A severely anti-Israel academic has begun was could turn into a lengthy legal battle against the college that revoked his tenure offer.
Steven Salaita was scheduled to start a tenured position this fall at the University of Illinois’s American Indian Studies department, but then over the summer he made hundreds of bitterly anti-Israel tweets during the country’s incursion into the Gaza Strip. The tweets drew public attention and there was a widespread outcry against both Salaita and the university. In August, the school revoked Salaita’s tenure offer by having the board of trustees refuse to confirm his hire. Since then, Salaita has been jobless, as he resigned a previous post at Virginia Tech in order to prepare for his move to Illinois.
Now, Salaita is beginning a series of legal maneuverings with the end goal of forcing the school to hire him. Salaita’s first salvo, filed this week, does not directly challenge his firing, but instead accuses the University of violating Illinois’s Freedom of Information Act by illegally withholding documents from Salaita’s legal team.
Salaita’s lawyers have requested that the university turn over emails from certain school officials that contain keywords that may indicate ties to Salaita’s case, such as “Jewish” or “uncivil.” In particular, Salaita’s team is looking for emails that may indicate outside pressure from donors or politicians played a major role in the decision to rescind Salaita’s job offer.
The school has refused to turn them over, arguing the request is too broad and would be overly burdensome to accommodate. However, a government entity can only reject a FOIA request as too burdensome if the difficulty of publishing the documents outweighs the public benefit to be had from revealing them. The extensive national and even international interest in the case, Salaita argues, compels the university to grant his request. The school’s resistance, he says, is solely due to “bad faith.”
Whether or not this legal challenge is successful, it will almost certainly prove just a prelude to a larger legal challenge that would seek to forcibly reinstate Salaita as a tenured professor. Salaita has claimed that while his tenure position was not officially confirmed, the university was already treating him as a de facto employee while regarding trustee confirmation as a mere formality. As such, he argues that his tweets over the summer should enjoy the protections afforded by tenure, which would prohibit the university from firing him over his political views.
Salaita’s case precipitated a crisis at the university and has also become something of a cause célèbre among academic freedom advocates. Sixteen of the school’s academic departments have passed motions of no confidence in the school’s leadership, while thousands of scholars at other universities have pledged to boycott the institution unless Salaita is reinstated.
The American Association of University Professors, one of the country’s largest trade organizations for professional academics, donated several thousand dollars to help Salaita with living expenses, and the organization has suggested that it may censure Illinois for violations of academic freedom, a condemnation it has never before brought against a large research university.
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