case of justice and fairness I am not happy with the terms of the settlement. It should have been based on restoration AND compensation. Who will hire Steven in the US after this? The unfair university dismissal of him has basically made him unemployable in the US, and for that the University should have been forced to rehire him. This is another victory for Zionist anti-free speech intimidation on US college campuses.
Brooklyn College Professor Corey Robin, who has been one of the most outspoken defenders of Salaita, was honest enough to admit the obvious:
Many of us had hoped that a settlement would include Steven getting his job back. For his sake and ours: to vindicate principles we all hold dear. I would be less than honest if I didn't say I was disappointed.
This comment at the Academe blog is perceptive:
As it is, Professor Salaita, you have merely set the price of doing business in the contemporary university, and that price is shockingly low. UIUC's lawyers and administration must be deeply pleased.
(This post has been repeatedly updated)