An outspoken professor embroiled in a dispute with the University of Illinois over the loss of his job after he posted controversial tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be allowed to proceed with a breach of contract action against the school.
A federal judge in Chicago last week ruled on several counts of the lawsuit Steve Salaita filed against the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. And while Judge Harry D. Leinenweber sided with the university in dismissing four of Salaita’s counts, he did allow a key portion of the suit to stand.
Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor of American Indian studies, left Virginia Tech University in the summer of 2014 to start a tenured position at Illinois until the latter school revoked its job offer following pressure from donors who did not like Salaita’s personal tweets criticizing the Israeli government’s assault on Gaza in 2014.
“The Court need not reproduce Dr. Salaita’s tweets verbatim,” Leinenweber wrote. “To put it mildly, they were critical of Israel’s actions and used harsh, often profanity-laden rhetoric.”
Leinenweber’s memorandum details how the university shifted its stance on Salaita’s employment, including details of then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s contact with wealthy donors. Ultimately, Wise told Salaita she would not recommend the Board of Trustees approve his employment. He then filed his nine-count complaint after the trustees rejected his hiring in an 8-1 vote at the board’s September 2014 meeting.
The crux of the breach of contract argument, Leinenweber notes, is whether Salaita actually entered into a contract with the university by signing his offer letter or whether the trustees’ approval was an essential component of the hiring process. The judge said the university’s letter was wholly unambiguous in that Salaita could accept the job by signing the offer letter, writing: “Nothing about the actual offer, nor the mode of acceptance, indicates that no contract would be formed until after the Board’s approval.”
Leinenweber further deconstructed the university’s offer letter, and also noted the school paid to move Salaita’s family, established an office and email account for him and assigned him two classes as signs the trustee approval was a formality - especially since the board vote on Salaita, and a separate vote on 120 other employees, took place after the semester had already begun.
“If the court accepted the university’s argument,” Leinenweber wrote, “the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist, because no professor would resign a tenure position, move states and start teaching at a new college based on an ‘offer’ that was absolutely meaningless until after the semester already started.”
The counts Leinenweber dismissed cover Salaita’s claim the donors tortiously interfered with his contract, that the defendants intentionally inflicted emotional distress and a state-law evidence spoiling claim levied against Wise, who is accused of destroying a two-page memo from a donor seeking Salaita’s termination.
Leinenweber accepted the university’s argument the donors who called for Salaita’s termination are protected by the First Amendment — they threatened only peaceful protest and were not commercially or competitively motivated. The emotional distress allegation failed because Salaita was unable to “point to more extreme conduct than an unlawful termination.”
As to Wise’s destruction of the memo, Leinenweber said Salaita failed to explain what claims he is unable to prove due to the lost memo.
“Any harm caused by the loss of the memo is at least minimized by the fact that Chancellor Wise sent an email to university officials briefly summarizing what was in the memo,” he wrote.
In addition to Salaita being allowed to pursue the breach of contract claim, Leinenweber also refused to grant the university’s request to dismiss Salaita’s claim of a violation of his rights to free speech and due process, a conspiracy to be deprived of his job and promissory estoppel against the trustee defendants.