In a suit against the administration of the University of Illinois seeking his reinstatement as a professor at the school, scholar Steven Salaita also sued unnamed “John Doe donors” of the university for “injecting” themselves into the university hiring process and threatening “future donations” unless he was fired last summer because of the outspoken tweets he published during the Israeli onslaught in Gaza. Salaita was fired a week before classes were to begin.
The suit, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and a Chicago law firm, does not name the donors because the university has refused to release the names of donors who complained to the administration last summer after Salaita, 39, who was about to start at the school as a professor of American Indian Studies, tweeted his outrage over Israel’s onslaught. “Folks who shared their views” with the administration are not the target of the suit, explained Anand Swaminathan of the law firm of Loevy and Loevy.
“This claim is focused on people who, based on their wealth or connections to the university, injected themselves into the hiring process,” he said, threatening to withdraw gifts unless Salaita was fired. The suit mentions one donor, Steven Miller of Chicago. Miller met with Wise August 1, the same day she wrote to Salaita, terminating his appointment.
Records released by the university last year revealed that Phyllis Wise, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, turned her schedule upside down late last July to meet with major funders of the university who were angered by Salaita’s tweets on Gaza.
Swaminathan said that the records and the university’s conduct confirm the “improper motivation of these donors” and their outsize influence, despite the university’s denial that they played a role. The suit notes the fact that the university has refused to release their names despite FOIAs for the information, that Wise destroyed a two-page memo on Salaita she received from a donor who said the university’s decisions in the case would be very “telling,” and it has not sought an outside review of the firing decision, as requested by leading faculty at the school.
On a conference call arranged by the Center for Constitutional Rights to announce the suit, Salaita said the lawsuit aims to make sure that “upper administrative overreach doesn’t become the norm in American universities.”
Swaminathan said the focus on the donors reflects a principle of “tortious interference.” Wealthy individuals should not be able to inject themselves into a university hiring process and affect university decisions. Maria LaHood of CCR said that the suit is aimed at “at least a couple, maybe a handful, maybe more, high profile wealthy donors” who contacted Chancellor Wise.
Salaita had accepted the job in Fall 2013 after a long hiring process. At the end of that academic year in 2014, he resigned his position at Virginia Tech in order to move with his family to Urbana-Champaign. Then the Gaza onslaught happened, and Salaita published angry tweets about Israeli conduct. The tweets gained the attention of pro-Israel groups, which campaigned for his dismissal from the University of Illinois. Phyllis Wise and Vice President Christophe Pierre informed Salaita that they would not be passing his appointment on to the board of trustees in a “terse” letter two weeks before school was to begin. In the uproar that followed, including denunciations from department heads at the school, the university defending Salaita’s firing, saying that his speech was not “civil,” a standard that has been widely mocked.
Numerous academic bodies have come out on Salaita’s side, saying that the university was punishing him for his free speech. In the conference call today, an Illinois reporter said that the university is “leaning” towards a settlement with Salaita that would give him back his job. That will not be enough to make the case go away, though.
“I deeply miss the classroom where I always learned from students,” Salaita said, and he looks forward to joining his colleagues in Illinois. But the case now involves matters of university governance much bigger than his own case.
He also said that he and his wife and son are living with his parents because he has suffered such financial and professional damage from his firing. What little income he has gotten has come from speaking gigs. He has had many invitations given the celebrated nature of the case– and all the academic organizations that have taken his side (listed here).
This article was first published published at Mondoweiss.