Senator emailed Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise over Salaita firing

Phyllis Wise, then chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, meets with US Senator Richard Durbin in Washington, DC,  November 2013.

Office of Senator Richard Durbin

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.

Durbin’s call

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.

Turmoil

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.”

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Comments

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If Durbin was a man of honor he would resign forthwith. But being neither, he wont.

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I have been deeply appreciative of how the EI has kept this horrendous situation on the front burner. This latest report sounds like the injustice perpetrated on him is about to take a significant turn. I would hope the demise of those who wrought this SNAFU and the coming forward of significant entities on that campus will wake the Board up to rehire him. What a VICTORY that would be! But in its wake is still the damage the Jewish lobby created by sticking their heavy hand and weight into the situation in the first place....and all the damage this interference has left. It INFURIATES me how they try to present themselves to the world while right out in the open, they are acting toward Palestineans like a third world dictator and how stupid our politicians are (or intimidated they are by the Israeli lobby) and all these piles of destruction they leave in their wake and the new piles of destruction they are seeking to create, like Iran.

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The political survivor (Democrat) Durbin defeated (Republican) House of Representatives incumbent Paul Findley in the 1982 election. Findley had been criticising the Israel lobby and defending the Palestinians for about 3 years, and Durbin raised huge campaign funds from AIPAC and Israel supporters around the U.S. Findley's 1985 book: They Dare to Speak Out.

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I remember when this started to unfold last summer. The sense of one of the commentators of this case, was that unlike the Finklestein case, the administration would have an even weaker leg to stand on. This seems to be playing out. Any chance that the Palestinian cause could be pushed forward along with the relaxations of tensions of tensions with Iran?

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i also deeply appreciate how EI has front burnered Salaita's firing and all subsequent fallout and progression. thank you very much for your steadfast attention to detail.

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Congress' "leadership" wrecks the US, and the chancellor plays the same corrupt game. Is that the only way power works in the US? Stick your nose firmly in the opening and you can have what you want.

Salaita is so talented... and Palestinian. There's never been any question what is really going on. Zionism is an affliction of the oppressor and the groveling to the privileged is part of its very nature.
However, it is NOT (as Durbin calls it) a "value" shared by the people. It's embarrassing.

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.