What Illinois Kept Secret

University admits some officials used personal email accounts to inappropriately withhold information sought in FOIA requests on Salaita and other controversies. Here's what the chancellor and others didn't want known.

August 10, 2015

As Hillary Clinton has learned the hard way, using your personal email account when doing government work doesn't make the content of those emails exempt from public records laws. The University of Illinois System announced its own email scandal Friday afternoon, admitting that some senior officials -- whom it did not name -- used private email accounts for official business and failed to turn over some of those email records in response to public records requests, as required.

While the university did not name the "certain administrative personnel" who didn't turn over their private email records, there is at least circumstantial evidence indicating that Phyllis M. Wise (at right), chancellor of the flagship campus at Urbana-Champaign, is among them. Many of the email records that were now released were either from or to the chancellor. And the announcement of the email violations came a day after Wise announced that she would be quitting her position as of next week.

The emails suggest that the private accounts were used (despite clear university policy that they are covered by open records requests) to keep matters private. In one email, Wise quotes Robin Kaler, Wise's chief spokeswoman, as warning "me and others not to use email since we are now in a litigation phase. We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses. I am even careful with this email address and deleting after sending."

Numerous emails contain references that are likely embarrassing to the senders and the subjects -- and the email provides a look at the kinds of conversations that senior administrators never like to be visible. For instance, Ilesanmi Adesida, provost at Urbana-Champaign, emailed Wise about the search for a system president whom Adesida wrote in the email might not be needed. He told the chancellor: "I agree, this place is messed up."

The emails provide new details on some of the biggest messes at Illinois in the last two years. They show how Wise and other senior administrators (and some faculty members) viewed their controversial decision to block the hiring of Steven Salaita. And the emails show how the Illinois board chair put strong pressure on the administration to do something about James Kilgore, an adjunct who briefly lost his job because of his past involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army. In both cases, the email records show high-level administrators and board members involved in academic decisions normally left to academic departments.

The Salaita Case

The outlines of the Salaita case have been clear for a year -- he was offered a tenured job in the American Indian Studies program at Urbana-Champaign, and the hire was sufficiently far along that he had quit his previous job (at Virginia Tech) and been assigned classes to teach at Illinois for fall 2014. But Wise intervened at the last minute and said that she would not forward the Salaita appointment to the board for approval, and that he didn't have a job. She did so after publicity over Salaita's Twitter feed, where he wrote passionately about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that struck many supporters of Israel as uncivil and hostile to Israel and supporters of that nation. (His photo is at right.)

Once the controversy started, Salaita and many faculty members maintained that he had been fired, without the due process Illinois promises tenured faculty members. This is part of a federal lawsuit Salaita filed against the university -- and on which a judge on Friday refused a request by Illinois to dismiss.

Wise and her supporters maintained that Salaita was not fired, but that he simply had never been hired, as the board never gave its approval. As a result, they said he wasn't entitled to the due process of a tenured faculty member.

The 294 pages of emails involving Salaita released Friday show, however, multiple references by Wise and other Illinois officials to Salaita already having been offered a job at the time that Wise blocked him from starting it. The emails don't show a debate about what to do about a proposed hire moving through the system, but about one that has effectively been made.

For example, an email from Wise just prior to her telling Salaita he could not take up his position said, "Let me add that the hateful, totally unprofessional and unacceptable Twitters have appeared mainly since July. This is after the decision to hire him and after his acceptance of our offer. It reveals a side of a person that I believe makes it difficult for him to contribute to the culture of respect, collegiality, collaboration that we hold so dear," she wrote.

The emails also make clear that Illinois acted against Salaita on the basis of the Twitter comments. This could be important legally as he has maintained -- with backing from numerous academic and civil liberties groups -- that his posts are protected expression under the First Amendment. But Wise in her emails suggests that there are limits to protected expression.

In one, she says, "The real question for me is when does freedom of speech cross the line into hateful, harassing unprofessional speech and action." (While there has been much criticism of Salaita's comments and tone, there have not been reports of unprofessional "action" by him, and it is unclear what Wise means there.)

The emails also reveal a constant exchange of ideas and gossip about how various faculty groups at Urbana-Champaign and elsewhere responded to the controversy as it continued from last summer into the fall. Many academic departments at Illinois and many groups nationally condemned the university for preventing Salaita from taking up his position. But Wise also had strong support from many faculty members in the sciences, who viewed Wise's overall management of the university more favorably.

The records that were released show Wise receiving advice from scientists on the situation and on understanding their colleagues in the humanities.

Douglas Beck, a physics professor whose emails show sympathy for Wise and her handling of the situation, wrote to her, "There is a crisis of value, most deeply felt in the humanities. There is surely a component of self-pity and desire to play the victim; but I think we too are at fault in not taking enough time to explain how important we believe, e.g., the humanities, to be, especially their stand-alone, intrinsic value (not associated with interdisciplinary etc. activities) ….

"There seems to be a belief that the campus can operate almost completely as a democracy, where the faculty have the final say in every important decision. They somehow don't understand or choose to ignore all the work that goes on outside their offices that allows them to teach their classes and seminars, read and write, with little interference …. This may define the two cultures" on campus, he added.

That email message is already being criticized online by other faculty members.

Salaita did not respond to a request to comment on the emails released Friday but he did comment on Twitter, and focused on the new evidence that senior Illinois officials considered that he had in fact been hired.

In one tweet, he wrote, "I wish UIUC apologists would just admit they're glad I got fired b/c of my views. The 'but, but he wasn't hired' routine is embarrassing." In another, he said, "Misrepresenting academic hiring protocol to suit a pro-Israel POV you're too coy to vocalize screws over everybody, not just political foes."

The Kilgore Case

James Kilgore (at right) was hired as an adjunct in global studies and urban planning in 2011 and earned good reviews until 2014, when The News-Gazette, a local newspaper, published an article about his past. He was hired at Illinois two years after leaving prison, where he served time for his involvement with a 1975 bank robbery in which a woman was killed (Kilgore was not the gunman).

He told those hiring him about his past -- he was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army,  a group best known for kidnapping the heiress Patty Hearst. After the News-Gazette article ran, Kilgore was summoned to a meeting with the provost and told that future teaching there was unlikely and that sections for him to teach -- already approved by relevant departments -- were being held up.

University officials denied that there was anything out of the ordinary about their involvement in blocking Kilgore from teaching, but many professors said it was a violation of the rights of Kilgore and the departments that wanted him to teach to prevent him from doing so, when there was no evidence that he had violated any university policies. After several panels reviewed the situation, Kilgore was permitted to return to teaching, and he has courses scheduled for this fall. (Kilgore no longer supports the ideas of the Symbionese Liberation Army.)

What the new emails on Kilgore show is that there was strong pressure from Christopher Kennedy, then chair of the Illinois board, to bar anyone in Kilgore's position from teaching. Kennedy also expressed the view that the university "needs to, in many ways, reflect the values of the state." The Kennedy email backs up the views of many faculty members, who said that Kennedy and other trustees were inappropriately involved in decisions about faculty hiring.

In an email from Kennedy to Robert Easter, then president of the university system, after the News-Gazette article appeared, Kennedy wrote that "the story will be offensive to taxpayers."

"I think they are going to be offended by the notion that their taxes are going to support the lifestyle and career of a fellow who tried to overthrow the U.S. government and targeted police officers and innocent victims for killings," Kennedy said, adding that he believes that those who serve prison terms deserve the chance to go on with life but that he was "uncomfortable" with the idea that "the second chance should come from public support."

Kennedy, a son of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated, noted that he has personal experiences that shape his opinions on issues. But he said that the university can't be surprised by incivility by students "given that we have held up to the students as examples people like this fellow, who thought it was OK to target cops and noncombatants for murders as an expression for political disagreement."

And he suggested that the university must generally pay more attention to the views of state citizens. "I think the university, as the state's public university, needs to, in many ways, reflect the values of the state," Kennedy wrote. "If we become too cavalier in our attitudes about this, then the people of the state and their representatives will respond. They'll hinder our ability to free ourselves of unwanted procurement rules, they'll limit our ability to provide supplemental retirement benefits, they'll acquiesce to a decrease in … support for the university."

Kilgore, via email to Inside Higher Ed, offered this reaction to the newly released emails:

"These emails show that the motivation to get rid of me came from the Board of Trustees. They further confirm that early on in this process the university was aware that I had not concealed anything about my background when I was hired. This issue has prompted the university to recognize that addressing people's criminal backgrounds is an issue they cannot avoid in our present context.

"With 70 million people in the U.S. with criminal records and almost 20 million with felony convictions, we who have felony convictions are no longer an aberration. I only hope the university will use the opportunity to develop a policy to open the door to people who have felony convictions and give them the second chance that their 'Inclusive Illinois' slogan implies. I also hope that the development of a policy will eliminate any urges from Board of Trustee members to intervene in hiring decisions, especially at the level of academic hourly."

Follow me @ScottJaschik



Back to Top