The mess at the University of Illinois over the dismissal of Prof. Steven Salaita

Brief summary; in 2014 the University of Illinois hired Professor Steven Salaita. Then he made a number of pointed and acerbic public comments on social media about the plight of Palestinians in the Middle East that angered large-money University donors, who, behind the scenes, threatened to withdraw their support. The university then fired Salaita, whose position was a tenured one. Salaita eventually sued for unfair dismissal. The university then tried to get his lawsuit dismissed. They failed, the judge excoriating the university in his ruling against the University’s attempt, although some of Salaita’s other claims were dismissed. The University’s Chancellor then tried to resign, but the University suddenly claimed they had dismissed her pre-emptively, supposedly because it became public knowledge that she had started to use a private email account in discussions about the University’s response to Salaita’s public comments.
Sounds like a mess, and it is. Here is Juan Cole’s more detailed exposition of the events. There are several takeaways from this article:

1. When universities are not properly funded by the state, private donors can step in and cover funding shortfalls. However, some of them will require things from the university in return. Like the ability to influence university hiring…and firing. As one of the commenters at Cole’s article points out, it is as if some donors have eliminated the distinction between a gift and a bribe.
2. Firing a professor after you have hired him, given him an email address and office space, and then claiming that he had not yet been hired, is likely to result in ridicule from a Federal judge
3. When a Federal judge declines to dismiss a plaintiff’s lawsuit against you, and ridicules your arguments in doing so, he is doing a lot more than suggesting that the plaintiff has a case. He is signalling that barring a miracle, you are going to lose when the case comes to court.

UPDATEThe University appears to have decided to accept Chancellor Wise’s resignation after all. The cynic in me believes that they did so after realization that if she sued the University, then all of the correspondence involving Prof. Salaita’s firing could become the subject of discovery, which might dig the University into an even deeper hole over its firing of Professor Salaita.

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