Steven Salaita Files Lawsuit Against the University of Illinois for Dismissal

Steven Salaita filed a lawsuit today in a federal district court against the University of Illinois trustees and top administrators, seeking reinstatement and damages because of his dismissal.

The lawsuit makes many counts against the University of Illinois, including federal violations of the First Amendment (“firing him for his political speech”), procedural due process (“summarily stripping him of a tenured position without due process”), as well as violations under state law for Promissory Estoppel and Breach of Contract.

Salaita is seeking his job back and compensation for the harm done against him in what he called “this ordeal” in a conference call today. Salaita said, “the University’s actions have…left my academic career…in shambles.” Noting, “I am now jobless,” Salaita said that his family has been “forced to move in with my parents and struggle to make ends meet.”

Salaita’s lawyers noted, “We bring this lawsuit only after the University made it clear” it would refuse to follow the recommendations of a faculty committee (CAFT) to re-examine his case.

The most controversial part of the lawsuit will be the plan of the lawyers to file “claims against financial donors” for threatening to withhold donations if Salaita were hired. Salaita’s lawyers said they were “people who, based on their wealth, injected themselves into the hiring process.”

However, these donors have not yet been identified because the University of Illinois has refused to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that there were “too many” emails about Salaita for them to process. A hearing on Salaita’s separate FOIA lawsuit will be held in Champaign on Feb. 13.

Salaita’s lawyers indicated that they would prove that “pressure from donors” constituted the “improper motivation” for Salaita’s dismissal. But they noted that the trustees’ professed objection to Salaita’s political speech was also an improper motivation, and was sufficient to allow them to prevail.

Salaita said his aim is to be reinstated: “I have been and continue to be interested in reinstatement and joining my colleagues there.” He added, “We don’t want the type of precedent to be established where upper administrators can violate their own rules.” The University of Illinois has promised to pursue a settlement with Salaita, but the trustees rejected any possibility of reinstatement, so it would take a court order after a long legal victory for Salaita to attain his position back.

5 thoughts on “Steven Salaita Files Lawsuit Against the University of Illinois for Dismissal

  1. At last, a serious action in response to the situation.

    I am not an attorney, but I would have liked to see a Title VII charge of discrimination for ethnic origin added to the Federal charges. A neutral third-party observer might indeed wonder whether a new faculty hire of a different ethnicity, making the same public comments about Israel, would have elicited the same firestorm of retaliation from the UIUC administration and Board of Trustees.

    • I agree with you. I think it’s a mistake for them not to also be pursuing that. In addition, it could be conceived of as a Title VII violation for the students of Palestinian, Arab or “indigenous” origin, because as tuition-paying students, their dollars are being treated differently and unequally relative to students who are “Jewish,” even as I recognize that not all Jewish students support the firing. Not at all. But I’ve often thought that Palestinian students should start making this kind of argument with administrations and lawyers-it goes something like this:

      Many years ago, politicians returned money to their campaigns donated by Arabs. We certainly don’t approve of that kind of racism anymore, so it’s not done today. Student tuition, while somewhat like political donations, is also different. It is money that is now essential to the operation of public universities, as it has been all along for private institutions. Is U of I saying that the student tuition from those Palestinian or Arab or Muslim or indigenous students who would benefit from having Dr. Salaita on campus as a tenure faculty, and who, indeed, want to take courses from and study with him, is different and unequal relative to other student’s tuition? If so, why are the tuition dollars, generated by an ethnicity, religion, or political viewpoint, deemed less significant to the operating costs of U of I, than others? Is there an ethnic/religious viewpoint in this differential treatment of tuition?

      I keep waiting for some lawyer to make this argument regarding the attacks on the many chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. This is the kind of argument that also has “popular” appeal. It’s powerful. It says you can’t differentiate unequally between student tuition dollars at a time when states are no longer supporting the operating costs of public universities.

      Unless of course, you’re a fool and want publicity out in social media that says “X U treats student tuition differently depending on ethnicity or religion.” That’s the kind of argument that raises eyebrows. That’s true even if it can’t be tied to Salaita’s legal case specifically.

    • In fact, the state’s human rights law might also have profitably been cited in the case as well. Title VII has a cap on damages but many state statutes have no caps at all on damages in discrimination cases.

  2. Pingback: University of Illinois Responds to Salaita Lawsuit | The Academe Blog

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