Phyllis Wise Wants the $400,000: Is She a Philanthropist?

Phyllis Wise, former chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, issued a statement claiming the board of trustees of the University of Illinois reneged on a promise to pony up $400,000 upon her resignation that took effect on August 12. She claims the $400,000 that she had negotiated with new President Timothy Killeen, was not a bonus or a golden parachute but instead a “retention incentive.” She even avers it’s not about money, and that she had intended to be a source of philanthropy for the aborning College of Medicine!:

As the university knows, months before this controversy began, I had begun discussions with campus development leaders about gifting an amount equal to my deferred compensation package to the College of Medicine.

Perhaps she might consider contributing this pot of gold for adjunct compensation or to Steven Salaita whom she fired from a tenured position in a signed letter last August. Dr. Salaita was to receive $85,000 his first year as a tenured associate professor in the American Indian Studies program. Dr. Wise’s annual salary will be almost $300,000, if she joins the faculty following a one-year sabbatical. Subsequently, Professor Salaita moved in with his parents to avoid destitution after the chancellor initially refused to submit his contract for board approval, just weeks before his classes were to begin.

Dr. Wise has retained counsel and may sue the university for breach of contract. Her statement contained a direct warning of legal action: “I find myself consulting with lawyers and considering options to protect my reputation in the face of the board’s position.” Steven Salaita is also suing the U. of I. for a variety of reasons including breach of contract. He returned a signed contract, was given moving expenses, computer access and had resigned honourably his tenured position at Virginia Tech.

Phyllis Wise is tenured in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the board of trustees will not revoke her appointment. Her tenured position is continuous. Steven Salaita, who is suing for the restoration of his position, has a non-tenured appointment at the American University of Beirut.

Recently there have been suggestions from a variety of sources that Dr. Wise was taking the hit of adverse publicity, amidst a firestorm of protest across the academy, for actions that were ordered by her superiors–namely former board chair Christopher G. Kennedy. Yet for over a year she was the point person and visible defender of the persecution and possible destruction of a brilliant career of a scholar, who tweeted criticisms of babies being blasted to death in Palestine. She is the one who established the “civility” test at the flagship university. To this day, she has publicly expressed no remorse and no regret over the summary dismissal of Professor Salaita.

While I am not one to indulge in schadenfreude, it is difficult to empathise with Dr. Wise’s sudden fall from power as a result of her efforts to conceal university business through private e-mail communication. In addition to such egregious conduct, her treatment of Steven Salaita, whether unilateral or complicit, was cruel, relentless and unworthy of an administrator.

7 thoughts on “Phyllis Wise Wants the $400,000: Is She a Philanthropist?

  1. I really appreciate your characterization of the Steven Salaita tweets as, “criticism of babies being blasted to death in Palestine.” In the past few days, several of Jodi Cohen’s reports in the Chicago Tribune have been featured on the front page as Chancellor Wise’s reversal of fortune was breaking out. I notice they always use a formulaic shorthand when they reference the Salaita scandal as in: “Salaita, whose job offer was rescinded last summer after he made hundreds of critical and sometimes profane and inflammatory comments on social media about Israel and its military policies.” There is never a word on context or a mention of Palestine. I have posted the following alternative text, suggesting to Cohen that she examine her use of words and what they imply: “CORRECTION: Steven Salaita, whose job contract Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees breached last summer after he exercised his right to speak out on social media in outrage at Israel’s bombing of Palestinian civilians in #Gaza, including children.” All I got back from her a couple of days ago was a flip, “Thank you for reading.” And today, she pointedly added the qualifier “inflammatory” to the mix of her formula. To Cohen and her co-writers, criticims of criminal action by Israel that is now being investigated in the International Criminal Court is best described as the neutral”Israeli military policies.” On the other hand, they do not shy away from evaluative adjectives such as “inflammatory” and “profane” to describe the tweets.

    • This has been on my mind also– how the attacks an Salaita’s tweets never acknowledge the carnage that was occurring in Gaza at the time. It is absurd and surreal and reminds me of “poor Edgar Derby” in Slaughterhouse Five, if you have read that novel.

      • Yes, it’s the subconscious or conscious viewpoint of many many reporters on this case that Salaita’s tweets were minimally “out of line,” and maximally “anti-Semitic,” with reporters trying to find the “middle ground,” to appear innocent of viewpoint.

        What’s interesting is what isn’t thinkable-that what the Israeli military did in and to Gazans was profane.

      • What’s even more maddening (and insidious), Peter, is when these references and adjectives of the tweets come, not as an open attack, but as a formulaic, comfortable description – in passing. They are thus normalized in a mainstream newspaper as unquestioned fact. And, yes, “poor Edgar Derby” – now that you mention it!

  2. Well, she did show a smidgen of compassion last summer when she explained that she had written to Salaita to warn him that it was unlikely the BOT would approve his appointment, because it was the “humane” thing to do as he was about to relocate to Urbana-Champaign.
    (English is not my native language, but doesn’t the word “humane” in that sense usually apply to animals?)

    And let’s not forget that if she were to receive the bonus and immediately donate it to UIUC for its college of medicine, she would still net a nice tax deduction out of it. Charity begins at home…

  3. Peter:

    I haven’t seen a lot of people sympathizing with Wise. At the same time, the more she’s the sole focus of anger, the more the people who enabled and encouraged her remain in their same positions, able and likely to continue to engage in more of the same destructive behavior.

    There’s something of an irony here; Salaita was pilloried for some of his tweets, which supporters claim were only a subset of a larger, more temperate set of messages. In other words, Salaita was treated one-dimensionally.

    Don’t fall into the same trap regarding Wise. I’m the least of her supporters — keep in mind I’m the person who she called “obviously crazy with nothing better to do with his time,” I’m the person whose constant exercise of my rights as a citizen (filing FOIAs) led her to engage in illegal and immoral behavior. But on the whole she reads as a more-or-less positive person, certainly someone who had pressures and accomplices.

    Let’s not let Wise off the hook. But let’s not let those others slip away into the shadows.

    Andrew Scheinman

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