By Andrew Scheinman
A few weeks ago, the AAUP released its Report on the Steven Salaita affair at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), in which it concluded that UIUC and its Chancellor Phyllis Wise violated Salaita’s academic freedom and committed serious breaches of governance when they “un-hired” Salaita by Wise’s not forwarding his hire letter to the UIUC Board of Trustees (BOT).
The AAUP reached these conclusions based partially on its own interviews on February 26-27, 2015, with Wise and other UIUC campus members. The AAUP also relied extensively on the investigation conducted at UIUC by the UIUC’s academic senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT), which itself relied on documents obtained by various media outlets via Freedom-of-Information-Act (FOIA) requests, and not on the cooperation of UIUC, which from the CAFT Report appears to have been noticeably absent apart from Wise agreeing to a single interview with the CAFT. This raises the real question of how much evidence UIUC disclosed to the CAFT and ultimately the AAUP, and whether the CAFT conclusions and those of the AAUP itself would have been more definitive in certain areas or, possibly, different, had UIUC been more forthcoming.
In this regard, my website – samizdat-startups.org – has over the past year filed several hundred strategically-worded and directed FOIAs relating to Wise’s activities at UIUC that bear directly on the Salaita affair, and obtained several thousand pages of results from UIUC from these FOIA-filings. This raft of new materials covers not only 1) the critical period of that affair of July 21 (when the story of Salaita’s tweets broke) to July 24 (when Wise met with the UIUC BOT and decided not to forward Salaita’s hire letter to them for approval), but also 2) a good portion of 2014, particularly July, when Wise was heavily engaged in pushing for a new College of Medicine (COM) with a tight-knit group of local rich businesspeople and Carle hospital, which intends to donate an enormous sum of money ($100M) to the COM in exchange for Carle and UIUC partnering on this enterprise.
What has samizdat-startups.org found in the several thousand pages of documents these FOIAs produced that the CAFT/AAUP never saw? First, a large number of emails that show Wise’s decision-making was not done in the isolation from senior faculty that’s been claimed by UIUC and by Wise herself, a claim the CAFT Report and AAUP reproduce.
Specifically, from July 21 Wise was herself touting Salaita’s free-speech rights, and during the subsequent two days leading up to the BOT meeting she consulted multiple times with UIUC Provost Ilesanmi Adesida and UIUC Assistant Provost and Associate Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access Menah Pratt-Clarke on Salaita’s hire letter. These exchanges are notable because they show Wise consulting regularly with these faculty members, and not just in the administrative vacuum that UIUC’s earlier FOIA productions to the public had suggested. And of course it’s also interesting to note that from very early on Wise’s thoughts and those of Provost Adesida and Assistant Provost Pratt-Clarke had turned from Salaita’s free-speech rights to the question of whether or not he could be un-hired based simply on a decision not to forward his hiring to the BOT. Would this have affected what the CAFT/AAUP wrote about Salaita’s un-hiring? Well, at the very least it certainly seems like information they’d have wanted to have.
Consider also the email exchange of July 22 in which Adesida tells the UIUC Vice President for Academic Affair Christophe Pierre that, regarding the Salaita hiring, “He [Salaita] accepted the offer; this has been done since September last year! It is final,” which I discuss in detail in the Open Letter I sent to the CAFT on their investigation. This email was seemingly never provided by UIUC to the CAFT. Why? It’s unfortunately quite possible UIUC didn’t provide it because it supports the argument made by Salaita’s lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) of what’s termed “promissory estoppel,” that is, a legal doctrine that, if applicable, would bind UIUC to its hire offer because that offer was unambiguous and Salaita relied on it to his detriment. According to CCR, UIUC’s lawyers claim estoppel is not applicable because “Defendants [UIUC, Wise, etc.] contend (a) that no unambiguous promise was made to Salaita, and (b) that Plaintiff’s reliance on any promise was unreasonable.” But that email of Adesida’s on July 22 sure suggests Adesida himself believed the offer was unambiguous and “final,” which certainly seems strong evidence against UIUC’s claims.
The thousands of pages of FOIA results samizdat-startups.org obtained from UIUC regarding the Salaita affair go beyond Salaita himself, and into the whole “wealthy donor” question that’s the standard narrative to explain why Wise un-hired Salaita. In this regard, the FOIAed documents originally disclosed by UIUC were most notable for showing a large letter-writing campaign against Salaita’s appointment by alums of UIUC, including some rich Jewish alums who stated they’d withhold donations unless Salaita was fired. However, the FOIA results obtained by samizdat-startups.org provide for an altogether different narrative: if Wise engaged in any quid-pro-quo over donor dollars, it was more likely with the rich businesspeople in town and the local hospital chain Carle, which has promised $100 million for a partnership with UIUC over a College of Medicine (COM).
In this regard, consider that the Jewish donors in the FOIAed emails were likely giving a total of, say, $4 million to UIUC, which represents about 2% of a single year’s donations to the UIUC campus (donations to UIUC in 2013-2014 alone totaled $185 million). On the other hand, Carle hospital has plans to give $100 million over 10 years to push through its partnership with UIUC to build the COM, and the FOIAed documents obtained by samizdat-startups.org show very clearly how Wise spent a year meeting Carle executives and rich local business people in all sorts of non-public venues, including her own house, and many times rearranging her regular schedule of duties in order to have these conversations.
These FOIAed documents also show how caught up in getting the COM approved Wise was during July, including the July 21-24 timeframe of Salaita’s un-hiring. In early July, Wise and other senior UIUC officials were up against a visit from a consulting firm apparently hired by UI-Chicago to find problems with the COM proposal. Then, in mid-July, Wise was advocating for a $17 million bed-expansion that Carle was trying to get Illinois to approve over the objections of: the State’s own reviewers who said the new beds were unnecessary; the other local hospital, Presence, which said the bed-expansion would put them out of business; and, the City of Urbana, which is fighting a decade-long legal battle with Carle over its tax-exempt status. Finally, during the four-day period between July 21 and July 24 when Wise went from trumpeting Salaita’s free-speech to un-hiring him, Wise was busy in yet more meetings with Carle, including a phone call presumably on the COM immediately after getting out of the UIUC Board of Trustees meeting on the 24th. All of which together suggests that, if Wise un-hired Salaita under the influence of donor dollars, it was much more likely a donor of the usual kind – a rich corporate donor, i.e., Carle hospital – and that Wise may have un-hired Salaita simply because of the bad press she was afraid he was bringing to UIUC at a time when she, Carle and the wealthy businesspeople in the area were all skittish of the effects of that bad press on pushing the COM through.
In summary, the AAUP/CAFT reports are based on evidence that’s incomplete, due in large part to UIUC’s unwillingness to provide sufficient information. The remedy is simple: the evidence uncovered by samizdat-startups.org must be used as the basis of an additional investigation. And, when that investigation is done, it must consider the most likely narrative for possible donor influence: Carle hospital and local rich businesspeople.