Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita was effectively fired from a tenured position in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2014 for tweets critical of Israel. Salaita subsequently sued the university, arguing it violated his rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom.
On August 6, a federal court upheld Salaita’s lawsuit on free speech grounds, ruling that the professor’s tweets “implicate every ‘central concern’ of the First Amendment.”
Drawing on complex academic procedures, UIUC had claimed it did not have a contract with Salaita, and thus did not wrongfully fire him. At the time, Salaita had already resigned from a tenured position at Virginia Tech University and was to begin teaching at UIUC in just two weeks. The court rejected this claim, arguing that if it “accepted the University’s argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist.”
Chancellor Wise’s Resignation
In the midst of this ruling, Phyllis Wise resigned from her positions as UIUC chancellor and vice president, in which she had served since 2011.
Wise faced harsh backlash for overseeing the firing of Salaita. Sixteen of UIUC’s own academic departments voted no confidence in the administration. Leading academic organizations such as the Society of American Law Teachers, the American Historical Association, and the Modern Language Association reproved the university.
More than 5,000 academics from around the country agreed to boycott UIUC, Illinois’ flagship public university, in protest of what they argued constituted an egregious violation of academic freedom. Over three dozen scheduled lectures and conferences were cancelled in protest.
Student activists also protested the university’s decision with walkouts and demonstrations.
Before Salaita sued the school, UIUC’s own Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure submitted a recommendation formally calling on the university to reconsider its decision to fire Salaita. The administration rejected the request.
In June, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) voted to condemn the UIUC administration for its firing of Salaita, accusing it of infringing on academic freedom and due process.
Under Wise’s supervision, the university spent almost a million dollars hiring two outside law firms in response to Salaita’s litigation. Some of these expenses were paid for with tax dollars.
As part of her resignation agreement, Wise, whose salary was approximately $550,000, will receive an additional $400,000 and a one-year paid sabbatical.
Maria LaHood, Deputy Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is defending Salaita in the lawsuit, explained that the “court’s ruling clears the way for Professor Salaita to seek redress for the wrongs done by the university, including violating his right to speak freely on issues of public concern without being fired.”
“The university must finally face the facts of what it has done to Professor Salaita and principles of academic freedom,” LaHood added.
In the suit, Salaita seeks reinstatement at UIUC and monetary relief for the administration’s actions.
The tweets over which Salaita was fired were written during Israel’s summer 2014 bombing of Gaza, codenamed Operation Protective Edge. Approximately 2,300 Palestinians, including over 500 children, were killed in the 51-day attack, close to three-fourths of whom were civilians. The UN; numerous human rights organizations, including Amnesty International; and independent investigators, such as Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, accused the Israeli military of committing war crimes.
Mondoweiss spoke with Salaita, who said he was “really happy that the judge recognized the importance of faculty autonomy in hiring.”
Salaita said he wants his case to have larger repercussions for other scholars whose academic freedom is under attack. “I hope the judgment plays a positive role in the current battle across the country against managerial suppression,” Salaita stated.
He told Mondoweiss that he is moving to Beirut this week, where he will be teaching at the American University in Beirut.
Salaita believes reinstatement at UIUC “is the optimal outcome for both the university and me,” yet is concerned about the future of his department. “We should remember that the administration’s actions have severely damaged the American Indian Studies Program to the point where it might not even exist in the near future,” Salaita explained. “If there’s a department for me to join, though, I will do so with great honor.”