- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

URBANA, Ill. (AP) - University of Illinois trustees on Thursday voted not to hire a professor whose anti-Israel Twitter messages were deemed anti-Semitic by some, raising the likelihood of a lawsuit or a financial deal with the professor and further campus protests.

An attorney for Steven Salaita, who last year accepted a job to begin teaching this fall in the university’s Native American Studies Program, said after the vote that they plan to file a lawsuit.

Since mid-summer, Salaita’s Twitter messages have become the center of a debate over speech, academic tenure and civility at the University of Illinois.

In a packed room at the university union on Thursday, trustees voted 8-1 not to appoint the 38-year-old professor. Neither Salaita nor his attorneys were at the meeting, but in an emailed statement Salaita said he was disappointed.

“I have offered to meet with both the Board and the Administration, but not one of them has spoken with me or ever heard my side of the story,” said Salaita, who spoke to his on-campus supporters on Tuesday. “They have no reason to doubt the high standard I have always maintained in the classroom.”

Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy said in an interview that his vote against Salaita was made in the interest of maintaining a balance between speech and civil discourse.

“We want a place where anyone can say anything, where there’s this great exchange of ideas,” he said. “On the other hand, there are comments that I think can basically be interpreted as anti-Semitic.”

Trustee James Montgomery cast the only vote for Salaita, saying he thought the uproar created by the controversy could hurt the university, particularly after the admissions scandal that led to university President Joseph White stepping down and the forced resignation of his replacement, Michael Hogan.

About 50 faculty members and students who back Salaita marched out of the meeting after the vote, chanting “Shame on you! Shame on you!” to trustees.

Salaita was offered and accepted a job teaching in October 2013 while still working at Virginia Tech University. But after his dozens of sometimes-profane tweets in July and August, Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise informed him he wouldn’t have a job.

Salaita’s hire hadn’t been approved yet by the Board of Trustees, the final step in granting him tenure. His defenders say that the approval was a formality since professors regularly start work before the board OKs their appointments. They believe he was already effectively employed and protected by tenure.

University President Robert Easter said he has asked administrators to look at changing the process so trustees weigh in before professors begin work.

After selling their home in anticipation of the move to Illinois, Salaita and his wife and young son are now living with his parents in the Washington, D.C., area. Neither is now working, he said.

Kennedy isn’t opposed to a legal settlement.

“I don’t think we’re looking to be held up. We want to be fair. But we don’t want to be pushovers,” he said.

Cary Nelson, a University of Illinois English professor and former president of the American Association of University Professors, said that when he led that group he saw the details of a number of legal deals schools cut with faculty. The deals were worth anywhere from a semester of salary - around $40,000 in Salaita’s case - to a lifetime of income.

“It really depends upon how much legal pressure and how much moral and public pressure a university feels,” Nelson said.

In this case, “I would think a fair settlement would be something like a million dollars,” he said.

Salaita has drawn support from some faculty on campus and elsewhere, as well as the AAUP. Faculty members from at least 13 University of Illinois departments have approved votes of no confidence in Wise.

Some academics from outside the university have also called off appearances at the school.


Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap .

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