August 26, 2015, Chicago – Professor Steven Salaita filed a motion late last night in his lawsuit against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) charging UIUC officials with intentionally destroying evidence related to its decision to fire him from a tenured faculty position. He also filed a separate request that the court order the university to preserve all evidence in the case as it should already have been doing, which previewed Salaita’s intention to seek sanctions for the university’s litigation misconduct. The motions come in response to documents released by UIUC earlier this month showing that former Chancellor Wise, who resigned when the court rejected the university’s attempt to have the case dismissed, and other officials used personal email accounts rather than university email addresses when communicating about the case in an attempt to evade the university’s email preservation obligations, and that Wise deliberately destroyed emails that discussed the case.
“The revelation that top administrators at the University of Illinois destroyed evidence is disheartening. The wonderful students and scholars at the university have a right to expect transparency and accountability from the leadership of their great university,” said Professor Steven Salaita. “I am hopeful that new leadership will restore the university’s reputation by rectifying the wrongs stemming from my case.”
In September 2014, Chancellor Wise wrote from her personal e-mail account that another university administrator “has warned me and others not to use email since we are now in litigation phase. We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses. I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending.” That admission and instruction to evade document retention obligations and destroy emails is the basis for the current motion and the threat of future sanctions against the university.
“By concealing and destroying communications regarding Professor Salaita’s firing, university officials have deprived the public of the full – and true – story of their misconduct,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Deputy Legal Director Maria LaHood. “To truly come clean, the university must not only release all relevant records, but rectify all of its wrongs, including reinstating Salaita to his tenured position.”
UIUC released these documents on August 7, the day after the court strongly rejected its effort to dismiss the lawsuit and Phyllis Wise announced her resignation as Chancellor. On Monday, Provost Ilesanmi Adesida stepped down. Also on Monday, 41 executive officers and campus leaders from departments and academic units across UIUC urged President Killeen and Acting Chancellor Barbara Wilson to reinstate Professor Salaita.
The lawsuit, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firm of Loevy & Loevy on Professor Salaita’s behalf, argues that UIUC violated Salaita’s rights to free speech and due process and breached its employment contract with him. It seeks Professor Salaita’s reinstatement and monetary relief, including compensation for the economic hardship and reputational damage he suffered as a result of the university’s actions.
These revelations also come on the heels of an Illinois state court’s decision in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on June 12 that ordered university officials to turn over emails related to Professor Salaita’s firing that they had refused to divulge, as well as a vote by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on June 13 to censure the university. The AAUP issued a report in April that concluded UIUC had violated academic freedom and due process.
“We are hopeful that the fallout from these recent revelations ushers in not only a renewed commitment to transparency, but also a renewed commitment to principles of free speech, academic freedom, and shared governance,” said Anand Swaminathan, Salaita’s attorney from Loevy & Loevy. “The way to affirm such a commitment is not through words, but through action: we call on the new president and acting chancellor to reinstate Dr. Salaita, and thereby right the wrongs of a previous administration, and grant the university community an opportunity to heal and move forward with its reputation restored.”
After a rigorous year-long national search and interview process, the American Indian Studies program at UIUC offered Professor Salaita a tenured faculty position in fall 2013, which he promptly accepted. Relying on UIUC’s contractual promise, Professor Salaita resigned from his tenured faculty position at Virginia Tech and prepared to move to Champaign. In August 2014, just two weeks before he was due to begin teaching, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Vice President Christophe Pierre informed Professor Salaita that the university had terminated his appointment. He was not given an opportunity to object or be heard.
The university’s leadership has faced increasing nationwide criticism over Salaita’s firing, particularly within the academic community. Sixteen academic departments of the university voted no confidence in the UIUC administration, and prominent academic organizations, including the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association and the Society of American Law Teachers, have publicly condemned the university’s actions. More than 5,000 academics from around the country, including Dr. Cornel West and Angela Davis, have pledged to boycott UIUC, resulting in the cancellation of more than three dozen scheduled talks and conferences at the school. Last September, UIUC students staged a silent walk-out to protest what they said was the university’s silencing of Salaita.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.