I have written here before about the case of Steven Salaita. The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign withdrew its offer of a tenured position in American Indian Studies to Salaita, an offer that had always been contingent on the approval of the Board of Trustees. That happened in August, after a series of disgusting public statements by Salaita, including one that wished Jewish settlers dead, came to the attention of the administration and the board. Salaita has now, not surprisingly, sued, hoping to compel the university to hire him. The university has announced that it will defend itself against Salaita’s “meritless claims” and has restated its position that “Dr. Salaita lacks the judgment, temperament and thoughtfulness to serve as a member of our faculty in any capacity, but particularly to teach courses related to the Middle East.”
It is a legitimate matter of controversy whether the University of Illinois, for which trustee approval of faculty appointments is so routine that it frequently occurs after the prospective hire has already started teaching, is liable, as a matter of contract law, for some of the losses Salaita suffered as a result of U of I’s actions. But Salaita is not just suing the University of Illinois. He is also suing unnamed donors to the University of Illinois.
It has long been a contention of Salaita’s supporters that he was undone not by his own recklessness but by wealthy (read: Jewish) donors who pressured the university to dump him. There is no question that a few people claiming to be large donors, along with many other students and alums, objected strenuously in writing to the hire of Salaita. Those few also suggested that they would stop supporting the university if it persisted in hiring Salaita. Chancellor Phyllis Wise also met with at least two donors who wanted to discuss Salaita with her. The complaint, however, offers no evidence that donor influence was decisive. Indeed, team Salaita’s smoking gun is a meeting that took place between a donor and Wise the day Wise issued a letter to Salaita informing him that she would not be sending his appointment to the board. But, as the complaint acknowledges, the board had already decided to “support a decision to terminate Salaita’s appointment” a full week before the meeting in question.
From these letters and meetings Salaita’s lawyers make out a complaint that the donors and administrators “conspired to accomplish an unlawful purpose by unlawful means.” Moreover, the complaint charges that the donors, who “had knowledge of the university’s contract with Professor Salaita and their commitment to complete his appointment,” are liable, under Illinois law, for “tortious interference with contractual and business relations.”
I am not a lawyer, but it does not take a lawyer to see that these charges are baseless. To prove the conspiracy charge, Salaita’s lawyers would have to show that the donor and administrator defendants reached an agreement and acted in concert to deprive Salaita of his rights. Though the complaint alleges precisely this, it does not even attempt to present evidence of agreement or concerted action. It is preposterous to describe the donors who complained about Salaita and the administrators and trustees who ultimately decided to part ways with him as engaged in a conspiracy. As for tortious interference, with contractual relations, the plaintiffs under Illinois law would presumably have to show, among other things, “(1) the existence of a valid and enforceable contract between the plaintiff and another; (2) the defendant’s awareness of the contractual relationship; (3) the defendant’s intentional and unjustified inducement of a breach of the contract; (4) a subsequent breach by the other caused by the defendant’s wrongful conduct.” But in this case, whether Salaita had an enforceable contract at all, in the absence of approval by the Board of Trustees, is a matter of dispute among legal experts.
Even in the case of tortious interference with business relations, on which the lawyers do not focus, the plaintiff would have to establish that the interference was independently wrongful conduct. Although Salaita’s lawyers would like to establish that threatening to stop providing charitable contributions to an organization is intimidation under the law, it hardly seems likely that they will be able to do so.
Presumably, Salaita’s lawyers want to send a message to donors; don’t demand anything of the colleges and universities to which you donate. Even someone who thinks, as I do, that colleges and universities should not allow donor pressure to influence their decisions on curricular or personnel matters, cannot but be struck by the audacity of Salaita and his radical supporters. It is as if they are saying not only to colleges and universities, where they rightly enjoy academic freedom, but also to society at large: “I loathe you and seek to destroy you. Now pay me.”
Perhaps philosophy and law professor Brian Leiter is right that the Salaita team is counting on the fact that even weaker elements of the complaint, if they survive the expected motion to dismiss, will allow discovery, requiring the university to disclose things about its interactions with donors it would rather not disclose. That prospect may induce U of I to settle with Salaita on more favorable terms than it is presently willing to offer him. May the court put a stop to it.