comments on recent developments in the salaita case
In 2014, Steven Salaita was offered a job at the University of Illionois at Urbana-Champaign. The offer was rescinded after he wrote some strongly worded
totally outrageous tweets about the Palestine-Israel conflict. Salaita litigated, claiming that the he was an actual employee of UIUC and could not be fired based on the political opinions expressed in his tweets.
Last week, a Federal court in the state of Illinois issued a very important ruling. First, the judge determined that the letter given by the interim was in fact a job offer and he was, in fact, under contract. Second, the suit was not dismissed and he could continue the litigation.
Comment 1: This court ruling is one of the most clear minded approaches to academic contracts I have ever read. Universities have this bizarre system where they offer jobs but the offer has to go through multiple levels of approval. Universities will often claim that you aren’t actually employed until the Board of Trustees (or its equivalent) votes. Often, this final vote happens after the first day of class. In Salaita’s case, the Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, took back the offer, then allowed it to go a final vote, where Salaita was rejected.
The issue is – are you actually under contract until that final vote? The judge ruled that yes, you are obviously under contract. You sign the forms, you get moving funds, you get resources, and, in Salaita’s case, administrators called him an “employee” in public. If he wasn’t actually under contract, then he could literally take UIUC’s moving funds and teach at some other campus and UIUC would have no grounds for complaint. This strikes me as a very sensible reading of the situation. Otherwise, people could switch campuses and take offers until the moment of the final Trustees vote.
So the court said, yes, this is a contract, you can litigate over breach of contract, and then discovery will ensue, which will be very, very interesting.
Comment 2: Shortly after the court decision, Chancellor Wise resigned. I’ve studied college administrator politics, so this is no surprise. College administrators are political actors who are subject to often crippling political pressures. The back story of the Salaita case is that a number of donors were upset with Salaita. There is also a long standing issue with a medical school that Wise was developing, which might have been a factor in the dispute. Given the litigation that is to come, Wise’s resignation could be foreseen.