Does “Free Speech” Cut Both Ways for Fired Professor?

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January 29, 2015; Chicago Tribune

In September of 2014, NPQ reported on the dispute between Professor Steven Salaita and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. On Thursday, January 29th, 2015, Professor Salaita sued the university in federal court, requesting that the university honor the job offer it had made to him and compensate him for the damages he has suffered due to their decision to not allow him to teach at the university.

In an unusual step, the suit directly challenges the influence of donors by naming as co-defendants, in addition to the university and its leadership, “John Doe Unknown Donors,” alleging that they improperly interfered with his contractual rights by threatening to withhold future donations if he joined the faculty. Specific donors go largely unnamed, as documents released to date by the university have had donor names redacted in order to protect their privacy, but one Steven Miller was identified because of email communications between him and Phyllis Wise, the university chancellor.

If the suit is successful in finding that donors acted improperly in connecting future donations to specific actions by university personnel, will universities see any meaningful drop-off in philanthropic support? In a period of political discord over many issues of domestic and international policy, and at a time when donors appear to target their gifts narrowly, this will be interesting to watch.

Legal experts see this as a difficult case to win. Michael Olivas, director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston, said, “It’s pretty clear [Illinois] behaved badly here, but it’s not clear they behaved illegally. That’s contingent upon a lot of moving parts.”

The university had energetically sought to hire Professor Salaita away from Virginia Tech University, where he already held a tenured faculty position and where his wife was also a full-time university employee. With agreement to accept the university’s job offer, he resigned from his position in Virginia and was in the process of relocating to his new job, which was set to begin as classes started in mid-August 2014, when the Gaza conflict broke out. Professor Salaita, a critic of Israel’s actions, used his personal Twitter account to post his views with unexpected consequences.

Supporters of Israel found his commentary to be offensive and pressured the university to reverse their decision to hire Professor Salaita. Among those protesting the appointment were several major donors to the university who threatened to withhold their donations if Salaita joined the faculty. When the university, just weeks before the start of the fall semester, informed Professor Salaita in early August that they would not complete the hiring process, they claimed was not his position on Israel that was at issue but the uncivil and offensive tone of his tweets.—Marty Levine