Statement of Academics on the Settlement of Professor Steven Salaita’s Lawsuit Against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Click here to view the list of signers, and to add your name to this statement.

As scholars in a wide range of academic disciplines we write to express that we are both pleased and concerned that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has agreed to settle Professor Steven Salaita’s lawsuit challenging his illegal termination by the UIUC Board of Trustees after he made comments on social media critical of Israel’s military assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. We note that the University agreed to settle Professor Salaita’s claims only after a federal court had ruled in Professor Salaita’s favor on key elements of his case, including that his employment was terminated after he had been given a contract of employment by UIUC, and that Professor Salaita’s comments on social media were protected by the First Amendment.

We are pleased that the University of Illinois trustees, through the payment of a substantial monetary settlement to Professor Salaita, have acknowledged how Professor Salaita’s termination amounted to a serious violation of both his constitutional right to free speech on matters of public concern, and principles of academic freedom. Agreeing to pay what amounts to the equivalent of Professor Salaita’s salary for ten years, the University of Illinois trustees have implicitly conceded the core claims of Professor Salaita’s lawsuit: that he was illegally terminated in retaliation for his comments in connection with the Israeli war on Gaza, and that UIUC officials’ decision to terminate Professor Salaita was motivated, at least in part, by pressure they received from large donors to the University as was revealed by emails disclosed by the University in connection with the lawsuit.

At the same time, we are concerned about the terms of the settlement for two principal reasons. First, it did not include Professor Salaita’s reinstatement. Although we respect Professor Salaita’s decision to accept the settlement and to move on with his career, we nevertheless call attention to the fact that a cash settlement without an offer of reinstatement leaves unaddressed the unjust terms by which his employment was terminated. Not only were his fundamental rights of free speech and academic freedom abridged, but he remains entitled to reinstatement at UIUC as a matter of principle, whether or not he chooses to accept that reinstatement. As it stands, the settlement demonstrates that the university can abridge such rights at a price, setting a perilous precedent.

Second, we recognize that UIUC’s unlawful treatment of Professor Salaita has had implications well beyond Professor Salaita individually. The UIUC American Indian Studies Program that hired Professor Salaita not only lost Professor Salaita as a colleague (after a rigorous search), it has suffered severe fall-out given the administration’s assault on the autonomy of the program and its selection to appoint Professor Salaita to the program. Professor Salaita’s hire was intended to build a rising, dynamic academic home for research and teaching on American Indian Studies. Now the program struggles with less than one full academic appointment. The decimation of the American Indian Studies Program at UIUC has been an additional price tag paid by the university’s capitulation to internal and external forces that disapproved of Professor Salaita’s exercise of constitutionally protected rights to free speech. Sadly, the settlement in this case fails to address the larger price paid by students, faculty, and the broader academic community that looked to the University of Illinois as a home of robust academic inquiry into the complex issues of sovereignty, belonging, dispossession, and conquest – both in the U.S. and globally.

On account of the manner in which Professor Salaita was terminated the American Association of University Professors censured UIUC for its failure to conform to sound academic practices as established in AAUP principles. We feel strongly that the monetary settlement of Professor Salaita’s legal claim does not address the underlying breaches of academic freedom and widely accepted standards for the conduct of academic governance that formed the basis of the AAUP sanction in this matter. For this reason we urge the AAUP to not remove UIUC from its list of censured administrations until such time as UIUC adequately addresses the larger pall of uncertainty that has been cast over the manner in which academic freedom is understood and respected at UIUC.

(List in formation )

Katherine Franke (Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Columbia University)

Judith Butler (Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley)

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology, Wesleyan University)

Cynthia Franklin (Professor of English, University of Hawai’i)

Lisa Duggan (Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis, New York University)

Kendall Thomas (Nash Professor of Law, Columbia University)

Macarena Gomez-Barris (Associate Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity, University of Southern California)

Robert Alexander Innes (Assistant Professor of Indigenous Studies, University of Saskatchewan)

Corey Robin (Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center)

Colin Dayan (Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities & Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University)

Margaret Russell (Professor of Law, Santa Clara Law)

David Prochaska (Department of History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

Lisa Rofel (Director of Center for Emerging Worlds and Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz)

Helga Tawil-Souri (Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University)

Valerie Forman (Associate Professor, Gallatin School, New York University)

Inderpal Grewal (Professor, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, South Asian Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration Studies; Affiliate Faculty in American Studies, Yale University)

Kandice Chuh (Professor of English and American Studies; Acting Coordinator, American Studies Certificate Program, CUNY/The Graduate Center)

Valerie Forman (Associate Professor, Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University)

Natalie Zemon Davis (University of Toronto)

Saba Mahmood (Professor, University of California at Berkeley)

Mohan Dutta (Provost’s Chair Professor of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore)

Devika Chawla (Associate Professor, Ohio University)

Bill V. Mullen (Professor of American Studies, Purdue University)

6 thoughts on “Statement of Academics on the Settlement of Professor Steven Salaita’s Lawsuit Against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

  1. This was a settlement: both sides win something and both sides lose something — and both sides had to agree to it for the court to permit it to be a settlement.

    Therefore, although the tone and tenor of the protest statement appears directed to the University of Illinois, in reality it was always Prof. Salaita’s right to refuse the settlement and to continue with the case through trial.

    It is likely, although not certain, that Prof. Salaita’s attorneys had a contingency agreement with him and therefore, unless they felt that the settlement was the best outcome to be expected at that point in the litigation and/or even had they gone to trial — and if the terms of their contingency agreement permitted them to threaten to withdraw if he did not accept it — then it must be recognized that the plaintiff is as responsible as the university for the terms of the settlement.

    That said, people settle cases under far less than ideal agreements for many reasons: often the plaintiff or a family member is suffering illnesses related to or independent from the stresses of litigation and a personal cost-benefit analysis leads him/her to believe that accepting a less than ideal settlement is in his/her best interests. Thus, while academics may be disappointed that the case was not fully won, it was likely the best outcome that the plaintiff and/or his attorneys felt was possible under all the known circumstances — known, of course, only to them.

    Further, although it appeared that this court was accepting many of the plaintiff’s premises, it is by no means certain that a court at a higher level would agree. In many ways, the lessons to be learned from this case are that all steps of the hiring process at public institutions need to be conducted with full cognizance of the rights of the applicant. With a reasonable settlement offer on the table, the risk of losing this case if pursued further, and having a higher court assert some form of state’s right to annul such contracts as Prof. Salaita may (or may not) have actually had, might be a risk that none of us should have wanted him to take.

    • It seems to me the statement is not meant to personally criticize Prof. Salaita, or imply that “we want him to take the risk,” but rather to say that the AAUP should keep Illinois on the list until it addresses “the pall.” The problem is: what does it mean to address “the pall”? I think it would be unfair of critics of the university–and I’ll put myself in that number–to permanently sit in judgement without saying concretely what should be done. That’s a position that implies that what we care about is the ability to hold ourselves in righteous anger, rather than concrete changes. My main complaint about this letter is that it fails to be so concrete. I assume this was a strategic decision–to avoid giving the impression of trying to boss the university from outside–but since this is a campaign to change university behavior, and we are far down the road, it seems to me you might as well say what you mean. For me, addressing “the pall” means taking seriously the recommendations in the CAFT report, by implementing them or providing a substantive direct response to them by way of starting an honest negotiation process over them.

  2. Any decision to remove UIUC from the censure list can only be made by those members attending or represented at the annual membership meeting in June. The criteria for removal always include these elements: adequate redress to aggrieved parties; actions and policies taken to ensure that such violations will not occur in future; an assessment that the overall atmosphere for academic freedom at the university, as determined by a campus visit and interviews with faculty, is favorable.

    That said, I will add that when I read this statement last night (on its original site) there were 83 signatories. Of these, no more than 15 are AAUP members. The AAUP is open to all those who teach or conduct research at colleges and universities; it isn’t some alien organization that must be lobbied from without. Therefore, if faculty members wish to “urge” the AAUP to act or not act in a specific way they should join the organization, pay dues, and, if they wish, attend and speak at the annual meeting. For a response to some of the most common excuses offered for not joining AAUP see Michael Berube’s recent post, “Join the AAUP, People!” here: https://academeblog.org/2015/11/02/join-the-aaup-people-guest-post-by-michael-berube/

  3. Pingback: The Steven G. Salaita-University of Illinois Settlement Mediator | The Academe Blog

  4. Pingback: Vindication for Steven Salaita: A victory for academic freedom in a textbook case of “the Israel exception”ViralStorms | ViralStorms

  5. “We are pleased that the University of Illinois trustees, through the payment of a substantial monetary settlement to Professor Salaita, have acknowledged how Professor Salaita’s termination amounted to a serious violation of both his constitutional right to free speech on matters of public concern, and principles of academic freedom.”

    Of course, the UI trustees “acknowledged” nothing. They paid money to make breach of contract dispute – not a constitutional free speech or academic freedom dispute – go away.

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