On the One-Year Anniversary of the Salaita Story, Some Good News

Big news out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign today.

First, a federal judge firmly rejected UIUC’s argument that it never hired Steven Salaita because the Board of Trustees hadn’t yet given its final seal of approval at the time of his firing last year. According to Judge Henry Leinenweber of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois (a Reagan appointee):

If the court accepted the university’s argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist, because no professor would resign a tenure position, move states, and start teaching at a new college based on an ‘offer’ that was absolutely meaningless until after the semester already started.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education goes onto report:

If the university truly regarded such job contracts as hinging on board approval, he said, it would have the board vote on them much earlier in the hiring process, before paying a prospective faculty member’s moving expenses and offering that professor an office and classes. “Simply put, the university cannot argue with a straight face that it engaged in all these actions in the absence of any obligation or agreement,” he said.

The university’s board actually might have undermined itself legally in deciding to hold a formal vote on Mr. Salaita’s employment after Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor,attempted to rescind the job by not forwarding it for board approval, the ruling indicated. If the university had not made some sort of offer to Mr. Salaita, the judge asked, “why hold a vote at all?”

Based heavily upon his determination that such an agreement existed, Judge Leinenweber said Mr. Salaita can proceed in trying to prove that university administrators and board members conspired to breach his contract, violate his free-speech rights under the First Amendment, and deny him academic due process.

Last summer, at just about this time, many defenders of Chancellor Wise’s decision to fire Salaita, including many readers of and commenters on this blog, tried to make the case that the UIUC proceeded to make in federal court and that has now been firmly rejected by that court. Indeed, Judge Leinenweber makes many of the same arguments against UIUC’s claim that many of us made against that claim last summer (see especially, pp. 13-19). While it was depressing and exhausting to have to make these arguments over and over again—arguments that were plain as day to most of us in academia—it’s nice to see them vindicated in court.

Second, Chancellor Wise resigned today. With, to my mind, an unprecedented statement admitting to the costs this controversy has imposed upon her and her administration.

External issues have arisen over the past year that have distracted us from the important tasks at hand. I have concluded that these issues are diverting much needed energy and attention from our goals. I therefore believe the time is right for me to step aside.

While Wise was battling critics on an array of issues, the Chicago Tribune reports that it was the Salaita case that was truly taking the greatest toll.

But the harshest criticism against Wise focused on the decision last summer to withdraw a job offer to professor Steven Salaita after he made a series of critical and profane comments about Israel on social media. U. of I. rescinded Salaita’s offer for a tenured faculty position in the American Indian studies department weeks before he was scheduled to start teaching.

That decision led to much fallout, including a recent censure by the American Association of University Professors, a prominent professors group, which said U. of I. violated the principles of academic freedom. More than a dozen U. of I. academic departments voted no confidence in Wise’s leadership, and faculty across the country have boycotted the campus and canceled events there. Salaita has filed a federal lawsuit alleging breach of contract and violation of his free speech rights.

Those controversies apparently came to a head this week, and Wise submitted a one-sentence resignation letter Thursday.

“It is the right thing for her to step down. I wish that I could be more supportive of her, but unfortunately during the last year, she has made so many missteps that have cost the university so many hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” said U. of I. religion professor Bruce Rosenstock, president of the Campus Faculty Association, a faculty advocacy group.

It was exactly one year ago today that the Salaita story broke nationally. It’s been a grueling year for Steven, which he discusses in Uncivil Rites, a terrific little book that I read and blurbed not long ago and that I heartily recommend to all of you. But on this, the one-year anniversary of the breaking of his story, I hope he can take some solace in these bits of good news.

Update (11:15 pm)

After reading Leinenweber’s opinion, Brian Leiter affirms a point I’ve long been making about the threat of discovery:

Thus, the court asked the question:  if the facts are as Salaita alleges, does he have a valid breach of contract claim, and the court gave that a resoundingly affirmative answer (coming pretty close to ridiculing the university’s position that there wasn’t really a contract).  The breach of contract and the First Amendment claims are Salaita’s most potent in terms of damages.  It was obviously agreed in advance that Chancellor Wise would step down given an adverse decision, presumably because the University knows that the outrageousness of her conduct will be exposed to view once discovery begins and presumably also thinking that it will be easier to settle with Salaita once they are rid of the University official who said, “We will not hire him.”  My bet is that, in order to block discovery, which would throw open to public view the bad behavior of many actors behind the scenes, and in order to avoid the damages attached to losing the breach of contract and First Amendment claims (which they would almost certainly lose, and for which the damages could easily amount to compensation for his entire career, i.e., 35 years of salary and benefits, plus additional damages for the constitutional claims), the University will now try to reach a settlement in which he is reinstated (subject to some face-saving terms for the University, like Salaita promising not to scare students in the classroom), and compensation is limited to damages for the last year plus his attorney fees.  This is a very good day for tenure, for contracts, and for free speech.


  1. xenon2 August 6, 2015 at 11:15 pm | #

    Wise stepped down?

    That’s a beginning…

    • acharn August 8, 2015 at 9:58 pm | #

      Well, she gets a $400,000 deferred compensation payment and moves to her old faculty department (sorry, 1 of 3, I don’t know which one) at a salary of $300,000 plus she immediately starts a “nine-month sabbatical.” Not up there with Carly Fiorina, I know, but not bad. And she’s 70 years old. I think she ought to be thinking about retirement. She’s guaranteed a nice pension.

  2. Hal Ginsberg August 6, 2015 at 11:16 pm | #

    It is unfortunate that Professor Robin continues to champion Salaita, who may not be an anti-semite, but who has deliberately given aid and comfort to anti-semites and, therefore, whom the University of Illinois rightly terminated.

    Salaita tweets:

    “Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime. #Gaza”

    “Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible to something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine”

    “There’s something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel’s aggression. Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion.”

    My nearly year-old take: http://halginsberg.com/the-case-of-steven-salaita/

    • Bill Michtom August 7, 2015 at 12:30 am | #

      “Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible to something honorable since 1948.”

      This is the only one I object to, since bigotry is never excusable, but it is entirely in concert with what Israel has been doing since before its founding.

      The first one is, unfortunately, very much what Israel has been doing with its propaganda trips for young US Jews. The third one is neither here nor there as far as giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites, which none of them actually do, because bigots need neither aid nor comfort to practice their ugliness (see the Confederacy worshipers in the face of the removal of their idolized symbol).

      Hal, it is high time you realize that Zionism, like all ethnocentric & theocratic governments is, by definition oppressive. This is reinforced by the founders of Israel doing to the indigenous people of Palestine what the Europeans did to the indigenous people of the Americas.

      And this doesn’t even deal with the theocratic justification for taking over Palestine. I could make a similar case that I should be able to colonize east Africa because that’s where humanity originated and I was, in one way or another, forced out of Africa.

      • Hal Ginsberg August 8, 2015 at 9:08 pm | #

        I am a Zionist who takes no sexual pleasure in the horrific oppression and killing of Palestinians by the IDF. I am a Zionist who believes in a one-state solution where Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists live with equal rights and very strong Constitutional protections for religious expression in an Israel that includes the West Bank and Gaza.

        • Bill Michtom August 8, 2015 at 10:08 pm | #

          If you want a one-state solution where Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists live with equal rights and very strong Constitutional protections for religious expression in an Israel that includes the West Bank and Gaza, you are, by definition, not a Zionist.

        • Edward August 10, 2015 at 12:03 am | #

          ” I am a Zionist who believes in a one-state solution where Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists live with equal rights…”

          Actually, that is the society that existed in Palestine before 1948 when the Zionists drove out most of the indigenous people.

      • Andrew August 10, 2015 at 1:07 pm | #

        “This is the only one I object to, since bigotry is never excusable, but it is entirely in concert with what Israel has been doing since before its founding.”

        Bill, you seem to have poorly understood the tweet. Salaita is not saying “Israel has behaved terribly, therefore a hatred of Jewish people is justified.” He’s saying “When Zionists conflate anti-Zionism with anti-semitism, they redefine anti-semitism as something honorable(support for Palestinian human rights).” In other words, by falsely accusing pro-Palestinian activists of anti-semitism, Zionists cheapen the term by defining it as “this person thinks Palestinians deserve human rights” which is a shame given how terrible actual anti-semitism is.

    • Tom P. August 7, 2015 at 9:15 am | #

      what people miss is that the word antisemitism appears in that tweet between quotation marks. In other words, this isn’t about genuine hatred of Jews (which Salaita is on record for calling out). This is about the accusation of antisemitism, which is becoming almost meaningless because of its overuse – like crying wolf. There is nothing anti-Jewish about that statement.

    • David Green August 7, 2015 at 9:47 am | #

      You should read the first chapter of Michael Oren’s miserable book, Ally; then read the crap by his buddy Yossi Klein Halevi; then look at Robert Friedman’s chapter in Zealots for Zion about Yoram Hazony, the founder of the Shalem Center that supported Oren and Halevi, and now is a university in occupied Palestine. Both Oren and Hazony were at Princeton in the early 80s. Indeed, Israel has provided a fertile ground for a range of narcissistic and grandiose and privileged Jewish-American boys to act out their biblical fantasies in a neo-fascist setting. Salaita is probably not hard enough on these people; it should be for decent Jews to be even harder.

  3. CarlD August 6, 2015 at 11:19 pm | #

    I’m delighted by the decision, which is sensible and just. Maybe it also gives us space to reflect that given the interests and issues in play, Chancellor Wise was trapped in a no-win situation; and to mourn the loss of a high-profile woman chief executive.

    • Bill Michtom August 7, 2015 at 12:34 am | #

      I give her no excuses because she’s a woman. She still did things that were completely unethical, perhaps illegal. And she wasn’t “trapped.” She walked into that situation with her eyes wide open and closed the door behind herself.

    • dtr August 7, 2015 at 6:45 pm | #

      Wise reminds me of the “ethnic” hatchetmen (and now sadly women) who do the dirty work of the the true Powerbrokers:

      Hailing from the periphery, they also instruct old and sclerotic elites in the ways of renewal and renovation. Joseph de Maistre, a jurist and diplomat from Savoy, tutored counterrevolutionary France, even though he never was a subject or citizen of that country. Edmund Burke, the bourgeois Irishman, defended aristocratic England against the Jacobins. Alexander Hamilton, bastard child of the Caribbean and rumored son of racially mixed parentage, led the Federalist reaction. Disraeli the Jew gave the Tories confidence and style. Kristol the Jew–like Scalia the Italian, Fukuyama the Asian and all the hyphens of today’s conservative movement–gave the Republicans ideas and zeal.


  4. Julie (@NYCJulieNYC) August 7, 2015 at 12:16 am | #

    Thank you for writing about this great legal victory! Steven Salaita is a hero and, in addition, a true mensch.

    I will pray that G-d grants Halginsberg the wisdom to retract his hateful thoughts & words against the inspiring, gentle, thoughtful Steven Salaita.

  5. Joanna A Bujes August 7, 2015 at 12:36 am | #

    Mourn the loss of a high-profile woman chief executive? Who showed no courage and no principles? I don’t think so.

  6. Robert Chiovoloni August 7, 2015 at 6:55 am | #

    No doubt he’ll accept a reasonable offer to settle-probably much like you describe. The problem with that is that these offers too often merely co-opt the victim into letting the offenders off the hook in return for restoring something like a normal life for the victim. I can understand how he and his family need to move on, but these people deserve to be exposed.

    • Phil Perspective August 7, 2015 at 11:31 am | #

      Corey can speak of this better but I don’t think Salaita is in this for the money. Meaning the lawsuit.

  7. David Green August 7, 2015 at 9:51 am | #

    Wise did her job, and now she falls on her sword in a painless way. We’ve got an increasingly neoliberal campus, plenty of corporate/manger-speak to go around, a new “bioengineering” medical school in the works in conjunction with the local healthcare monster (Carle). There is no honest discussion of Israel/Palestine on this campus–never has been, never will be; the Salaita case makes sure of that.

  8. Jeff August 7, 2015 at 10:01 am | #

    As for Wise resigning, as bad as her decision was re: Salaita the law suits against the U of I athletic department (especially women’s basketball and the football team” are potentially going to cost the State far more money and are truly egregious. Wise was running a thoroughly corrupt athletic program on top of disregarding normal hiring practices. Lets hope the U. can recover from this/

  9. jonnybutter August 7, 2015 at 10:50 am | #

    Whatever happens from here on out, this is double good. One of the salient techniques of our growing authoritarian culture here in the US is for the powers that be to do something brazenly, obviously wrong – as here with Salaita – and then more or less dare you, the citizen/observer/victim, to say or do anything about it. The brazenness is the kind of the point. Of course Wise will just be replaced by some other fool, but at least there was normal, rational cause-effect. And of course the bigger news is the next step forward for the suit.

  10. Glenn August 7, 2015 at 10:54 am | #

    That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

    There was once an aspiration among many that all would live under rule of law, liberated at last from the mean tyranny of men.

  11. Tracy Lightcap August 7, 2015 at 12:03 pm | #

    I think Corey and Leiter are right about discovery. The recent resignations of the president of Sweet Briar and several Board members there were almost certainly due to the AG of Virginia saying that he was going to conduct an investigation of the decision to close the college. I don’t know what they were afraid would be found, but I guarantee there was something, just as in this case. And, yes, the two sides will settle for just this reason and, yes, Salita will get his job. There was never any defensible ground for depriving him of it.

    As to all this stuff about Zionism: anti-Semitism is despicable and so is any state that effectively restricts civil rights to a sub-set of its citizens on irrational grounds and still insists on calling itself democratic. The two are completely separate questions. Bringing up the behavior of authoritarian states (who would expect them to respect human rights?) or a “dangerous” military situation (for a country that is the only nuclear power in its region) is just hand-waving. What most people who are critical of Israel want is for the government there to start behaving like a true democracy. Doing that would cure a multitude of ills.

  12. eschwitz August 7, 2015 at 4:50 pm | #

    Corey, assuming you still support the boycott, it would be interesting to hear a clear affirmation of this, along with supporting reasons. Of course, if you think this substantially cools the case for continuing to boycott, that would be interested to hear also.

    • Corey Robin August 7, 2015 at 9:40 pm | #

      I firmly support the boycott and see no reason to end it. The goal of the boycott is to see Steven Salaita reinstated. That has not yet happened. Until it does, the boycott will continue.

  13. Eric Schwitzgebel August 7, 2015 at 10:17 pm | #

    Thanks for clarifying, Corey!

  14. delia ruhe August 9, 2015 at 12:31 pm | #

    The American Likukniks can’t win ’em all. Remember Nadia el Haj? They tried mightily to ruin that woman’s career, just as they’re trying to ruin Steven’s, but they are paying for it through their efforts having defeated Wise’s career as an administrator.

    Thank you, Corey Robin, for documenting this saga for us. I will wait to exhale when Steven is re-instated and made whole with adequate financial compensation.

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