No Golden Parachute

University of Illinois board rejects $400,000 deal under which Phyllis Wise resigned as chancellor at Urbana-Champaign, and instead moves to fire her.

August 13, 2015
Phyllis M. Wise

Phyllis M. Wise and Steven Salaita have something in common: both thought they had a deal with the University of Illinois, only to see the agreement vanish at the last minute.

On Wednesday, a committee of the university's board was expected to approve a $400,000 agreement under which Wise resigned last week. The committee rejected the deal and declined to accept Wise's resignation. Instead the board notified Wise that it would start proceedings to dismiss her as chancellor and that she would be assigned new duties pending the outcome of those proceedings.

Wise announced last week that she was leaving her position, effective today, due to “external issues.” At the time the university confirmed that she would receive $400,000, although she would not normally have been entitled under her contract to that payment. She would have been owed $500,000 had she stayed on another year, completing five as chancellor. But her contract said that board approval would be required for any bonus if she left before that time. The $400,000 was widely viewed as a sign that the board wanted her to resign, and provided an incentive to do so. So the $400,000 -- while described as a deal with Wise -- required formal board approval, which was theoretically to happen Wednesday.

The day after her resignation was announced, the university released hundreds of pages of email messages -- many of them from Wise -- that the university said had been improperly withheld by some Illinois officials when responding to public records requests. Many assume Wise was among those holding back emails, but the university has not confirmed that.

Many of these email messages were written on private email accounts, and withholding them violated university policy. The email messages showed how Wise and other senior administrators (and some faculty members) viewed their decision to block the hiring of Salaita, a decision that remains controversial a year after it took place. 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.

Word of the $400,000 proposed payment angered many at the Illinois campus and a number of state politicians. Many (but not all) faculty members opposed Wise's decision on Salaita, whose appointment she blocked based on strongly worded (some say offensive) comments he made on Twitter about Israel and the country's supporters. That decision had strong backing if not encouragement from the Illinois board and politicians.

But many professors, even some who disagree with Salaita's views, fault Wise for acting against Salaita after he had already accepted a job offer, quit his job and been assigned courses. The timing effectively meant that Wise was firing a tenured professor, and doing so without due process, many professors said.

The $400,000 deal frustrated lawmakers, given that it would have come amid severe budget shortfalls in the state. The deputy governor released a letter shortly before the board meeting urging trustees to reject the deal. "The university is facing many challenges and needs to begin charting a new path," said the letter. "Our administration believes the proposed resignation agreement would be a major step in the wrong direction and against the best interest of the Urbana-Champaign campus, the University of Illinois network or the state of Illinois."

While the Illinois trustees followed the governor's advice, Wise will have a job even if she is fired as chancellor. Such a dismissal would not change another part of Wise's contract, which assures her of a salary, as professor of molecular and cell biology, equal to that of the highest faculty salary in that department, which is about $300,000.

Wise was not available for comment on Wednesday. And much of the commentary on social media from faculty members was negative about her receiving either the bonus or a faculty job.

But Raymond Cotton, a lawyer who specializes in contract negotiations on behalf of college and university presidents, was critical of the Illinois board. Wise is not Cotton's client, and he said he doesn't know the details of her contract or the board's thinking. But he predicted that Wednesday's developments will hurt the university.

Boards and presidents sometimes need to part ways, he said. And presidents may be less likely to do so if they think an agreement they make won't be honored. And this in turn will affect the way the university is seen by potential candidates to succeed Wise. "As soon as Dr. Wise is gone, the board is going to be looking for a new president," Cotton said. "What my clients tell me is that one of the key decision points is to look at how the board treated the prior president."

Further, Cotton said that $400,000 may seem like a lot of money, but that the university was going to get "closure" for paying that sum. Instead, he said, the university may face other costs. "When presidents are fired for cause, they have nothing left to lose, so these cases end up in litigation, and that's expensive, time-consuming and generally ends up being injurious to the reputation of the university."

Cotton also said that academics should not be quick to cheer the board's actions, whatever they think of Wise. University leaders made a deal with Wise and backed out after getting pressure from the governor and other politicians, he noted. "It is rarely in the best interest of a university for a board to yield to political interference by elected politicians," Cotton said. "A question for the board is: Have they turned over their responsibilities to politicians?"

Follow me @ScottJaschik.


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