Is Univ. of Illinois scapegoating Phyllis Wise to maintain Salaita coverup?

Is the University of Illinois telling the truth about when it knew that some of its top officials were sending – and deleting – emails from private accounts to evade disclosure of their discussions of controversial matters including the firing of Steven Salaita?

Emails released last week raise serious questions about the university’s official story.

The university’s board of trustees is voting today on whether to approve a $400,000 bonus for Phyllis Wise who resigned on 6 August as chancellor, the top official of its flagship Urbana-Champaign campus.

Wise is a key figure in the firing of Salaita over his tweets critical of Israel.

What’s the story?

The day after Wise announced her resignation, the university issued a press release which begins:

The University of Illinois became aware in late April that certain members of the Urbana-Champaign campus administration and other campus employees might have used personal email accounts for University-related communications, and that those emails may not have been made available to those at the University responsible for responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The university then released more than 1,000 pages of the previously undisclosed emails about three controversial matters: Wise’s attempts to set up a college of medicine, the disqualification of James Kilgore from teaching contracts due to his criminal record and the employment of Steven Salaita.

But at least one of the emails (below) suggests that the university knew, or should have known, about the secret email ring months earlier.

The email, dated 16 December 2014, was sent from Chancellor Wise’s personal email account to Scott Rice, the university’s chief legal counsel.

In the email, Wise forwards talking points prepared by her son Andrew Wise, a Washington, DC, attorney, about the Salaita affair.

It is not clear whether Wise sent it to Rice’s official work email or to a private account.

What it suggests is that Rice, the university’s top lawyer, knew that Wise was using her personal email account.

Wise’s son

Moreover, as Andrew Scheinman points out at his Samizdat-Startup blog, the email Phyllis Wise sent to Scott Rice from her personal account “is clearly about university business – in fact, sensitive business that should NEVER have been shared by Wise with her son, Andrew.”

Scheinman adds that Rice, as university counsel, “should have immediately flagged [this] for discussion with Wise.”

According to Scheinman, who is himself an attorney, Phyllis Wise’s email ought to have raised alarms for Rice because “disclosure of information that may be otherwise claimed as exempt from discovery because it is shared internally LOSES that claim if sent to third parties, as Andrew Wise clearly was.”

What this means is that by sharing internal discussions about the Salaita case with her son, Wise could inadvertently end up helping Salaita make his case in court.

Questions

I have put these questions to the university spokesperson’s office:

  • Why is there a discrepancy between the university’s statement that it only learned of the use of private emails in April 2015 and the fact that university counsel Scott Rice apparently knew, or should have known, the previous December?

  • Did Scott Rice use a personal email address to conduct university business?

  • Was Scott Rice a subject of the “ethics inquiry” the university says it conducted into the use of personal emails?

The university does not have a good record of responding to my inquiries, but if they do on this occasion I will update this post.

Scapegoat

The bigger picture is this: while Wise certainly deserves all the blame she is getting for her handling of Salaita and other matters, she is not the only person responsible.

Indeed the talking points prepared by Andrew Wise seem aimed at protecting his mother from sole blame for Salaita’s firing and casting the primary responsibility on then board of trustees chair Christopher Kennedy.

In the pungent view of Scheinman, Wise is being “thrown under the bus as a way of preventing the flipping over of the rock on the rats-nest of enablement that surrounded her.”

The university must not be allowed to just shuffle her out of the door – with or without her outrageous bonus – and carry on business as usual.

Update

The executive committee of the University of Illinois’ board of trustees voted unanimously to reject Wise’s resignation along with the $400,000 bonus. Instead, the university will initiate dismissal proceedings against her. Barbara Wilson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been named as her temporary successor.

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Comments

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Wise's official email address is <pmwise@illinois.edu>. It seems that this string is too short to fit between the brackets in the above email. She almost definitely sent the above email from an account other than her officially listed one.

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Not that I have the authority or the influence. But the Electronic Intifada has led on this story from the start, and broken every significant development. This sordid tale is of extreme importance, coming at a time when pro-Israel donors and pressure groups are concentrating their fire on campus activism throughout the country. The Salaita case will prove a turning point, thanks to the professor's integrity and Ali's relentless pursuit of the facts.

The new administration is going further than I expected in disavowing the machinations of Wise and the Board. They're actually refusing to go along with the payoff to her and are instituting proceedings to run her out of town on a very thin rail. All of which will ensure that she's going to sing her highly aggrieved head off when she steps into the witness stand. Be prepared for tears and apologies, along with names, dates, and retrieved emails. She's not taking the fall alone, fellows.

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.