University of Illinois trustees voted overwhelmingly on Thursday not to reinstate Steven Salaita, whose Twitter postings about Israel caused him to lose a promised faculty job, sparking debate about academic freedom and the use of social media.
Salaita, a former tenured professor of English at Virginia Tech, accepted a tenured professorship in October 2013 to teach at University of Illinois’ American Indian Studies program but it was revoked in early August after Salaita posted tweets denouncing Israel’s military strikes in Gaza.
Many of the Twitter messages were inflammatory and in justifying its decision not to give him a job, the university said they were demeaning and uncivil.
In a statement released before the vote, university President Robert Easter said Salaita’s social media activity “indicates that he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions could be given equal consideration, regardless of the issue being discussed.”
Trustees voted 8-1 against reinstating Salaita.
The dissenting vote was by trustee James Montgomery who said he regretted his previous support for withdrawing Salaita’s faculty offer. He said the university needed to accept all views, however intolerable.
After revoking Salaita’s appointment, the university found itself in the middle of a nationwide academic boycott. Professors within and far outside the university canceled lectures and refused to review tenure applications. Eleven university departments issued votes of no confidence for Chancellor Phyllis Wise and 17,000 signatures in support of Salaita were collected online.
Salaita on Tuesday demanded to be reinstated - citing free speech and academic freedom - and in a news conference said the university’s actions were part of “a nationwide concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech.”
About 50 people filled the boardroom and hallway on Thursday holding signs supporting Salaita. Many turned their back as trustees spoke.
Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald said the board has “a duty to taxpayers and students to make decisions. At the end of the day we have to look out for students.”