Jim Dey: Salaita brought chasm to campus

Jim Dey: Salaita brought chasm to campus

The Steven Salaita hangover was there for all to see at Monday's meeting of the academic senate.

University of Illinois Professor Bruce Levine made it a point to berate interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson for settling the controversial professor's lawsuit against the UI. Instead of paying Salaita $600,000 to drop his lawsuit, Levine asserted, the UI should have settled the lawsuit entirely on terms favorable to Salaita.

"(The UI) chose instead to offer a settlement that's in fact far smaller than the likely cost to Professor Salaita, as measured in a lifetime of probable lost academic salary. Most important, the UI refuses to give him his job back, refuses to admit its own wrongdoing. To add insult to injury, it requires Professor Salaita, the injured party, to promise that he will never again seek a position at the University of Illinois," he said.

Wilson then pointed out the obvious.

"I don't agree with everything you said," she replied.

Neither did Levine's audience. Some people applauded him while others did not.

The Salaita controversy created a considerable chasm on campus, not as deep as it appeared to outsiders, but deep enough. Now that it's over, people will continue to see things in a highly polarized light.

Did Salaita have a valid contract that was breached by the UI? It depends whom you ask.

Did Salaita's $600,000 settlement plus another $275,000 for his lawyers represent a victory that put the professor's oppressors in their place? Or was it a hard-to-swallow bargain that saved a small fortune in future lawyers' fees?

The huge unresolved question is whether the polemical professor had a valid contract. If he did, the UI clearly violated his free-speech rights by rescinding its job offer after he created a stir with a series of vulgar tweets attacking Israel.

The tweets' timing is crucial because he sent them after he accepted an offer from the UI but before he was scheduled to start teaching in the fall 2014 semester and before his contract was approved by UI trustees.

After former Chancellor Phyllis Wise and UI trustees, feeling the tweets' tone was unacceptable, pulled the plug on Salaita's UI career, he filed suit.

The most credible finding supporting Salaita's contract claim came from U.S. Judge Harry Leinenweber.

In denying a UI motion to dismiss Salaita's lawsuit, Leinenweber said the UI's offer to Salaita, his acceptance and the extensive plans made to have him join the faculty were proof of a valid contract.

The judge said the UI "cannot argue with a straight face that it engaged in all these actions in the absence of any obligation of agreement."

For good measure, Leinenweber characterized as unclear the UI's notice to Salaita that his contract was "subject to" trustees' approval. On top of that, Leineweber described trustees as rubber stamps with little to no discretion in carrying out the wishes of university administrators.

At the same time, Leinenweber said Salaita's contract claim was "adequate" to proceed and the "issue is best resolved at trial or on a motion for summary judgment."

Leinenweber's bold language is stunning in its length and breadth.

Can it really be that UI trustees, designated by state statute as the UI's overseers and final decision-makers, are mere tokens?

While critical of the UI's decision not to hire Salaita, Northwestern University law Professor Steven Lubet concluded that Chancellor Wise "has great discretion when it comes to hiring professors — as opposed to firing them — and there is no rule that prevents her from considering Salaita's history of vulgar and intemperate outbursts."

"Whatever his appeals to scholarly high ground, Salaita's legal position is shaky. So don't be surprised if he accepts the money and cuts his losses," Lubet wrote shortly after the controversy went public in August 2014.

Both Salaita and the UI stuck to their scripts in announcing the settlement.

Salaita and his lawyers took a victory lap after the settlement was approved. He claimed "vindication" while one of his lawyers said "the size of the settlement is an implicit admission of the strength" of Salaita's contractual and constitutional claims.

The UI said $975,000 is a lot of money to pay but far less than what its legal costs would have been if the case proceeded to trial.

The UI explained the controversy occurred after it "exercised its option not to hire Salaita."

The question of who won the dollar fight is equally murky.

Salaita was scheduled to be paid $85,000 for a nine-month academic year, so $600,000 represents about seven years pay for doing nothing. Plus, he's teaching in Beirut. At least on the surface, Salaita can persuasively claim he won.

But he initially indicated he wouldn't drop the lawsuit without a UI faculty job.

William Jacobson, who is hostile to Salaita, wrote on his Legal Insurrection website that "by any measure, this is a loss for Salaita and his supporters" because a faculty post was "the dividing line between the parties."

Jacobson also said that "based on my experience representing employees, the settlement certainly will be subject to taxation as wages." Plus, he said, Salaita "may have to pay taxes on the attorneys' fees in addition to the $600,000" if "he is pushed into the Alternative Minimum Tax."

Further, while Salaita was claiming a big legal victory, some of his most prominent supporters, like Brooklyn College Professor Corey Robin, who wrote a favorable blurb for Salaita's recent book, expressed disappointment with the settlement.

"I would be less than honest if I didn't say I was disappointed," he said.

So there it stands. People can't agree about the legitimacy of the original controversy. Neither can they agree on the propriety or meaning of its ending.

Given Salaita's contractual promise never to apply again for a UI position, about all that's inarguable is that he won't darken the UI's door again.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
STM wrote on November 18, 2015 at 9:11 am

Enough already, sheesh!

Dey is such a whiner.

rsp wrote on November 18, 2015 at 9:11 am

You're right, Jim. We can all agree, the settlement was too low.

wayward wrote on November 18, 2015 at 10:11 am

Hey Jim, we're not quite sure how you feel about Salaita.  Could you please write a few more editorials about him?

andrewscheinman wrote on November 18, 2015 at 11:11 am

Mr. Dey:

If you're concerned about money, why not focus on the $1.3 MILLION the UI paid its OWN lawyers in the Salaita case.  You might think most of this money was spent because of SALAITA, but the truth is that a lot was spent for UIUC's outside lawyers to 1) conduct an ethics review of Wise's hiding documents, and 2) to play damage control to the Federal Court in the Salaita case as a DIRECT result of that document-hiding.

Consider the "ethics review" that we know UIUC had conducted about Wise's using personal emails to avoid FOIAs, and about her statements that she was destroying emails, at least those relating to the FOIAs on the medical center.  Who conducted this ethics review that we've never seen?  If it was done internally, it would be a HUGE conflict of interest, since UIUC's own attorneys (Scott Rice) knew that Wise was using emails.

So let's assume the review was done by high-costing external counsel.  HOW MUCH MONEY WAS SPENT?  100K?  200K?  More?  Why not use your extensive journalist chops and find out.

To that point, consider the second thing, that outside consel DEFINATELY had to spend lots of time and $ covering UIUC's butts and their own about what were distortions to the Federal court about documents.  In litigation both sides have to produce document lists and the documents themselves, at least documents to the court.  UIUC certainly claimed there was no evidence of document destruction, when in fact Wise had written she was absolutely destroying medical-center-related documents.  How much did it cost for those high-priced Chicago lawyers to go back through everything they'd been told by UIUC to figure out what they'd NOT been told, and what they told the court that wasn't true?

Given that the state's in a budget crisis and students and taxpayers are being crushed even more to pay for college, don't you think your wind would be better spent investigating the DIRECT COSTS of Wise and other top adminstrators breaking laws?



Manscape wrote on November 18, 2015 at 12:11 pm

Can you get on the same bus as Salaita and go away?

Rocky7 wrote on November 18, 2015 at 2:11 pm

Two Points:

1). The "divide" within the UIUC faculty has existed since at least 1970, and probably longer.

2). A settlement is far more preferable than a protracted lawsuit (including appeals) which are BOTH financially and emotionally draining.

byrdslover wrote on November 18, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Salaita will certainly be invited to speak here, so he will be "darkening the UI's door again" and again and again.  Which means you will be able to continue your obsession with him, so you can find something to write about other than Illini sports, which is the only thing you and your newspaper know anything about.

Bulldogmojo wrote on November 18, 2015 at 8:11 pm


A chasm really?, Not White, Herman, Hogan, Troyer, Pless, Rumbelow, Wise et al...Just Salaita then?

G. Fawkes wrote on November 19, 2015 at 9:11 am

  While the author of these Salaita articles perhaps may bore some irritate others, they serve a valuable writing to bring to the front and keep reminding the taxpaying citizens what a travesty has been committed on them, spending well over a million dollars of their money on a childish yet arrogant adult who does not need to be a proffesor at a kindergarten let alone a University with the status of UofI.

 Please keep this kind of article freely flowing lest we forget the cost of this night mare to the taxpayer of Illinois

Bulldogmojo wrote on November 19, 2015 at 12:11 pm


But keep paying those billions of dollars in taxes each year to Israel for their military to carpet bomb Gaza into being uninhabitable by the year 2020 (per UN report)

Guy Fawkes? Seriously??

andrewscheinman wrote on November 19, 2015 at 12:11 pm

It's worthwhile reading Salaita's latest comments about his experience: http://www.thenation.com/article/steven-salaita-i-will-always-condemn-injustice-no-matter-the-state-of-my-employment/ ... I realize the man's been under a lot of pressure, and I still personally condemn his un-hiring as being a violation of procedure BUT, reading what he wrote, there's a lot there that's very disturbing even apart from the (sadly) nearly illiterate ranting and bad grammar.

Specifically, Salaita seems to bring everything back to "the Zionists," and at this point that claustrophobic point of view gets not just tiring, but flat-out concerning when you look at Salaita's ever closer approach to flat-out anti-Semitism.

Again, none of that is to say that his un-hiring was right; we'd have been much better off and spent less money if he'd just been hired and then engaged in this kind of ranting as a professor.

So I certainly agree with Guy that Jim Dey could be doing us a favor of reminding us of how much has been spent on Salaita.  My big difference is that, as I wrote in an earlier comment, Dey could actually do some investigating on exactly how that $1.3M spent by UIUC went to pay for costs, including the likely costs of investigating Wise's intentionally breaking the law.