Phan Nguyen on Outside Donor Influence on Salaita Firing, Suspension, and Dismissal

The issue of possible donor influence in the Steven Salaita contract-revocation case is significant because on-campus personnel decisions should not be influenced by external actors. Academic freedom and shared governance are severely attenuated if universities and colleges outsource, and are unduly influenced by off-campus forces intruding into personnel and hiring processes on campus. Remember Alan Dershowitz and the Norman Finkelstein tenure travesty!

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure claimed there was an absence of donor influence based primarily on information received during an interview with Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise. Whether external pressure influenced the board of trustees was not investigated, perhaps, due to the Board of Trustees’ reluctance to provide information to CAFT.

Mr. Nguyen writes for Mondoweiss, a widely cited website, and published today an exhaustively detailed article critiquing the CAFT report. It is a convincing statement of donor influence on the Salaita dismissal. The article contains some interesting references to Cary Nelson’s excellent work, No University is an Island, when Dr. Nelson complains about the impact of external donors on University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign policy and decision making. Of course, this was prior to the Salaita controversy, and the author has rejected the notion of external influence on the Wise and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre decision to void Salaita’s contract on August 1, 2014. Chancellor Wise sent Professor Salaita an e-mail  on August 2 with the summary dismissal and suspension letter as an attachment. The e-mail contained one sentence other than the standard greeting: “Please read the attached letter.”

Mr. Nguyen also cites an Academe post I wrote and delves into the issue of donor influence with grand investigative reportage. Here is an excerpt but I encourage readers to encounter the entire Nguyen critique of the UIUC faculty-panel report. Part II is to appear in coming days:

Evidence of donor influence

Wise’s denial of donor influence is nothing new. As reported by the press on September 2, Wise claimed that her decision on Salaita was influenced by no one at all:

I meet with foundation leaders, national and international university and corporate leaders, my fellow presidents and chancellors, and state and federal government officials. And, of course, I meet with alumni, donors and friends of the university. I discuss important issues with a wide array of people on virtually every significant campus issue.

On this [Salaita issue], I have heard from people who supported me, as well as those who criticized me. In coming to a decision, I was not influenced by any of them. My primary concern was for our students, the campus and the university.

But this is what we know from FOIA documents not reproduced in the CAFT report:

On Wednesday, July 23, 2014, Wise met with an unnamed outside individual whose sphere of influence we can only discern from the fact that she reported on the meeting the same day to heads of the office of the Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement (VCIA), which handles fundraising.

According to Wise’s report on this individual:

He said that he knows [redacted] and [redacted] well and both have less loyalty for Illinois because of their perception of anti-Semitism. He gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling.

Also on July 23, Wise received an email from Steve Miller, a major donor to the University of Illinois, a member of the University of Illinois Foundation Board and its former chairman, and a board member of the UIUC Chancellor’s Strategic Advisory Board. Miller also happens to serve on the board of governors of UIUC Hillel and is a board member of the Jewish Federation of Chicago.

Miller’s email to Wise stated that he wanted

the opportunity to talk with you over the phone next week. I’d like to share my thoughts regarding the University’s hiring of Prof. Steven Salaita for the American Indian Studies Department, and to get your perspective.

For some reason, Miller cc’d this email to heads of the VCIA office as well as to the dean of the College of Business, for whom Miller has endowed several annual scholarships. An hour and a half after Miller sent his email, Travis Michael Smith, the senior director of advancement, emailed Wise concerning Miller’s letter, stating:

Dan, Molly, and I have just discussed this and believe you need to [passage redacted]

“Dan” refers to Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement Dan Peterson. “Molly” refers to Associate Vice Chancellor Molly Tracy.

Letter from Travis Smith to Phyllis Wise, concerning donor Steve Miller’s wish to discuss Steven Salaita.

Three hours after Smith’s partially redacted email to Wise, Wise emailed Miller, stating:

I am in Chicago on Friday and would like to meet with you rather than just talk over the phone, if you have time. I have meetings until 3:30 and my last meeting is in Evanston. I could be in your office in [redacted] by 4:00. Otherwise I would be happy to call you on Friday at 10:30 am between meetings that have been scheduled. For the moment, let me say that I just recently learned about Steven Salaita’s background, beyond his academic history, and am learning more now. [Passage redacted]. We are [passage redacted]

Subsequent emails between Miller and Wise detail efforts to establish a time to meet that would suit Miller, with Wise offering to “move a couple of meetings around.”

Contrast these communications with the CAFT’s interview with Wise, as described in the CAFT report:

[Wise] confirmed that she had not consulted with the Provost, the Dean of LAS [the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences], or other faculty representatives about her decisions not to forward Dr. Salaita’s offer of appointment to the Board of Trustees and to notify him in advance of this decision … She expressed much regret that she had not consulted more widely with the faculty and administration, and attributed her neglect of shared governance to the rapidity with which decisions had to be made.

The “rapidity with which decisions had to be made” did not deter Wise from conferring with the office of Institutional Advancement over Salaita, meeting with what appeared to be an influential donor over Salaita, and offering to “move a couple of meetings around” to meet with another influential donor in person to discuss Salaita, when that donor originally requested a phone meeting. All of these actions transpired before Wise informed Salaita of his termination on August 2.

As Corey Robin noted in his overview of the “Salaita Papers”—443 pages of FOIA documents from UIUC:

What’s most stunning about these documents is that they show how removed and isolated Chancellor Wise is from any of the academic voices in the university, even the academic voices on her own team. As she heads toward her August 2 decision to dehire Salaita, she is only speaking to and consulting with donors, alums, PR people, and development types …. [E]ven two days after the Chancellor has dehired Salaita, she still hasn’t informed the dean of the largest college at the UIUC of her decision.

The CAFT report gives no indication that the committee questioned Wise about many of these documents. Although it did not accept “the rapidity with which decisions had to be made” as a reasonable excuse for “her neglect of shared governance,” there is no indication that the committee quizzed Wise about her communications with the donors and VCIA staff specified above, of which we still only have limited information.

Moreover the CAFT report’s generous characterization of her violation of shared governance as mere “neglect” fails to account for the fact that within “the rapidity with which decisions had to be made,” Wise prioritized Salaita discussions with the VCIA office and with at least one or two donors, rather than with academic heads…Steve Lubet also misrepresents the report when he claims that it “puts the donor meme completely to rest” and that its statement of “no evidence” on the donor issue is “unequivocal.”

Such claims are not reflective of the report, either in wording or intent. According to Lubet:

The CAFT report is thorough and unbiased.  It is also unsparing in its criticism of the chancellor (who submitted to an interview and made her emails available), so the conclusion about the absence of donor influence is especially reliable.

Yet as I have already demonstrated:

  1. The CAFT report might have been “thorough” in some respects, but clearly not in its investigation of the donor issue.
  2. Far from being “unsparing in its criticism of the chancellor,” it made the chancellor’s denial of donor influence the point of reference.
  3. Chancellor Wise did not “make her emails available.” They were made available through FOIA requests by outside parties—including myself—and they remain incomplete and partially redacted. Moreover, the emails reproduced in the CAFT report as “Document 10” were selected by the board of trustees counsel out of hundreds of pages of prior FOIA requests. These documents conveniently omit the more revealing emails that I have previously cited.

– See more at:

4 thoughts on “Phan Nguyen on Outside Donor Influence on Salaita Firing, Suspension, and Dismissal

  1. “Dr. Salaita’s scholarship has already been reviewed rigorously, according to all normal and appropriate procedures, so we allow only that his reviewers may not have attended to questions that have arisen from the present controversy.” – See more at:

    Why did the Faculty Senate committee open the door to undermining faculty governance norms for handling searches and hires? Also, why is Steve Salaita’s viewpoint not relevant to the question of the “present controversy”?

    I think CAFT assumes that it’s only on Israel that social media controversies will take place, and thus, if anyone else teaches in a “controversial” area such as climate change, the university will back the hire if she or he tweets something that climate change deniers do not like. They think they’re all protected and perhaps they are, but I wouldn’t play Russian roulette with something like “extramural speech” and “questions” “arising” regarding a job candidate’s or a recent hire’s tweets.

    Once you open the door to extra oversight of a candidate regarding social media usage, you are really opening up many to this oversight. You’re playing with turning your campus into the circus that U of I became and remains as a result of the Salaita firing or dis-hiring-it doesn’t matter what you call it and what was/is the legal status of Salaita at the time of the incident. If you care about academic freedom, you do not monkey around with it. You do not split hairs over extramural speech in order to save yourself a big fight with the Chancellor of Board of Trustees, etc. You don’t let “pro-Israeli” donors, external civil society organizations or activism penetrate the hiring process, especially at the last minute, without sending a signal that others may do the same. That’s especially the case when you’re looking to have a medical school, as is U of I. There’s plenty of “reach-in” there that faculty at U of I are not going to like, but they certainly can’t do anything about it, if they set a bad precedent in this case.

  2. I think your comment merits my including the portion of Mr Nguyen’s article, that I alluded to above, that cited Cary Nelson’s concerns about the influence of money on academic policy and government. I reviewed twice Cary’s book and it is an inspirational work. Some may find inconsistencies in the author’s passion for academic freedom and his subsequent position on the Salaita firing. The following is from Mondoweiss:

    Another of [Cary] Nelson’s books, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, makes clear that donor influence is a common problem in American universities:

    [T]he ground has been prepared for still more aggressive political attacks on academic freedom from outside the university,from politicians demanding that faculty be fired to donors attempting to block controversial speakers on campus.

    In the same book, Nelson recites stories of how the University of Illinois system has been manipulated by outside money and power. In one case, “UI chancellor Richard Herman was quietly conducting negotiations with donors” over the founding of a campus institute, whose inner workings were set forth in a secret Memorandum of Agreement that ceded “a disturbing level of authority over grants and appointments … to the outside donors, a fundamental violation of academic freedom.” As Nelson later explained,

    Repeatedly, money and profit have trumped all other values, and those priorities have been embodied in administrative decisions by fiat that circumvented shared governance.

    For the University of Illinois administration, Nelson wrote in 2010,

    What is good, what is excellent, is money—not truth, not witness, not the public good, but money.

    – Again see the entire piece at::

  3. Pingback: How Money Mattered in the Salaita Case | The Academe Blog

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