Did Donors Influence the Salaita Firing?

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.

7 thoughts on “Did Donors Influence the Salaita Firing?

  1. FOIA only applies to Federal agencies, but the Illinois statute/s guaranteeing freedom of information likely carry exemptions similar to the Federal statute. In this case, IHE seems to speculate that redactions might have been due to legal consultations:

    There is also evidence that the university was discussing, prior to Wise’s decision, the possible legal ramifications of it. The university, in explaining some of the redacted documents, invoked an exemption under Illinois law for “communications between a public body and an attorney or auditor representing the public body that would not be subject to discovery in litigation, and materials prepared or compiled by or for a public body in anticipation of a criminal, civil or administrative proceeding upon the request of an attorney advising the public body, and materials prepared or compiled with respect to internal audits of public bodies.”
    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/25/u-illinois-officials-defend-decision-deny-job-scholar-documents-show-lobbying

    This is, as this commenter has mentioned before, a long-relied-upon strategy by public university officials to keep discussions and documents “off the record” that is subject to freedom of information laws.

      • This below, from the link to the statute provided above, indicates that the blog host might work with IHE to ask them to submit a request for review of the redactions invoked.

        Editor Jaschik, a frequent speaker at AAUP-sponsored conferences, and his colleagues at IHE have historically acted as allies of AAUP officials in virtually all of their coverage of AAUP activities — going so far as to suppress comments by readers when they are critical of AAUP leaders, and even failing to cover the DOL rerun of AAUP elections (readers had to learn of that via the CHE). However, it should be noted that IHE reported in the article on this FOIA request that the university used the legal and lawyer exemption as the stated reason for redactions.

        “Sec. 9. (a) Each public body denying a request for public records shall notify the requester in writing of the decision to deny the request, the reasons for the denial, including a detailed factual basis for the application of any exemption claimed, and the names and titles or positions of each person responsible for the denial. Each notice of denial by a public body shall also inform such person of the right to review by the Public Access Counselor and provide the address and phone number for the Public Access Counselor. Each notice of denial shall inform such person of his right to judicial review under Section 11 of this Act.
        (b) When a request for public records is denied on the grounds that the records are exempt under Section 7 of this Act, the notice of denial shall specify the exemption claimed to authorize the denial and the specific reasons for the denial, including a detailed factual basis and a citation to supporting legal authority. Copies of all notices of denial shall be retained by each public body in a single central office file that is open to the public and indexed according to the type of exemption asserted and, to the extent feasible, according to the types of records requested.”

  2. Reblogged this on Campus Faculty Association and commented:
    A long story in today’s Inside Higher Ed shows how intense the pressure has been on the University Administration over the last month. The University’s chief academic officer, Chancellor Phyllis Wise was hearing from big donors as well as the University’s fund raising foundation, the U of I Foundation and college advancement officers about Professor Steven Salaita. We re post from John K. Wilson at Academe Blog.

  3. Why does none of this surprise me? What’s the point of having Foundation officers if they work to undermine the academic operation of the university through over-protection of donors? If a donor threatens to take his or her money elsewhere over this issue, that sets a precedent. Good universities have to be prepared to let donors walk; many times the donor won’t walk once you stand up to their overweening sense of entitlement. Instead they’ll do things that other human beings due-give the Foundation officer the silent treatment, be personally hurt for a while, and then get over it. When donors threaten, that’s the moment to stand up for yourself, because no one likes someone who doesn’t think well of him or herself. That’s true for institutions as well.

    The problem is that university administrators too often try to put the best face on the condition of privatization, claiming that they’re serving the “public,” even if it doesn’t look that way, when they are more overtly serving corporate interests and the wealthy. It’s all “the emperor has no clothes,” so it’s infuriating and instead of making the institution run more efficiently, it ends up doing the opposite.

    The Foundation, President Wise, and the Board of Trustees, have turned U of I into a political circus that is under a magnifying glass in a globalized communications environment. There will be an enormously expensive lawsuit, so I hope the university has at least gotten the donor to pony up the $ to pay for it. Everyone involved in this sordid affair should pass the hat among themselves for wasting the taxpayers money and the faculty’s time.

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