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University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, September 8, 2014

Thorough Discussion of the Contractual Issues in the Salaita Case from Robin Kar

Ker

We've posted about Robin Kar's recent legal scholarship here and here.   Readers can have a look at Kar's method in action in this post on the Illinois Law Faculty Blog.

In our first post about the Salaita case, we lamented how few posts really wrestled with the contractual  (or promissory estoppel) issues in the case.  Professor Kar’s post is the most detailed investigation of the contractual issues to appear to date.  We also queried whether Salaita's potential constitutional claims against the University of Illinois might turn on the question of whether or not he had a contract with that institution, which is also the institution at which Professor Kar (pictured, at right) teaches.  Kar notes:

Critics of the Chancellor’s decision argue that, even if there was no contract, Salaita’s rights to academic freedom vis-à-vis the University of Illinois should apply with equal force at the hiring as at the firing stage.

Professor Kar seems to disagree.  He does not rule out entirely the possibility of constitutional and academic freedom claims in the absence of a contract, but he does note that "the existence of a contract should change the nature of the underlying arguments on both sides of this case." 

Peofessor Kar's analysis is both passionate, in dealing with an issue that is creating genuine anguish at his institution, and dispassionate, in treating the Salaita case as a forum for the elaboration of his theory of contract law as empowerment. Based on the publicly-available facts, Professor Kar thinks Salaita's contractual claims are quite strong.  As he puts it, "If the publicly known facts are all there is to know about this case, then I believe there very likely was a contract in this case, and that it may well have been breached."  This is so because (in short), Salaita's offer letter incorporated by reference the American Association of University Professors' (AAUP) principles of academic freedom, and the AAUP interprets those principles to require (at least) warnings hearings before someone in Salaita's position can have his offer letter revoked.  At this point, Professor Kar argues, his view of contract as empowerment becomes relevant to the analysis:

The power of the marketplace—in both academic and non-academic contexts—depends on parties’ capacities to make commitments that have certain objective elements to them. In this particular case, this means that the condition of Board of Trustee approval gave the Board some authority to refuse Salaita’s appointment—but not necessarily the authority it subjectively believes it has. If the Board’s unwillingness to approve this appointment reflects an undisclosed and idiosyncratic understanding of its authority, which diverges too sharply from the shared understandings of the national academic community, then there is likely a contract here.  And it may well have been breached.

Professor Kar then proceeds to a discussion of the way out for the University of Illinois, which probably would involve a retreat.  If the facts are as Professor Kar believes them to be, the Chancellor should "admit that the Salaita decision was in error and state that this matter is—properly speaking—outside of her hands."

I do not disagree with Professor Kar's analysis but I would like to push him on one point that I think is vital in this case and in his theory of empowerment generally.  As a normative theory, I find Professor Kar's theory attractive, but I wonder about its applicability to situations of grossly unequal bargaining power, and I believe the Salaita case is such a situation.  Professor Kar takes up this issue in earnest at the end of the second part of his work on contract as empowerment   On page 73, Professor Kar acknowledges that parties "rarely enter into contracts from perfectly equal bargaining positions" and he notes that, "[i]t would therefore be significantly disempowering if parties were only bound by contracts negotiated in these circumstances."

But parties are routinely bound in circumstances when they have no real bargaining power.   In such circumstances, even if Professor Kar is right that contracts law ought to be about empowerment, much of contract law (and this point has been made at great length by Peggy Radin, Nancy Kim, Oren Bar-Gill and others), is currently extremely disempowering for ordinary consumers and even for small businesses when (as in Italian Colors) they have to contract with corporate behemoths.  

Professor Kar's assessment of Salaita's contractual claims turns on communal understandings of the contractual obligations that arise in such circumstances:

The University of Illinois is part of a much larger academic community, which extends well beyond the confines of Illinois.  Its contractual interactions with other members of this community will thus be subjected to some tests for consistency with national understandings of how these interactions typically work. This includes national understandings about the appropriate relationship between government-appointed entities, like the Board of Trustees, and faculty decisions about hiring at academic institutions that aim to pursue knowledge impartially and in the absence of political influence.

 As the conversation that has been taking place on the blogosphere thus far suggests, there may be no national consensus on the subject.  Some contracts scholars will agree with Professor Kar; others, like Dave Hoffman, think that Salaita's contractual and promissory estoppel claims are weak, and they are weak precisely because Salaita lacked the bargaining power to protect himself.  And if Salaita's case were to go before an adjudicatory body, it will not be decided based on whether contracts ought to be empowering but on whether the already empowered University of Illinois can escape any contractual obligation that might empower Professor Salaita.

 

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Comments

Just to be precise, I think that his claims are weak because Illinois decisional law makes estoppel arguments (including agency estoppel arguments) asserted against the state very hard to win. As you note, the question turns on the state of existing contract doctrine (though, to be sure, doctrine moves!) Prof. Kar's theory is attractive but I do not think it fits with the state of play in, say, the Illinois Court of Claims, where the contract and quasi-contract claims in this matter would be adjudicated.

Posted by: dave hoffman | Sep 11, 2014 10:47:45 AM

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