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Board Chairman Defends University of Illinois Job Denial to Professor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. ― The University of Illinois was right to deny a faculty job to a professor whose anti-Israel Twitter messages were considered by some to be anti-Semitic, University of Illinois Board of Trustees Chairman Chris Kennedy said in a newspaper interview published Friday.

Steven Salaita accepted an offer starting this fall to be a Native American Studies professor but was told he would not be hired after he later posted profanity-laced Twitter messages during Israel’s war with Gaza in July. The Board of Trustees last week declined to change that decision.

“It’s absolutely clear that we could not bring Salaita onto this campus,” Kennedy said in an interview with The (Champaign) News-Gazette’s editorial board. “We cannot endorse that behavior. I don’t believe there’s anybody with an open mind who cannot be convinced we did the right thing, ethically and procedurally.”

Supporters of Salaita, who has said he now plans to sue the university, believe he effectively already had been hired and so his speech was protected by academic tenure. They said professors routinely begin work before the board approves their hires.

Kennedy defended senior university officials against accusations from some faculty members that they violated Salaita’s due process and infringed on academic freedom and faculty hiring procedures.

“Did we violate someone’s tenure? I don’t know how we can violate someone’s tenure if we never gave it to someone.”

Kennedy said he does not think a boycott of UI by some academics who have canceled appearances will have any lasting impact, adding that a close look at the language in the tweets would show the board did not “overreach.”

“We were sort of stunned that anyone would write such blatantly anti-Semitic remarks,” Kennedy said.

He said the board, whose members include two lawyers and a judge, did discuss the free-speech ramifications of the decision.

Kennedy also said he was not pressured by donors to reject Salaita. The News-Gazette has reported that Chancellor Phyllis Wise received numerous complaints about Salaita’s tweets from alumni, students and some donors.

Wise also stressed this week that she did not make her decision based on donor pressure.

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