The Revelations in Phyllis Wise’s Emails

What are the most important revelations in Phyllis Wise’s secret personal emails that were uncovered on Friday?

Perhaps the key fact is that these emails existed at all. Using a personal email address to evade FOIA requests is clearly unethical and possibly illegal.

And confessing that this was the purpose, as Wise did, is remarkably stupid. There’s a particularly incriminating email from Phyllis Wise to Michael LeRoy on Sept. 18, 2014: “Robin has warned me and others not to use email since we are now in litigation phase. We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses. I am even being careful with the email address and deleting after sending.”

In more than 1,000 pages of previously private emails about the Salaita case, the James Kilgore case, and the (successful) efforts to create a new College of Medicine at UIUC, a startling picture emerges that these three cases are actually intertwined. You can’t understand what happened to Salaita without seeing the other two events.

Wise’s problems begin when Champaign-Urbana News Gazette columnist Jim Dey writes about ex-felon James Kilgore teaching as an adjunct at UIUC. Christopher Kennedy, the chair of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees who plays a decisive role in all of these cases, quickly writes an email on Feb. 10, 2014 to president Bob Easter. Kennedy is happy to ban people from working at the U of I: “there are plenty of other institutions in our state.” He adds, “I think we need to be sensitive to tax payers.”

Under “Obligation to Meet Norms of Society,” Kennedy writes: “the University, as the state’s public university, needs to, in many ways, reflect the values of the state.” He warns of a backlash if they are “too cavalier,” one that will “hinder our ability to free ourselves of unwanted procurement rules” and similar important values of the University. Kennedy seemed mostly interested in the state de-regulating economic decisions of the University, and felt that controversial professors would interfere with his goal.

Under “Risk Management,” Kennedy writes: “Given the enormous attention that the Ayers vote received, it’s incredible to me that no one informed the rest of the board or me that the University was home to another such ex-terrorist.” Kennedy remained angry at Bill Ayers, the UIC professor for whom he had personally demanded the denial of emeritus status because a Weathermen book once defended Robert F. Kennedy’s killer Sirhan Sirhan as a political prisoner. But this statement indicates that Kennedy expected advance warning of any potentially offensive professors being hired, with dire consequences if he was disobeyed. Wise’s failure to see the Salaita scandal in advance meant that she was under extreme pressure from Kennedy to act quickly in another case similar to Ayers and Kilgore.

Finally, under “Civility,” Kennedy wrote, “Our campus in Urbana is plagued right now with a civility issue. We are all, of course, perplexed by the lack of civility that our students showed in their criticism of an administrative decision. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by their conduct, given the fact that we have held up to the students examples people like this fellow who thought it was ok to target cops and non-combatants for murder as an expression of political disagreement.”

Here, Kennedy is talking about the racist and sexist social media comments of students who objected to Wise’s wise decision not to cancel classes because it was cold on January 27, 2014. The bigoted messages were an embarrassment to the University. But it was bizarre for Kennedy to imagine that racist comments were caused by James Kilgore, a left-wing anti-racist adjunct professor who was involved in a terrorist group decades earlier, especially since his past hadn’t been publicized on campus. It’s interesting that Kennedy doesn’t frame the issue as bigotry (as every media story had done), but instead as a question of civility in the form of questioning the decisions of authority.

Kennedy’s strange obsession with civility would clearly shape how Wise and the Board responded to the Salaita case.

Wise’s response to reading Kennedy’s email was, “Wow. I hope he has calmed down some.”

The Kilgore case also reveals another major influence on Wise: education professor Nicholas Burbules, who had gained Wise’s trust and support. On Feb. 11, 2014, Burbules wrote an email to Wise discussing ways to ban people like Kilgore from being hired: “A related policy might address the question of ‘controversial’ hires—this is murkier, because people’s ideas of what is controversial will differ. But a crude rule of thumb is, if you think someone’s name is going to end up on the front page of the newspaper as a U of I employee, you can’t make that decision on your own say so. You need to get some higher level review and approval.” As a standard of academic freedom, this is simply appalling: Burbules wanted to explicitly make the controversial status of someone grounds for banning their hiring without permission from top administrators. And that permission would almost never be granted, since he called for “policy changes or new procedures that tell people, ‘We’ve looked into how this happened and here’s what we’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’”

Burbules advocated “a more principled statement of what the U of I stands for: that we welcome the widest possible range of viewpoints and positions, but not all positions. And that there are some things that are not consistent with our values.” It certainly took chutzpah for Burbules to call his demand for firing controversial faculty “more principled” and welcoming the “widest possible range” of ideas.

Wise surrounded herself with a small group of trusted faculty such as Burbules who vigorously defended her actions and espoused an extraordinarily narrow view of academic freedom. This helped great an atmosphere of groupthink.

The Kilgore case was kept at bay throughout the summer of 2014, while Wise and the Board tried to figure out how to handle it without explicitly making a decision. Ultimately, Kilgore was hired by the University of Illinois in 2015 because of the Salaita case: the critiques of Salaita’s dismissal so annoyed the Board that they ended up abandoning any attempt to regulate hiring of adjunct faculty.

But when the Salaita case came up quickly during the summer, the Kilgore case was still up in the air.

At the same time, Wise was pushing to establish a College of Medicine (COM) in Urbana, which would be her greatest success and her ultimate undoing. On March 18, 2014, Wise writes in an email: “Someone, who is out to get Laura, has asked for all email exchanges between her and all of the internal and external advisory board members. So I want us to be really careful.” Urbana attorney Andrew Scheinman (http://www.samizdat-startups.org/) had filed the FOIAs, and continued to file them. Wise began living a double life, one set of emails for her Illinois.edu address, and another set of emails on her personal email, corresponding with everyone else on their personal addresses. As she wrote on April 25, 2014 to Dick Meisinger, “I have been FOIAed on all correspondence relative to the COM. Please don’t ask anything, as innocent as it may seem on that email from your Illinois email.”

March 18, 2014 was also when Wise met with Chris Kennedy, and she reported, “I was disappointed.” Wise said the meeting was “a litany of why we won’t be able to get this done.” She said Kennedy was angry that ”we had not gotten Board approval before sharing it with others.”

According to Wise, “Kennedy said we have to get Paula, Lon and Dimitri on our side. He said, ‘buy them out.’” That’s a reference to Dimitri Azar, dean of the UIC College of Medicine, UIC chancellor Paula Allen-Meares, and UIC Provost Lon Kaufman, and it’s quite a shocking statement.

Wise was particularly fearful that Kennedy would find out she had spoken to many others before him about COM:  “I didn’t want him to think that he was the last person to know.”

A March 24, 2014 email from a consultant to Wise reveals that Kennedy had emailed Bob Easter, calling for the personnel committee to rein in Wise.

Sometime on July 24, 2014, the future of Steven Salaita’s career at UIUC is radically altered, as the News-Gazette outlines in its story.

On July 23, the UIUC administrators were engaged in damage control, with spokesperson Robin Kaler outlining a plan where Salaita would be informed that Wise was upset and then receive an in-person scolding from Wise when he arrived on campus. The next morning, Wise tells Kaler to draft a statement about how Salaita’s behavior was inappropriate. After the meeting, Wise simply tells Kaler, “they will be considering carefully whether to approve in September. Definitely not a given.”

But Chris Kennedy later tells the News-Gazette a very different story: that it was Wise who said that she planned to reject Salaita. The Board members listened as a student trustees searched online and read his tweets aloud, and then they decided to be “supportive of her decision,” according to Kennedy’s account.

These new emails reveal a different story.

Wise writes on Dec. 14 about the CAFT draft: “What angers me about this report is that they believe that I made the decision and that BOT followed my recommendation. That is just plain not true. I have been carrying the water since [PR consultants] Edelman said that we have to stay as one voice. I don’t think I can do that any longer. I am going to talk with Scott about setting the record straight. I have just about lost my patience with all of this.”

Wise’s son Andrew, an attorney, sends her “talking points” on Dec. 31, 2014 after a conversation with her. The talking points refers to “a prior untrue Kennedy’s [sic] statement to a newspaper report that the Board was simply following your lead on Salaita.” The email says, “While you have no intention of diminishing your role in the decision, allowing Kennedy’s narrative to continue is harmful to you individually and to the university.” According to the talking points, “the Board was uniform in its belief that Salaita should not be hired.”

It’s not clear if Wise is simply trying to share the blame with the entire board over a decision they all agreed upon, or if she is asserting that Kennedy and the rest of the board of trustees wanted Salaita out and Wise simply went along with them. But it is clear that with Kennedy angry at the Kilgore case, and skeptical of the College of Medicine, Wise felt at the time that she couldn’t afford to alienate Kennedy about Salaita.

On July 31, 2014, Wise writes about COM, “I/we need to figure out what I need to do, if anything, to get another audience with CK [Chris Kennedy].” She concludes, “I never thought it would get this ugly.” That came a week after the Board meeting about Salaita, but before anyone was told about it. Wise was desperately trying to persuade Kennedy to give his support to COM. The next day, she informed Salaita that she would not be forwarding his name to the Board because it was “unlikely” they would approve it.

Wise felt that she had to take responsibility for getting rid of Salaita, both to maintain a united front advised by the PR consultants, and to keep in the good graces of Kennedy. Wise herself made some of the connections explicit in an Aug. 6 email to Burbules: “I worry about this when we are dealing with the JK [James Kilgore] issue, unionization, and also the COM.”

Eventually, Wise prevailed, but only because Kennedy was forced to resign when Bruce Rauner became governor. Michael DeLorenzo emails her on Nov. 7, 2014, “The feeling was with Rauner as Governor, and Ed most likely as chair, the COM was now going to be a done deal.” With Chris Kennedy out of the way, Wise’s dream for COM finally became a reality in 2015.

We won’t know whether Kennedy or Wise was correct in their stories about what happened at the Board meeting until the Board releases the transcript of the executive session. But it is clear that COM and the Kilgore cases caused Wise and Board to act quickly to decide to fire Salaita, without ever examining his record or hearing from anyone who might disagree with their decision. The disastrous decision to get rid of Salaita was an impulsive reaction by powerful people who understood almost nothing about academic freedom and shared governance, and surrounded themselves with yes men who never questioned their opinions.

UPDATE: Here are the searchable PDFs of the released emails created by Andrew Scheinman.

Salaita Case Emails

Kilgore Case Emails

COM Case Emails (pp. 1-200)

COM Case Emails (pp. 201-400)

COM Case Emails (pp. 401-600)

COM Case Emails (pp. 601-773)

37 thoughts on “The Revelations in Phyllis Wise’s Emails

  1. It wasn’t about a statement supposedly defending Sirhan Sirhan. It was about a dedication in a book that Kennedy claimed included Sirhan’s name. It actually did not. Sirhan’s name was included only in the background of the page, as a kind of “wallpaper” design.

  2. John,

    This is the kind of unfair, slanted argument that I have come to expect from you. You quote the first part of my comment but not the second: “A question is: do ex-felons have any right to job at all in the society? If they do, what type of job and where?”

    You ignore that I elsewhere say explicitly, “I believe that people who have done their time and repented their actions deserve a life beyond incarceration.”

    Of course a university, or any organization, needs some policy for reviewing the hiring of former felons.

    You take my statement “you can’t make that [hiring] decision on your own say so. You need to get some higher level review and approval,” which is a perfectly reasonable hiring policy, and redefine it as ‘Burbules wanted to explicitly make the controversial status of someone grounds for banning their hiring without permission from top administrators.” That is not what I said, in any way.

    I say “we welcome the widest possible range of viewpoints and positions, but not all positions. And that there are some things that are not consistent with our values,” and you characterize that as the ravings of someone who doesn’t respect academic freedom. But read again what I actually said. It is in fact EXACTLY what the AAUP itself says — that faculty have academic freedom but that there are also standards of professional conduct to which faculty should be held.

    Nick

    • Nick: I’ve removed the ex-felon paragraph because upon re-reading it (https://www.uillinois.edu/common/pages/DisplayFile.aspx?itemId=278003), I realized that the line about ex-felons not having a right to a job was actually written by Ade, not you (I was confused because Wise wrote, “Here is Nick’s email” in front of it). I apologize for that mistake.

      The other two statements I think are accurate criticisms. You did call for a literal double standard: the usual process, and a special one for controversial adjuncts who require extra scrutiny from higher-level administration. I can’t believe you think the AAUP would ever endorse that system.

      And the AAUP 50 years ago in the Statement on Extramural Utterances (added to the 1940 Statement by the 1970 Interpretive Comments) rejected the idea that extramural utterances should be judged by professional standards. So, no, that’s not exactly the AAUP standard.

      I’m working on a longer piece about your theories of academic freedom which I didn’t have space to go into here.

      • John, It’ll be useful to write a piece on the “theories” of academic freedom that the people who gave Wise such bad advice were using. Although I don’t really
        think they qualify as theories; they really are just post hoc justifications of what had been done. Recall that when you came to UIUC and gave a very well-informed and accessible talk on Academic Freedom and the Salaita case neither Wise nor Burbules nor Tolliver attended. I’m assuming they figured they knew everything they needed to know.

        Don’t forget to mention that Nick Burbules specializes in ethics, and that this year he won an award from the administration for excellence in faculty leadership (with recurring salary increment). Seriously. Cue the sad trombone.

        Susan

    • While Nick B. might be right that the felon bit was taken out of context, I can’t help but to be reminded of George W. Bush’s ‘what about Poland?’ moment. Nick and Joyce T. have obviously aided and abetted Wise in her unethical and possibly illegal evasion of FOIA requests–it would be helpful to hear Nick B address the wider point of criticism http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2015/08/phyllis-wise-wasnt-the-only-villain-in-the-salaita-affair-meet-nick-burbules-and-joyce-tolliver.html

    • Owe up already, Nick. Your utter disdain for unit autonomy, your pandering to power, your arrogance — all hiding behind principled concern for ethics — have been exposed in your own words in critical context. John’s read is compelling, and will continue to be confirmed and validated through readings and analyses by more readers of the record, thanks to President Killeen and the Freedom of Information Act, and those who have requested the documents in the interest of transparency. We learn when growing up that when caught doing wrong, wittingly or not, that we ought to pause, reflect and learn from our errors. But to continue to defend your actions as virtuous when the evidence shows otherwise, that’s just, well, that’s your MO it seems. In any case — and I’m pretty sure you feel that you are in the right — you have no business representing and leading rank and file faculty members in matters requiring shared governance for your words and actions, from what I’ve seen, are accountable only to yourself (or to you and your cronies) and to the interest of securing favor of the administration. Yes, Nick, from this rank and file faculty member from a unit that was shat on you’ve got no credibility. I hope more Senators will see this in light of your shenanigans. The fact is, Steven Salaita’s hire was a routine, properly vetted case. Folks who disagree with his politics exerted pressure on the university, and it is clear now that decisions not germane to the academic merits of his case influenced and subsequently led to his de facto firing. You played an active role in that betrayal of academic freedom and shared governance when you chose to play the role of advising Wise in ways that circumscribed established academic process and procedure, and yet you continue to insist, like the proverbial kid with hand in the cookie jar, that you are innocent if not righteous. At the very least, get off your high horse and reflect on what this entire episode means for how you claim expertise around ethics. I mean, even Chancellor Wise has admitted to the errancy of her chosen path and I would suspect that she regrets the advice she received in a moment in which she was blinded by her zeal for that coveted COM and all the goodies, I mean, the aura of prestige, that it would mean for her.

    • Actually, Professor Burbules, from those emails your notions of hiring policy appear to involve oaths of fealty to academic VIPs and then the promiscuous production of enemies lists.

      Plus some chest-thumping near the end about your ability to be an important academic while simultaneously working to ruin someone else’s career.

    • Dear Prof Burbules,

      Your reply only makes sense if “not all positions” means the same thing as “professional misconduct.” But it doesn’t mean the same thing at all. The AAUP distinguishes between intellectual viewpoints and positions, and standards of professional conduct. You seem to think that holding a certain position could *by itself* be a violation of the standards of professional conduct. But that is stupid.

      Best,
      WJ

  3. Part of Seth Kahn’s comment on my post yesterday bears repeating here:

    “The bewildered, learned-helpless tone of that whole exchange troubles me very much.

    “Based on the emails (I read them too), there’s a case to be made that the Chancellor is taking the fall for a whole bunch of people who botched their decisions. But I can’t feel bad for her. Part of what her comfortable six-figure salary pays for is precisely that risk; she gets paid a lot of money to gamble that other people won’t throw her under the bus.”

    • “she gets paid a lot of money to gamble that other people won’t throw her under the bus.”

      And not really even that – she has been ‘thrown under the bus’, meaning that she goes back to being a professor, with and extra $400K in her pocket.

  4. As I wrote on samizdat-startups.org yesterday, the email from Andrew Wise to Phyllis Wise with the talking points is a poison pill they were putting in place to warn the university not to screw with her. That’s not the kind of stuff that ANY lawyer puts in an email unless he knows it’s either a) under lawyer-client confidentiality or b) it’s there for possible recitation later on.

    The Wises knew it was the latter, because Andrew had her forward to Chris Rice, university counsel. That wasn’t under privilege, since Rice represents the university not Wise and also because it was provided un-redacted by UIUC FOIA, which certainly would not have been the case had they been arguing privilege). It does argue UIUC stepping FAR away from Wise, but that’s a different matter.

    So what happens next? It gets nastier, or UIUC rallies to Wise’s support, or at least “support” to the extent of giving her whatever she wants out of this. If it’s only $, they can undoubtedly pay her out of that great slush fund known as “the foundation.”

    If what Wise wants is her reputation back … hmmm, she could join Salaita in his lawsuit, since he’s pretty much seeking the same thing (he could long since have settled for $).

    ***

    I read the Salaita emails yesterday, there’s a lot that I’m sure is absent from them, raising the question of whether UIUC selectively disclosed what Wise wrote on her personal email about Salaita, and for that matter on the COM.

    What’s of course required are some FOIAs, some seeking every single email Wise sent on her personal account, with that request separated out by couple of month intervals (to avoid recurrent requester claims by the ever uncooperative UIUC FOIA office).

    Also explicit demands for the personal emails of all the other players, since we have *no* idea who else was using a personal email account and, if they were, whether those emails have been captured and released to the public.

    Maybe Nick knows? He seems to have been in on most of this traffic …

  5. So here is a question for Nick Burbules and Joyce Tolliver: when you saw what the FOIA requests from Ali Abunimah and Andrew Scheinman and Steve Salaita’s lawyers produced — the official U of I email record only — and you knew that this was incomplete because there was a personal email record (because you were part of it) what did you do? Did you alert someone that the FOIA response was non-responsive and incomplete? If not –why not?

    Did you ever remind Chancellor Wise that deleting official emails was a very very bad idea? If not, why not?

    Did you place a phone call to the ethics office, when you knew an investigation was underway? When? and if not, why not? If you are going to be ethical university leaders, you need to answer these questions.

      • It’s courteous to spell folks’ names correctly.

        Nick’s surname is “Burbules”, which can be employed polyptotonically alongside “burbling”–an activity which sometimes accompanies a justified comeuppance.

  6. The ethics office? I contacted them when Wise sent Jennifer Eardley last summer to push Carle’s bed expansion before the state licensing body, asking what I thought was a pretty reasonable question: wasn’t it an ethical conflict for Eardley’s travel, accommodations and food be paid for by Carle, especially when Provena was opposing the expansion? (See http://www.samizdat-startups.org/wp/big-donor-little-university-salaita-carle-uiuc/)

    You know what I got back from the ethics office: oh, since Wise approved it, there was no breach. So there you go, nothing to see, move along.

    Of course as it turned out Eardley didn’t cash the gas money check — high ethical principles at work, not to mention perhaps $70. I tried to find out (via that sharp needle of inquiry known as FOIA) whether she refunded the hotel bill (hundreds of dollars?) and the food and drink costs (more hundreds?), but UIUC-FOIA wouldn’t provide any information.

  7. Thanks for your astute analysis, John. You do a great job of connecting the dots. It is interesting to see that Prof Bubules here touts himself as a defender of AAUP principles when in the emails he discredits the present AAUP for having lost track of its core mission when it turned to unionization as a means to safeguarding academic freedom and shared governance. Prof Burbules has, with Prof Tollover, been fighting the Campus Faculty Association’s union efforts and arguing that we have a robust shared governance system and strong protections for academic freedom. Now we know what that in his mind amounts to. In an email from last year that I was accidentally cc’ed on, Chris Kennedy wrote to the chair of the joint committee representing all the academic senates of the university (he had signed his name to the civilty statement the board issued and then had been asked whether he represented all the senators or only himself), “Shared governance means shared sacrifice.” Only we see that Kennedy really meant: shared governance is taking the fall for your boss. Now it seems Prof Burbules is less inclined to share the sacrifice. BTW, the allegations he raised in the emails that CFA was encouraging the boycott were entirely baseless and drawn as an inference from an ill-written statement by an outside group. But it served his purpose to portray the union effort as disloyal to the university.

  8. I ran Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on the Salaita and COM supplemental emails and numbered the pages and put the .pdfs up on samizdat-startups.org. OCR, while frequently not perfect, should aid quick searching; if people choose to use these as the canonical document set for discussion, the page numbering and OCR should facilitate the analyses.

    I have no idea what the allowed bandwidth is for samizdat-startups.org, if people could report the .pdfs that would be peachy.

    AOS

      • I put up the Kilgore stuff on my website with OCR. In looking it over I see Wise was apparently sending a lot of confidential stuff to her son, who was involved in back-and-forth with UIUC. Is that usual practice to disclose confidential information to non-employees? In a big corporation that would get you fired, since it likely voids attorney-client privilege. Maybe the Salaita team need to use that as a lever to get whatever else UIUC is hiding out into the open.

        And yes, it’s not at all clear that they’ve released all the stuff from all the different private email accounts. Was Laura Frerichs using a private account? Ade? Menah? Dan Peterson? All the rest … ?

  9. I understand that administrators think they can evade FOIAs with little tricks and magic amulets. So at what point do laptops get seized and server administrators subpoenaed? It seems clear we still have only a partial record, and that there have been active efforts, possibly ongoing, to destroy evidence.

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  12. In addition to violating FOIA, this is also a violation of the Electronic Discovery portions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure if there was active litigation (or even the reasonable belief that litigation was likely). Depending on the phase of the litigation, sanctions could include fines, finding for the opposing party, or even charges for contempt of court.

  13. Andrew Scheinmann shared an email today he wrote to University Counsel Scott Rice. Apparently in the cache he noticed that Rice was sent an email in December from Wise’s personal account in which she forwards to him an email from her lawyer son detailing talking points in her claim to have been only towing the line that Kennedy insisted upon. Scheinmann rightly points out that Rice should have told Wise not to use personal email and not to talk to third parties. So, our incompetent legal team should also resign or, better yet, face disbarment for colluding in the commission of a crime.

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