Attorney general: Univ. of Illinois must explain why Salaita memo can’t be found

Administrators’ decision to fire Steven Salaita continues to generate resistance at the University of Illinois (Jeffrey Putney/Flickr)

The Office of the Attorney General of Illinois has asked the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) to explain why it cannot find a memo about Steven Salaita handed to Chancellor Phyllis Wise by a major pro-Israel donor just days before Salaita was fired.

The move by the state’s top law officer follows a request from The Electronic Intifada.

Meanwhile, Wise has apparently told a faculty meeting that she discarded the document, a potential admission that she violated state laws and university regulations on preserving records.

As The Electronic Intifada previously reported, Wise wrote to the university’s top fundraising officials on 24 July that an individual whose name has not been disclosed, apparently a major donor, “gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling.”

In early August, Wise informed Salaita that his position as a tenured professor in the American Indian Studies program had been revoked just weeks before he was due to start teaching – a decision that has prompted ongoing protests on campus and a growing national boycott of the university.

This followed an intense campaign by pro-Israel donors, anti-Palestinian media and others expressing outrage over Salaita’s tweets about Israel’s summertime massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.

In September, The Electronic Intifada requested the “two-pager” under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the university responded that “no records responsive to your request could be located.”

After the university administration ignored requests for further information about the missing document, The Electronic Intifada asked the Public Access Counselor at the attorney general’s office to step in.

In a 9 October letter to Thomas Hardy, the university’s chief records officer, Steve Silverman, assistant bureau chief at the attorney general’s Public Access Bureau, wrote:

We have determined that further inquiry is warranted. Please provide a detailed description of the measures taken by the university to search for the requested record, including a description of the specific recordkeeping systems that were searched and the specific individuals who were consulted. In your response, please explain the manner in which the university maintains records received by the chancellor and how it concluded that it does not possess the record.

The full letter is attached below.

By law, the university must respond within seven business days after receiving the letter, and the response will be shared with The Electronic Intifada, which also has a statutory opportunity to reply.

Wise says she “didn’t save it”

On Monday, Wise, along with President Robert Easter, addressed the annual meeting of the faculty, a forum for faculty to hear from and put questions to university administrators.

“This one was like no other I have attended,” Al Kagan, professor emeritus of library administration at UIUC, told The Electronic Intifada.

He said that dozens of students who had been organizing for Salaita attended and turned their backs on the chancellor, as they had done at a meeting of the university’s academic senate earlier this year.

After Wise and Easter made their remarks, there were questions and statements from the floor. Kagan said that many of them were about donor influence in the Salaita affair and the ongoing efforts by faculty – opposed by Wise – to unionize.

When it was Kagan’s turn to speak, he asked Wise about the missing “two-pager.”

According to Kagan’s recollection, Wise responded: “It didn’t contain any different information than was already released and I didn’t save it.”

Kagan’s question and Wise’s answer were also contemporaneously recorded in these tweets by Carol Tilley, an associate professor of library and information science, who was at the meeting:

Why the “two-pager” is important

Even if the “two-pager” did not contain information or allegations about Salaita that had not been made elsewhere as part of the campaign against him, it is still important.

The document could have revealed metadata about organizations involved in the effort to fire Salaita.

It “might indicate a more organized effort to go after Salaita, and it will be one of the many documents we’ll seek in litigation,” Maria LaHood, one of the attorneys representing Salaita, previously told The Electronic Intifada.

The mere fact that the “two-pager” was given to the chancellor by an influential donor in a private meeting was in itself a signal to Wise about the donor’s mindset and how Wise was expected to act.

Wise clearly understood it in this manner when she wrote to her fundraising colleagues that the donor told her “how we handle this situation will be very telling.”

In sum, the document was handed to Wise by a donor as part of an attempt to influence her to take an official action on behalf of the university, an act that she ultimately took: firing Salaita.

Moreover, she thought the document was significant enough to mention it in her report of the meeting to her colleagues.

As such, there can be little doubt that Wise had a statutory obligation to preserve it as an official university record and the university was legally required to produce it under FOIA.

If Wise indeed discarded it, she deprived the public of its right to know the full facts behind her decision to fire Steven Salaita. It was not Wise’s place, but that of the public, to decide the significance of the document in her decision.

It is to be hoped that the university will use its response to the attorney general as an opportunity for full and frank disclosure instead of further evasion.

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The very fact that tweets, however mild, against the latest savage Israeli assault on Gaza were used by a pro Israel donor to the university were sufficient for the Chancellor to unilaterally fire a tenured professor before he even began his job is outrageous. The university administration believes that free speech disapproved of by a pro Israel donor can be silenced by a firing of an academic professor? Who gives this donor that power? Why is legitimate criticism of Israel's brutal oppression and occupation of Palestinians cause for a man to lose his job?

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Professor Salaita should be reinstated...!! The very idea that he can lose his job for expressing an honest opinion, and utilizing FREE SPEECH, about which, a donor had a hissy fit......and proceeded to use his donor status as a wedge... Is frankly, not that much different from blackmail.

If there is any honor to be regained, rehire him.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.