The senior US Senator from Illinois privately emailed University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise to offer his backing as she faced a storm of protest over the firing of Steven Salaita.
The Electronic Intifada obtained Senator Richard Durbin’s 18 September 2014 email from the university under the Freedom of Information Act (see below for full email).
“Phyllis, I want you to know that I totally understood the difficult decision you faced in the recent tenure dispute and never doubted that you acted in a good faith effort to serve the University and its values,” Durbin wrote.
As minority whip, Durbin holds the second most senior position in the Democratic leadership in the US Senate.
The senator also revealed that “I called Chris Kennedy the morning of the Trustees meeting to re-affirm my confidence in you and respect for your professionalism. He was solidly in your corner.”
On 11 September, days before Durbin’s email, the University of Illinois board of trustees, then chaired by Kennedy, had met amid protests and national media attention to formally reject Salaita’s appointment to a tenured position in the faculty.
The move came after a campaign started in July 2014 calling on the university to dismiss the newly appointed Salaita over his tweets criticizing Israel’s attack on Gaza.
Wise wrote back to Durbin to thank him, saying that his message is “particularly meaningful to me.” She also thanked the senator for “contacting Trustee Kennedy.”
The chancellor shared the email with other university officials, including spokesperson Robin Kaler, Provost Ilesanmi Adesida and chief counsel Scott Rice.
Both Wise and former trustees’ chair Christopher Kennedy are among the defendants in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Salaita for breach of contract and violation of his constitutional rights.
Durbin’s revelation that he called Kennedy “the morning of the Trustees meeting” may also interest Salaita’s lawyers.
Did the senator call before or after the trustees voted on the decision to rescind Salaita’s employment, and did he share any opinion that might amount to inappropriate political pressure?
Durbin, Gaza and Wise
Durbin’s email, however, indisputably came after the board vote.
But a long-time staunch supporter of hardline pro-Israel positions, his interest in the case would have sent an unmistakable signal to university officials to stick to their guns.
Wise had visited the senator’s Washington office in 2013 to discuss “funding and higher education issues.”
Her private emails revealed that more recently Wise planned to lobby Durbin to support the controversial college of medicine she was establishing.
The senator justified last summer’s Israeli attack on Gaza that killed more than 2,200 people, including 551 children, with unsubstantiated Israeli claims that Palestinians were deliberately using civilians as “human shields” – victim blaming.
A recent investigation by Amnesty International found that Israel intentionally killed Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
Another email released to The Electronic Intifada from a faculty member whose name is redacted provides an indication of the extent of the dissent and turmoil Wise was facing around the time Durbin sent his email.
“I think I hardly need to inventory the extent of the damage you have inflicted: international criticism, boycotts, unprecedented votes of no confidence, plummeting morale and the end of any serious commitment to racial and ethnic studies,” the faculty member told Wise in a 17 September email.
“These events look even worse in light of continuing new revelations concerning the circumstances of Salaita’s firing and campus politics,” the faculty member added. “Your campaign to ‘stand behind the chancellor’ only adds to the divisions and the anger.”
From the context, the unnamed faculty member appears to be prominent. “You are certainly one of the faculty that I respect most on this campus, even though I have not had the opportunity to get to know you well,” Wise wrote in response.
Despite her flattery, the faculty member remained unambiguous: “I am convinced that your resignation is the only way to begin repairing the damage that has been inflicted on this campus by your actions and the board’s ratification of them.”
Wise hung on for almost a year, but finally resigned as chancellor earlier this month as the university admitted that she and several other top officials had been using private email addresses for official communications and failing to disclose the emails as required under the Freedom of Information Act.
She will remain on the faculty.
Destruction of evidence
Wise also admitted in an email to deleting emails relevant to the Salaita case.
In light of the recent revelations, Salaita’s lawyers filed a motion in federal court, Tuesday, accusing university officials including Wise of intentionally destroying evidence related to the decision to fire him.
In the latest fallout from the scandal, Provost Adesida this week handed in his resignation. He too will return to the faculty.
Reinstate Salaita call
Also this week, 41 executive heads of departments at the Urbana-Champaign campus called on the university to reinstate Salaita.
“It has increasingly become clear that the decision to rescind Dr. Steven Salaita’s appointment as an associate professor with indefinite tenure in the American Indian Studies Program violated the principles of shared faculty governance and may also be legally liable,” the academics wrote in a letter to university president Thomas Killeen and interim chancellor Barbara Wilson.
“We are therefore asking you to use the authority of your offices to recommend to the Board of Trustees that they reverse their previous decision and reinstate Dr. Salaita at the next board meeting in September.”