The University of Illinois’s board of trustees voted 8-1 Thursday to reaffirm the college’s decision to revoke a job offer to a controversial academic after he made anti-Israel remarks on Twitter.
The vote hardly marks the end of the saga, however, as both protests and a possible lawsuit loom in the future.
Steven Salaita, who was slated to begin teaching at the school’s Department of Native American Studies this fall, drew ire over the summer when hundreds of anti-Israel tweets made during Israel’s recent Gaza incursion came to wider public attention.
Salaita suggested that Israel was “making anti-Semitism respectable” and said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should begin wearing a necklace made of Palestinian childrens’ teeth.
Facing an outcry from both the public and several donors, Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced that she was revoking her recommendation to the board of trustees. Thursday’s vote constituted an affirmation by the board of Wise’s decision.
Critics, including over thirty faculty members who released a letter supporting the decision, say that Salaita’s statements went well beyond valid political commentary into the realm of hate speech.
“Dr. Salaita’s public expressions of hatred and his public endorsement of violence have no place in the University of Illinois,” said the professors in a public letter.
Others, however, argue that Salaita is a victim of political censorship that has violated his free speech rights. In late August, 64 Illinois faculty published a letter demanding Salaita’s reinstatement, and over 1800 faculty at other schools have pledged to boycott the school if Salaita is not hired.
According to the Associated Press, the vote was made in a packed room, and over 50 students and faculty marched out following the vote with cries of “Shame on you!”
Salaita himself had remained silent for over a month after the controversy broke, but broke his silence on Tuesday prior to the vote. He requested that the university rehire him, and emphasized that he would never penalize a student for their opinion on Israel.
“I’ve never, ever punished a student for expressing a particular point of view or for adhering to a particular ideology and I never will,” said Salaita. He remained defiant, however, and refused to apologize for his remarks, saying only that they were “misunderstood.
“I regret that [the tweets] were… pulled out of a much larger history of tweeting and general political commentary that indicates quite strongly and clearly that I’m deeply opposed to all forms of bigotry and racism including anti-Semitism,” he said.
Salaita has indicated that he may sue the university in an effort to force it to hire him. Every aspect of his hiring had been completed except for the approval of the board of trustees.
Salaita’s supporters claim that such approval is merely a formality, so much so that professors often start work for the university before it is actually obtained. As a result, they claim Salaita should enjoy the full job protections of a tenured professor.
Salaita may also claim damages based on the fact that he and his wife had both quit their jobs at Virginia Tech and sold their house in anticipation of beginning work in Illinois. The revoked job offer has left them both unemployed and living with family members.
Maria LaHood, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing Salaita, said in a statement after the vote that the trustees’ decision “violates both the Constitution and his rights under contract law.”
StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy organization, quickly released a statement to The Daily Caller News Foundation praising the trustees’ vote.
“The Salaita issue is not about freedom of speech, academic freedom or the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is about professional conduct, intellectual standards, and collegiality,” said StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein. “We applaud UIUC Chancellor Wise and the Trustees for resisting the enormous political pressure exerted on them, and for demanding that high intellectual and professional standards be maintained even on highly charged issues. We hope their decision sets a standard that other universities will follow so we can restore informed, reasonable debate about the Palestinian Israeli conflict on American campuses.”
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