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U Of I Trustees Approve $600,000 Settlement With Salaita

Jim Meadows
Illinois Public Media

The University of Illinois and professor Steven Salaita have reached a $600,000 settlement, but he will not be teaching at the U of I. Including legal fees, the total will be $875,000, according to his attorneys.  University trustees approved the settlement on an 9-1 vote at their meeting today in Chicago. 

In a press release, the U of I says Salaita will receive the lump sum payment, and the university has also agreed to pay his attorneys for any legal costs he has incurred.  The proposed agreement stipulates that it does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the U of I.

Salaita’s pending job offer with the American Indian Studies Program was rescinded last year over a series of anti-Israel messages on Twitter. In September 2014, U of I Trustees voted not to hire Salaita on an 8-1 vote. He later filed a lawsuit, seeking reinstatement to the job. 

The only 'no' vote came from Trustee Tim Koritz, who said the board acted in the best interests of students in voting to withdraw the job offer last year.

“The University believes that reaching a settlement with Dr. Salaita is the most reasonable option to fully and finally conclude all of the pending issues,” said Interim Urbana Chancellor Barbara Wilson, in a statement. 

“Although the amount is significant, it is less than what we would spend if the case were to continue and proceed to trial over the next year.  The settlement reflects our belief that Dr. Salaita and his family should be compensated for the financial disruption they experienced.  This agreement represents an important step forward in our efforts to see the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) censure lifted - a goal President Tim Killeen and I are both committed to achieving as soon as possible."

But speaking with reporters at the trustees' meeting, Wilson said the stipulation that Salaita would never teach at the University of Illinois was an important one for school officials.

"It was a particular point that we were pretty adamant about in mediation and that's where we ended", said Wilson.

Anita Levy with the AAUP concurred that a settlement between the U of I and Salaita was an important step towards the lifting of the censure. She says no final decision would come until June, 2016, when the organization's Committee "A" on academic freedom could reccomend that the censure be lifted. A final decision would come at the AAUP's annual membership meeting a week later. The AAUP's censure of the university of Illinois came via the same process in 2014.

After the trustees' vote on the settlement in Chicago, Chancellor Wilson said the censure's consequences for the university went beyond the legal costs of responding to Salaita's lawsuit.

"We've had a lot of canceled talks on the campus," said Wilson. "We've had many professional organizations either boycotting us or saying that they won't be involved with us professionally. We've had votes of no confidence in several departments. So it's been very disruptive."

The settlement is a vindication for me, but more importantly, it is a victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment." said Salaita, in a statement sent out by the Center for Constitutional Rights.  "The petitions, demonstrations, and investigations, as well as the legal case, have reinvigorated American higher education as a place of critical thinking and rigorous debate, and I am deeply grateful to all who have spoken out."

Salaita’s goal in his lawsuit was to be reinstated to the position the U of I had offered him in the American Indian Studies program. He maintained that position in an interview for Illinois Public Media in October, stating, "it would be wonderful to be reinstated to the postion for which I was hired."

But Salaita attorney Anand Swaminathan says Salaita is now ready to move past what happened.

“Over the course of time, as things developed, as we achieved major victories in the course of the litigation, as Professor Salaita made the move to Beirut and began teaching again, and got to do what he loves, he reached a point where he decided to move on, and move on from the University of Illinois," he said. "And so once that was the case, it made sense to get this case resolved.”

Salaita has been teaching his year at the American University of Beirut. It’s a one-year appointment, but Swaminathan says it’s possible that contract could be extended. 

Salaita and the U of I voluntarily agreed to a mediator, former U.S. District Judge Wayne Anderson, who was invited into the settlement negotiations in October and assisted in reaching the proposed agreement.

"Make no mistake: the size of this settlement is an implicit admission of the strength of Professor Salaita's constitutional and contractual claims," said Swaminathan, in a statement. "He has scored a major victory for those who care about free speech and academic freedom. In the future, university administrators will have to think twice before they choose the interests of wealthy donors and alumni over upholding their constitutional obligations. This legal victory could not have been possible without the support of a large and committed movement of activists and academics."