Inside Higher Ed has a lengthy story about the University of Illinois administration’s justifications for firing Steven Salaita. What’s really important about today’s story is this revelation that the top fundraising official at the University of Illinois Foundation had emailed Chancellor Phyllis Wise and other top U of I fundraisers, telling her “Dan, Molly, and I have just discussed this and believe you need to”—but the section revealing what Wise was told was redacted from the email released to InsideHigherEd. According to InsideHigherEd, “Later emails show Wise and her development team trying to set up a time to discuss the matter, although there is no indication of what was decided.”
The emails reveal that at least one major donor threatened to withhold money if Salaita was hired, and it’s quite possible that development officials at the University of Illinois were actually advising the Chancellor on academic decisions based on their fundraising implications, which would be yet another violation of academic standards in this case.
None of this is particularly surprising. In an age when fundraising is often considered the top job of the head of a university, the desire to make money often trumps both academic values and academic freedom. The fact that Wise was anxious to set up a meeting to discuss the issue of donors and Salaita’s hiring suggests that money may have been a factor in this decision, and not just politics, as does the fact that the University of Illinois has redacted large sections of this email about fundraising (in violation of FOIA laws).
The University of Illinois needs to come clean and obey the law by disclosing these fundraising emails, and Wise and her staff need to talk about what was discussed in these meetings and whether donors influenced the decision to fire Salaita. None of this changes the fact that the University of Illinois violated academic freedom by firing a professor for political reasons, but it makes an ugly story even worse.