The Unreleased Emails at the University of Illinois

By Andrew Scheinman

I only this morning came across the gloss UIUC has put on its “supplemental” emails release in the Salaita Affair, the College of Medicine (COM), and the Kilgore matter. Specifically, UIUC had this to say on August 7 about the release of these “supplemental” emails:

Today the University is publicly releasing emails from personal email accounts related to James Kilgore, Steven Salaita, and the proposed Carle Illinois College of Medicine, whether they were subject to FOIA or not. This should fulfill the specific incomplete FOIA requests, and the additional emails around those three subjects are being released in the interest of transparency and disclosure.

Now I am always moved to tears by statements of beneficence rooted in transparency (and disclosure!), and so I experienced a brief moment of a sudden warm surge in my chest at the extraordinary steps UIUC had taken. 

And then, I realized it was just more heartburn.

Because here’s the deal: what this “disclosure” is not is a full release of all the OTHER nastiness that this group of people have distributed between one another on their personal email accounts, nastiness which is university business.

Consider that Wise was not the only person to use her personal email to conduct university business: if, for example, you review the Salaita “supplemental” emails you’ll see multiple instances of imperfect redaction of email addresses, imperfect redactions where it’s clear that the email address ended in “.com” and NOT “.edu”.

Thus far, I can show that Ade, Nick Burbules, Joyce Tolliver and Robin Kaler were using .com emails, i.e., were using non-university emails. And they were using these emails to communicate with one another, sometimes including Wise, sometimes not. 

What’s the total of what they were discussing? Well, again, these are “supplemental” emails, SOLELY on Salaita, the COM and Kilgore. We don’t know how UIUC decided what fell into those categories; and we certainly don’t know what else is out there in the way of these discussions of university business using personal emails that UIUC hasn’t produced.

We could find out if someone wants to FOIA UIUC. OR we could demand REAL transparency and disclosure, which would require UIUC sua sponte release the rest of this stuff – redacted of course where appropriate.

Will either event occur? Stay tuned.

6 thoughts on “The Unreleased Emails at the University of Illinois

  1. The university’s spin may be related to the supposition in Illinois that the state FOIA coverage of personal emails in private accounts on private servers may not yet be settled law. If I recall correctly, the wording of the statute was explicit to university-owned equipment. However, the university’s own policy covers that.

    On the other hand, in New York State, it apparently is settled law that the (Freedom of Information Law, a state law) covers all electronic communications whether on private or public servers, or in private accounts on private servers, inasmuch as the state’s Committee on Open Government disseminates that as required under FOIL. UIUC’s position is, therefore, that it may not be required under their state laws to surrender the emails from the private accounts but, because their own university policy requires it, they are making the emails public.

    The problem with these laws has always been that there is a certain element of trust involved because Ronald Reagan’s “Trust, but verify” recommendation is difficult if not impossible to verify. Short of a court order impounding the servers, etc. by third party unannounced visitation, who knows what else has been deleted even from the university’s own servers?

    I note that the university’s spin statement lists the subjects of the emails with a final “and” connector and not an “and/or” which might mean that unless all of the topics were discussed in each single email, the university may not have submitted the email in response to FOIL. Such little details can have large legal ramifications.

    • The thing is, no one has yet FOIAed “all communications using personal emails between any of the persons identified in the ethics review as having used personal emails to conduct what is in at least some cases university business.”

      I could file the FOIA, but I’m waiting until NEXT October to get stuff from UIUC on Dan Peterson, that long as I’m a recurrent requester and they can impose whatever ridiculous delay they want with impunity.

      On the other hand, if someone not so encumbered were to file that FOIA (or something similar), it would be fascinating to see what UIUC comes back with.

      As I’d written it above, probably “unduly burdensome,” so let me suggest breaking it down into particular persons and particular data ranges, e.g.,

      1. FOIA of all emails sent by Ilesanmi Adesida on his personal account from 1/1/14 to 6/30/14.

      2. As for 1, but for 7/1/14 to 12/31/14.

      3. As for 1, but for 1/1/15 to present.

      4. As for 1, but for Nick Burubles …

      5. As for 1, but for Joyce Tolliver …

      6. As for 1, but for Robin Kahler …

      etc.

      ***

      You see, the interesting thing about that approach is that UIUC can, if it wishes, make the strong assertion that NONE of the requested emails are related to university business and therefore refuse to provide anything, or they could provide a subset of the emails and withhold the rest as not related to personal business.

      The first path would result in a PR fiasco; the second could be immediately appealed to the AG’s office on the grounds of no procedure for UIUC of picking what is and what isn’t business email.

      As far as them arguing that all personal emails are exempt (nuclear scenario), I don’t see how they can do that given they’ve already admitted those “supplemental” personal emails were relevant and should have been disclosed. Estopped from asserting the argument, no?

    • Only if there is a “record” — most FOIA laws do not require the reconstruction of information or the creation of new documents. However, indeed, phone records and where there are phone recordings the law should apply. Again, it is not clear in Illinois that the record of two persons phoning each other and discussing university business on private phones would be subject to the FOIA. In New York State, tjey apparently would.

      Sometimes it is as if the Ivory Tower exists in a bubble shielded from the wider news of the day: was not Hillary Clinton just this week obliged to turn over her private server to FOIA?

      • At least a number of the FOIAs from 2014 called for all records, including personal emails and electronic records. I’ve never seen UI pay any attention to that, although when I FOIAed the AG’s office I actually did get redacted phone records.

        Given that Wise’s resignation was just accepted sans bonus, it seems even clearer that this is all going to swept under the rug if it isn’t vigorously pursued.

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