University Settles in Flashpoint Academic Freedom Case
"This is an important victory, even if the bigger fight isn't over," said Dr. Steven Salaita
More than a year after firing Dr. Steven Salaita from a tenured faculty position for publishing personal tweets critical of Israel's 2014 military assault on Gaza, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has agreed to settle the professor's free speech and breach of contract lawsuits for nearly a million dollars.
Announced Thursday by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and co-counsel Loevy & Loevy, the deal falls short of reinstating the professor to the American Indian Studies Department—a demand that has been issued by students, faculty, and Salaita himself. Salaita's job offer was revoked after he signed an employment contract with the university in July 2014.
Heralding the settlement as a "vindication" for himself, Salaita explained the much more important victory was "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.
A vibrant campus movement led by advocates for Palestinian human rights, worker justice, and free speech advocates forced Salaita's firing into the international limelight. In addition to student and faculty walkouts, a successful boycott of UIUC garnered the backing of thousands of academics and students worldwide and led to the cancellation of dozens of lectures and conferences at the university.
These efforts forced a shake-up in the university administration, prompting vote of "no confidence" in the university administration by 16 UIUC departments, as well as public censure by the American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association.
When a federal judge ruled in favor of allowing Salaita's breach of contract case to proceed in August, Chancellor Phyllis Wise—who initially served Salaita papers rescinding his job offer—resigned from her position.
Then, a resultant transparency scandal prompted Provost Ilesanmi Adesida to do the same.
What's more, Freedom of Information Act requests that were filed in response to Salaita's ouster revealed that well-heeled donors inappropriately intervened to press for Salaita's firing.
In exchange for the sum of $875,000, Salaita agreed to drop his multiple lawsuits against the university. The lawsuit does not, however, address the academic freedom implications of the case—which impact the campus community far beyond Salaita.
It is not immediately clear whether the settlement will prompt the AAUP to remove UIUC from its list of censured universities.
Meanwhile, Palestinian rights advocates continue to face retaliation and intimidation in universities and colleges across the United States.
A report released in September by CCR and Palestine Legal revealed that, in in 2014 alone, the latter organization responded to 152 incidents of "censorship, punishment, or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights and received 68 additional requests for legal assistance in anticipation of such actions." Just halfway through 2015, the organization had responded to 140 such incidents, marking a considerable increase.
"This is an important victory, even if the bigger fight isn't over," Salaita wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday. "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."
Salaita added on Twitter:
Please remember: many were harmed by UIUC's behavior, especially those in American Indian Studies and the Palestinian students on campus.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) November 12, 2015