Academic group censures University of Illinois over rescinded job offer

An academic group voted Saturday to censure the University of Illinois’ main campus over its decision not to hire a professor after his anti-Israel Twitter tirade, a vote the university’s chancellor said will have repercussions and is being taken seriously.

Members of the American Association of University Professors affirmed the censure by a voice vote at the group’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The decision comes in reaction to the university rescinding Steven Salaita’s job offer following his posts on Twitter concerning Israel and the West Bank.

The vote hinged on the principle of academic freedom, said Anita Levy, an association staff member involved with the group’s investigation of the matter. A report by the group described Salaita’s tweets as expressions of "outrage in strong language over the war in Gaza."

Levy said in a statement that rejecting the professor’s appointment “violated Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and cast a pall of uncertainty over the degree to which academic freedom is understood and respected" at the school.

The academic association has 56 institutions on its censure list.

University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the school has an "unyielding commitment to the principles of academic freedom."

And, in an email sent to faculty on Saturday by The Associated Press, University Chancellor Phyllis Wise said the decision was "disappointing, but not unexpected."

"We take this decision by the AAUP seriously," Wise said in the email. "We understand that it will have repercussions on the scholarly activities of many in our community, and we intend to address both the censure and the underlying concerns through our established processes of shared governance."

An AAUP censure could damage a university’s reputation in the academic world. Some faculty members the university has said they believe it might lead job hunters working at other schools choose not to work at the Urbana-Champaign campus.

The school rescinded Salaita’s job offer after some donors complained that some of his tweets were anti-Semitic. He has since sued the school. The censure vote came one day after a judge ordered the university to turn over thousands of pages of documents sought by Salaita.

On Saturday, his attorneys issued a statement calling the censure "a serious blemish on the university's record."

In October 2013, Salaita was offered a professor's job in the university's Native American Studies Department, starting in August 2014. He accepted and quit his job at Virginia Tech University.

But in the summer of 2014, Salaita, whose father is from Jordan, wrote a long series of Twitter messages complaining about Israeli military action in Gaza. Some of those messages included profanity and a few were considered anti-Semitic by university donors who wrote to Wise.

"Zionists: transforming 'anti-Semitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948," he wrote in one message.

In August, just before school was set to begin again and after Salaita had received his class assignments, Wise told Salaita he wouldn't get the job after all. She later said the university was concerned about the "abusive nature" of his messages.

His lawsuit claims he had already been hired. The university counters that the board of trustees had not yet approved his hire, a step required for all tenured faculty members.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report