Emails indicate Univ. of Illinois concealing information about Salaita firing

An email from UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise, one of a trove released in recent months, initially takes the position that Steven Salaita was exercising protected “freedom of speech” with tweets about Israel for which he was later fired.

A trove of emails, some recently released under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), indicates that University of Illinois officials have misled investigators and the public about events leading up to the firing of Steven Salaita last August.

The fact that some of the emails were not included in earlier FOIA releases suggests that the university may be trying to prevent embarrassing information coming to light – potentially in violation of the law.

The university’s refusal to release thousands more emails under FOIA is the subject of a state lawsuit by Salaita that is expected to be decided by an Illinois judge this month.

Andrew Scheinman, a University of Illinois alumnus and lawyer who lives part-time in Urbana, Illinois, runs the website samizdat-startups.org.

Scheinman, along with collaborators, has been filing carefully worded FOIA requests to the university for months.

One of the first of those was a request for all FOIA requests filed on Salaita in 2014, along with all documents produced as a result of those requests – a kind of meta-FOIA.

This yielded 1,600 pages of documents including reams of emails, some of which were already in the hands of journalists.

But going through these with a fine-tooth comb, Scheinman discovered exchanges that had previously escaped notice and which support Salaita’s contentions in his federal lawsuit that by rescinding his hiring last August, the university breached an already concluded contract.

Scheinman received a new set of emails from the university on 22 May which contains previously unseen exchanges between University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Chancellor Phyllis Wise and other officials and faculty about Salaita.

Faculty investigators say the emails indicate that Wise misled them about the extent of her consultations.

Scheinman told The Electronic Intifada that the fact that these exchanges were not included in the 1,600 pages of earlier releases means that they were “either intentionally illegally withheld or withheld by such incredible negligence as to rise to the level of criminal negligence.”

Here are some of the key revelations.

Wise initially backed “free speech”

In February, Scheinman obtained a FOIA release of a 22 July 2014 email from Chancellor Wise to a correspondent who had written to express concerns about Salaita’s hiring.

“Thank you for reaching out to us,” Wise wrote to the person, whose name was redacted by the university. “As you know, our faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom of speech rights of all our employees. However, when people join our university community, we hope they embrace our core values of collegiality and respect for those whose points of view are different from their own.”

This was just a day after media stories broke about Salaita’s tweets critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza.

The email shows that the line Wise took in private on at least one occasion matched the position the university had taken publicly the day before defending Salaita’s expressions as protected free speech rights and treating him as someone who had already been hired.

But between that email and a meeting of the executive committee of the university’s board of trustees on 24 July, Wise made an about face and decided not to forward Salaita’s appointment to the board of trustees for final approval – a formality that often occurs after a new faculty member begins teaching. She would later claim that Salaita was no longer welcome on campus not because of what he said, but because of the manner in which he said it – his purported lack of “civility.”

Salaita’s federal lawsuit against the university, its trustees and unnamed donors alleges that the change of heart was in part a result of significant pressure from major pro-Israel donors due to his opinions about Israel.

Scheinman calls it “pretty spectacular” that it wasn’t until February that the university managed to produce this email.

Salaita was fired, not unhired

Scheinman has cast light on another significant email exchange, also on 22 July, between UIUC Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida regarding Salaita’s appointment.

“Ade, do you know if he has accepted the offer? Is it final?” Pierre wrote to Adesida.

A few hours later Adesida replied emphatically: “He accepted the offer; this had been done since September last year! It is final.”

This suggests the provost understood Salaita’s hiring to be complete and final for all intents and purposes despite the fact that it had not been rubber-stamped by the board of trustees.

This lends support to Salaita’s contention in his federal lawsuit – under a doctrine called promissory estoppel – that the university “induced him to rely on its contractual promise to resign from a tenured faculty position at another university.” Because Salaita reasonably relied on the university’s promises to him, he argues that it then breached a binding contract by arbitrarily rescinding his employment.

In its own report into the matter in April, the American Association of University Professors affirmed that from the perspective of its own standards on academic freedom, which UIUC has long formally adopted as its own, the university’s decision constituted a “dismissal” of Salaita and not a mere withdrawal of a non-binding job offer.

AAUP will vote on censuring the university later this month.

Wise’s misleading statements

UIUC’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) interviewed Chancellor Wise as part of its investigation into the Salaita matter. In its report published last December, CAFT states that Wise:

confirmed that she had not consulted with the Provost, the Dean of [Liberal Arts and Sciences], or other faculty representatives about her decisions not to forward Dr. Salaita’s offer of appointment to the Board of Trustees and to notify him in advance of this decision. She indicated that her initial understanding of the process was that it was her prerogative not to forward Dr. Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees, and she only later discovered this understanding to be incorrect.

Scheinman contends that the Pierre-Adesida exchange already undermines Wise’s version.

But the emails released just days ago confirm that Wise’s statement was at best misleading if not an outright falsehood.

The News-Gazette summarizes the exchanges:

The July 24 emails show Wise and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida discussing Salaita with two professors, Nicholas Burbules and Joyce Tolliver, on the day the chancellor met with UI trustees to discuss Salaita’s angry tweets about Israel. Both are longtime members of the Senate Executive Committee.

“We have run into a buzz saw again!” Adesida wrote to Tolliver and Burbules, saying the chancellor has been “deluged with protest messages from outraged alumni and the public.”

The exchanges also indicate that the participants were being very careful about what they said in writing.

Invited to discuss the Salaita matter by Wise, Burbules replied in a 24 July email: “Since we’re diving into this, let me say that to me cases like this (or [James] Kilgore) are NOT academic freedom (or free speech) issues.”

“I have much more to say, but not for email,” he concluded. It was later the same day that Wise met trustees and apparently reversed her position.

It should be noted that Burbules and Tolliver, both past leaders of the UIUC academic senate, published an op-ed in the News-Gazette in August publicly supporting the chancellor’s rationalizations for firing Salaita.

UIUC faculty have sharply criticized Wise over her failure to disclose these consultations.

“You had told us you hadn’t met with any faculty and had only limited discussions with the provost … Now, it turns out that’s not the case,” CAFT chairperson Professor David O’Brien told Wise in a campus senate meeting last week.

Professor Bruce Rosenstock, president of the Campus Faculty Association, said, according to the News-Gazette, that the emails “directly contradict” Wise’s testimony to the committee.

Rosenstock has also questioned why Burbules and Tolliver didn’t mention their discussions with Wise when they co-authored a response to the CAFT report in January.

Wise has attempted to qualify her position, as the News-Gazette reports: “I don’t think I pointed out whether or not I met with any faculty specifically, but that I was not happy with my own lack of extensive consultation that I usually do in these cases.”

Scheinman has been strongly critical of CAFT for failing to do the kinds of FOIA requests that he has undertaken.

Tip of the iceberg?

In November Salaita filed a lawsuit in the Illinois circuit court against the university, alleging breaches of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

This is separate from his federal lawsuit over his firing.

Salaita and his attorneys are seeking thousands of emails. The university has refused to release them, even after Salaita drastically narrowed the scope of the request, claiming that the burden of doing so outweighed the public interest.

In motions seen by The Electronic Intifada, the university maintains that it would take up too much staff time to go through all the emails and that it would likely have to hire temporary staff.

The university has asked the court to uphold its refusal or at least to delay consideration of the case until after Salaita’s federal lawsuit has gone through the courts.

It argues that since most of the emails would be released to Salaita’s lawyers – though not necessarily to the public – in the process of discovery as part of the federal trial, the FOIA request is redundant.

Salaita’s lawyers say the university is greatly exaggerating the time and cost of sifting the emails – “de-duplicating” software is often used to assist in this purpose. They contend that if the university expects to have to sort through the emails as part of the federal case anyway, then the marginal cost of doing so for the FOIA request is insignificant.

They also suggest that the university will likely spend far more on lawyers trying to keep the emails secret than it would cost to hire a few temporary workers to help meet the request.

Salaita’s attorneys argue that the FOIA case is about the incontestable public interest – far beyond Salaita’s individual situation – in knowing whether decisions of the state’s flagship public university are for sale.

Even if the court orders the university to release emails based on a wide set of search terms, there’s reason to believe that much information may still remain concealed.

On 23 July, Menah Pratt-Clarke, associate chancellor for strategic affairs, sent an email to Wise, apparently responding to an earlier inquiry from the chancellor: “The faculty member has not gone to the Board yet.”

This brief email – about Salaita – does not include any of the search terms Salaita’s lawyers have asked the university to look for. It only came to light because of a FOIA request for all emails sent by Wise within a narrow time period of a few hours on a single day.

Yet it is clear evidence of the kinds of internal inquiries and consultations Wise was undertaking that could have a direct bearing on the outcome of Salaita’s lawsuit.

A hearing in the Champaign County Court at which the judge may issue a decision in the FOIA case is currently scheduled for 12 June.

In the context of the emails brought to light by Scheinman’s dogged investigations, it is easy to see why the university is not eager to have any more information about its handling of the Salaita matter uncovered.

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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.