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.