The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says it cannot find a key document that may shed light on donor pressure and organized efforts to convince top administrators to fire Steven Salaita for his criticisms of Israel.
The Electronic Intifada requested the document – a memo on Salaita’s views handed to Chancellor Phyllis Wise by a major donor – under the Freedom of Information Act.
However, an 18 September letter from the university informed The Electronic Intifada that “no records responsive to your request could be located.” Under Illinois law, Wise is required to preserve the document as a public record.
Wise’s and the university’s subsequent refusal to answer any questions about the missing document, coupled with earlier contradictory statements about the Salaita affair from President Robert Easter, give rise to reasonable suspicion of a cover up.
Moreover, there is separate evidence of a “briefing document” on Salaita prepared by a major pro-Israel lobby group. But due to the university’s lack of transparency it has so far not been possible to determine if that document is the same one that was in Wise’s possession and that the university claims it cannot find.
On 11 September, the university’s board of trustees formally rejected Salaita’s appointment to a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program.
This came after weeks of campaigning against him by pro-Israel students, faculty and donors outraged at his tweets criticizing Israel’s massacre in Gaza.
The firing has generated national and international outrage from free speech and academic freedom advocates, and a boycott of the University of Illinois endorsed by thousands of scholars.
Wise’s missing “two-pager”
The existence of the document in question was revealed in a 24 July email (see below) Wise sent to the university’s senior fundraising staff reporting on a meeting she had with what appears to be a major donor.
Wise’s email was among hundreds of pages of correspondence previously released by the university under the Freedom of Information Act.
Much of the text in the email, including the name of the person Wise met, is redacted.
In the email, Wise writes (emphasis added):
He said that he knows [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] well and both have less loyalty for Illinois because of their perception of anti-Semitism. He gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling.
This “two-pager” is the document that was requested by The Electronic Intifada and that the university now claims it cannot find.
“Hard to believe”
Maria LaHood, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is part of the legal team representing Salaita, expressed skepticism toward the university’s claim that it cannot locate the document.
“It is hard to believe that Chancellor Wise would have thrown out the two-pager on Professor Salaita given to her by a donor at a meeting that was important enough for her to email details about to top Illinois fundraising officials at midnight, unless there’s a reason she didn’t want it to be made public,” she told The Electronic Intifada.
“The two-pager might indicate a more organized effort to go after Salaita, and it will be one of the many documents we’ll seek in litigation,” LaHood added.
LaHood’s statement is the clearest indication that Salaita is considering suing the university since trustees formally rejected his appointment earlier this month.
Under the Illinois State Records Act, documents received by Wise and the university are the property of the state. As a public official, Wise is legally required to preserve such records, which may not be disposed of except under conditions set out in the law.
Moreover, the University itself has clear policies on the retention and preservation of records with which Wise is undoubtedly familiar.
The Electronic Intifada sent a follow-up inquiry to Chancellor Wise with these questions:
- Who gave you the document?
- Did the person who gave you the document tell you who prepared it?
- Did the document bear any indication of who prepared it, whether an individual or individuals or an organization?
- From your best recollection, please characterize the contents of the document.
- Did you share the document with anyone else?
This inquiry received the following reply from Virginia Hudak-David, associate director for university relations: “Because your questions are addressed to Chancellor Wise, please follow up by contacting Public Affairs on the U of I Urbana-Champaign campus at 217-333-5010.”
The letter informing The Electronic Intifada that the “two-pager” could not be located is signed by Thomas P. Hardy, who is executive director of the Office for University Relations and chief records officer.
The letter concludes: “If you have questions for our office, please contact 217-333-6400.”
The same written inquiry that was sent to Chancellor Wise was also sent to Hardy and his subordinates. No response or further acknowledgment has been received and phone calls to Hardy have not been returned.
Emailed inquiries to Board of Trustees chair Christopher Kennedy also received no response.
With whom did Wise meet?
From the unredacted information in the 24 July email, it would appear that the person Wise met is a major donor with two sons who attend the university and that this donor has influence on, or it least close relationships with, other potential major donors.
His meeting with Wise almost certainly took place in Chicago. Public records show that Wise was present in Chicago for other meetings on 23, 24 and 25 July.
The recipients of Wise’s report on the meeting include Dan C. Peterson and Leanne Barnhart, both senior officials in the office of “Institutional Advancement” – the university’s fundraising operation.
A third recipient was Travis M. Smith, director of fundraising at a university office in Chicago whose specific role is to “manage relationships” with “alumni and friends who live in the Chicago-Metropolitan area.”
Jewish Federation’s “brief document”
The trove of emails previously released by the University of Illinois mentions another document on Salaita that was used as part of donor efforts to lobby the administration against him.
An email sent by a donor to Chancellor Wise on 24 July (see below) expresses outrage at Salaita’s hiring. The donor – whose name is redacted – describes himself or herself as “a member of the Jewish community and supporter of my alma mater.”
The donor appears to be very generous: “I was a financial supporter of the BIF [Business Instructional Facility] and Hillel buildings on campus and was proud to have my name on plaques in both of these facilities.”
“Based on the hiring of Mr. Salaita,” the donor writes, “I have decided to reconsider any future commitment of time and money to the University of Illinois.”
How did this angry donor learn about Salaita’s alleged views? “I have read a brief document on Professor Salaita’s views prepared by the Jewish Federation’s Israel Education Center,” the donor writes.
The Israel Education Center is an advocacy arm of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, almost certainly the most influential and active pro-Israel advocacy organization in Illinois.
The Chicago Jewish Federation is a member of the Jewish Federations of North America, a network of Jewish communal organizations that have put Israel advocacy at the center of their joint work.
Reached by telephone, Emily Briskman, director of the Israel Education Center, refused to discuss the “brief document” on Salaita mentioned in the donor’s email.
She requested that inquiries be sent to her by email, but then did not respond.
The Israel lobby “playbook”
It should be noted that direct intervention in campus affairs to suppress Palestine solidarity activism or criticism of Israel is the explicit methodology of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (often abbreviated as JUF).
The Israel Education Center published a document titled “The Playbook - Tackling the Delegitimization of Israel on Campus” which actively encourages students to involve Israel lobby groups in campus affairs.
It counsels students how to confront “Anti-Israel Displays and Tables” which might include “wall displays set up on campus portraying Israel as a human rights abuser, an aggressor, guilty of war crimes and so on.”
It warns that such displays “might include graphic and offensive pictures, a ‘wall’ distorted to represent Israel as an apartheid state, ‘statistics’ of US aid to Israel, inaccurate and redrawn maps of Israel, etc.”
Confronted with such educational efforts, the “Playbook” tells pro-Israel students what to do:
“If any school ‘values’ were violated, respectfully throw a red flag, bringing it to the attention of the administration via e-mail or by requesting a meeting with the appropriate representative. Consult your Hillel or community professional for advice.”
All the elements of the current campus crackdowns are there: using vague “values” such as civility as an excuse for censorship and discipline and bringing in off-campus Israel lobby professionals.
But it is when any campaigning for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in support of Palestinian rights appears that the “Playbook” pulls out its most fevered American football analogies:
Call in the ref and bring in your coach. This is a serious flagrant foul.
- You’re going to need the whole team on this one: the community, faculty, administration, student groups and the outside pro-Israel community – which is why it is so important to always be building those relationships.
- If we want to win this thing, BDS attempts must be stopped at the line of scrimmage.
And the Israel Education Center’s Briskman has spared no effort in fostering relationships between off-campus Israel lobby groups and students, specifically at the University of Illinois.
The Israeli government-backed Jewish Agency has deployed former Israeli soldier Erez Cohen to the Urbana-Champaign campus as a “sheliach” – or “envoy” tasked with propagandizing for Israel.
In 2011, Cohen “sent a record number of participants on Masa programs in Israel,” according to a Jewish United Fund blog post.
Masa is a program – similar to Birthright Israel – that seeks to recruit American Jewish youths as settlers and soldiers.
None of his work “would have been possible without the tremendous support and teamwork from his colleagues, Aimee Weiss from Masa, and Emily Briskman, from JUF’s Israel Center,” Erez explained.
Denying donor pressure
There are other indications of the strong involvement of the Jewish Federation of Chicago and the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation (which is also a member of the Jewish Federations of North America).
As The Electronic Intifada previously reported, the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation sent an email to its supporters on 22 July telling them that it was aware about concerns over Salaita and “that leaders in the CU Jewish community take this issue quite seriously and are addressing this matter to the best of our abilities.”
And it is certainly not insignificant that venture capitalist Steve N. Miller, another major donor who Wise went out of her way to meet in Chicago to discuss Salaita, is on the board of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Board of Trustees chair Kennedy has dismissed as “anti-Semitic” questions about the role of major donors who are not shy about their pro-Israel agenda and about using their financial clout in order to advance it.
“I mean that really is consistent with this use of code to say that anti-Semitic thinking to say that it’s really the rich Jews influencing everybody in society,” Kennedy told Illinois Public Media.
But while refusing to answer questions from The Electronic Intifada, Kennedy still speaks to more friendly media.
In a 19 September interview with the Champaign-Urbana-based News-Gazette, he continues to deny donor influence and to publicly defend Salaita’s firing while attacking the professor.
Kennedy reveals that he and other trustees made up their minds about Salaita at a 23 July meeting with Wise in Chicago – likely the same day Wise was given the “two-pager” on Salaita she now claims not to be able to locate.
Kennedy offers this account of how he and other senior leaders decided to back the firing of Salaita based on little more than a Google search:
At one point one of the student trustees Googled Salaita’s name and read his tweets aloud to the other board members, he said.
“We were sort of stunned that anyone would write such blatantly anti-Semitic remarks,” Kennedy said. “We indicated to Chancellor Wise that we’d be supportive of her decision.”
Kennedy may be saying this because it is preferable to appear rash and incompetent – making snap decisions without any proper research or due process – rather than admitting to being influenced by donors.
If Kennedy, Wise and other university officials are ready to stand by their decision and believe they have nothing to hide, they should stop stonewalling and look a little harder for documents that may shed light on their decision-making.
If they don’t do so willingly, it seems increasingly likely that they will be forced to do so by litigation.
Update, 25 September
The Electronic Intifada has filed a request with the Public Access Counselor at the office of the Illinois Attorney General to review the facts and law surrounding the University of Illinois’ failure to release the “two-pager” on Steven Salaita handed to Chancellor Phyllis Wise by a pro-Israel donor.
The request notes that under the Illinois State Records Act, Wise, a public officer of a state agency, is legally required to preserve the document in question and the university is legally required under the State Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act to produce the record for public inspection.
As the State Records Act states:
All records made or received by or under the authority of or coming into the custody, control or possession of public officials of this State in the course of their public duties are the property of the State and shall not be mutilated, destroyed, transferred, removed or otherwise damaged or disposed of, in whole or in part except as provided by law. Any person who knowingly and without lawful authority alters, destroys, defaces, removes, or conceals any public record commits a Class 4 felony.
Such felonies may be punishable by a term of imprisonment.
Given the facts set out in the post above and provided to the Public Access Counselor, the request asserts that “reasonable suspicion exists that a public record has been disposed of without lawful authority.”
The Public Access Counselor is an office established by law to help enforce the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.
“Working under the direction and supervision of the Attorney General and with a team of attorneys and professional staff, the Public Access Counselor’s mission is to help people obtain public documents and access public meetings,” according to the Attorney General’s website.
- Steven Salaita
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- University of Illinois
- Phyllis Wise
- Freedom of Information Act
- Christopher Kennedy
- Robert Easter
- academic freedom
- Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
- Jewish Federation of North America
- Emily Briskman
- Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation
- Steven N. Miller
- Maria LaHood
- Center for Constitutional Rights