News Local/State

Released Emails Show Path To Phyllis Wise’s Resignation

Phyllis Wise, the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Phyllis Wise, the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois)

It’s been nearly a week since Phyllis Wise abruptly stepped down as chancellor of the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus. She cited "external issues" that have “distracted us from the important tasks at hand.”

The day after Wise resigned, the U of I released hundreds of emails in response to Freedom of Information requests. Many of the emails were sent to and from Wise's personal email accounts. They revealed that she also encouraged others to use their private emails, in an effort to skirt FOIA law.

The messages paint a picture of some of the "external issues" Wise was referring to, beginning in early 2014.

On Feb. 9, 2014, the Champaign News-Gazette ran a story about an adjunct professor’s past with the Symbionese Liberation Army, a group best known for kidnapping Patty Hearst in 1974.

The professor was James Kilgore, who spent years on the run but eventually spent time in prison for his role in a 1970's bank robbery where a customer was killed.

Two months after the story ran, in April, Kilgore’s contract with the U of I was not renewed.

The following month, Kilgore stood in front of the Board of Trustees, asking to be reinstated to his teaching position.

"As a young man, I committed acts of which I stand ashamed,” he said at the meeting in Springfield. “Who better to tell someone how to avoid a destructive path than someone who has walked that path?"

Despite his plea, the board wouldn’t take action on Kilgore until months later. At the time, then-Board chair Christopher Kennedy struck a diplomatic tone.

"There are about 45,000 people who get a W-2 each year from the University of Illinois,” he said. “And with that many personnel, there's always going to be personnel issues. And that's part of who we are, there's no way to stop that."

Kennedy's comments contrast with an email he sent to then-University president Robert Easter. In the email, Kennedy says he was blindsided by the issue, and that ex-terrorists should not be on public payrolls.

After reading that message, Wise wrote to a colleague, “Wow. I hope he has calmed down some.”

Wise, Kennedy and other administrators presented a mostly united front in the Kilgore situation, though in the end, the professor did get his job back.

The batch of released emails show how Wise approached damage control as well responded to pressure from the public, media and Kennedy.

The Kilgore controversy also set the stage for a much bigger employment mess that would play out a few months later.

Last summer, tensions between Israel and Palestine erupted into violence.

Thousands of miles away, in Virginia, Professor Steven Salaita and his family were preparing to move to Champaign-Urbana.

Salaita had been offered the position in the fall of 2013. The only thing that would make it more official was the formal vote of approval by the Board of Trustees — normally a rubber stamp on decisions made by department heads.

But in July, Salaita began tweeting sometimes profane commentary on the conflict between Israel and Hamas…commentary that some considered offensive and anti-Semitic. Salaita himself identifies as Palestinian American.

By August, Salaita’s job would go from a near sure thing to non-existent.

Chancellor Wise sent Salaita a letter early in the month, a few weeks before the fall semester was set to begin. In the letter, she told him that he likely wouldn't get board approval and withdrew the job offer.

“The judgment I made in writing him was to convey the sentiment of the Board of Trustees, it was not mine,” Wise told faculty and staff from the College of Media on Sept. 4. “And I did it because I thought I was doing something humane for him.”

But by then, the news had already begun to circulate globally, sparking online petitions and outrage. Most of it blamed the chancellor for caving to the pressure of donors and violating Salaita’s right to free speech and academic freedom.

Over a dozen academic departments at the school also cast votes of "no confidence" in Wise.

Salaita made his first and only public visit to campus on Sept. 9. The appearance drew a crowd of hundreds of students, staff and community members.

For his part, Salaita made it clear that he wouldn’t go quietly.

“I’m here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies Program at UIUC," he told the overflow crowd at the University YMCA on campus.

Two days later, the Board of Trustees voted down Salaita's appointment. In statements to media, Board chair Chris Kennedy said Wise had made the decision, and the board was supporting her.

The recently released documents, however, tell a different story. Emails show Wise had only intended to ask Salaita's would-be supervisor, American Indian Studies department head Robert Warrior, to give him a talking to.

That is, until a meeting with board members on July 24.

After that, Salaita's fate was all but sealed.

A December email from Wise to the school's provost Ilesanmi Adesida reveals the chancellor's frustration with the dominant narrative.

"What angers me about this report is that they believe that I made the decision and that the BOT followed my recommendation,” she wrote. “That is just plain not true.”

Wise also said she didn’t think she could “carry the water” for the administration any longer and indicated her desire to publicly “set the record straight.”

But she never did.

Emails show Wise wanted to protect what was to be the crowning achievement of her career at the U of I: Opening an engineering-focused medical school on the Urbana campus.

On March 12, the Board of Trustees voted to approve the new College of Medicine, a joint venture between the U of I and Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.

"You will be taking a historic vote today,” Wise said ahead of the vote in Urbana. “And I just want to tell you how much we appreciate the opportunity to serve. Expectations are high. We anticipate that we will--absolutely are committed to surpass those expectations, so thank you very much."

This moment was the culmination of more than a year and a half of work on Wise's part. But one of the key events in that time had nothing to do with Wise: Bruce Rauner was elected governor.

With the Republican in office, Board Chair Kennedy — a Democrat — was gone. The released emails indicate Kennedy was not on board with Wise's plans for a medical school...and the two had struggled back and forth for months.

One message shows that Kennedy had emailed then-University President Bob Easter, asking for the personnel committee to rein in Chancellor Wise.

The documents reveal Wise’s motivation for using personal email in all three matters: Kilgore, Salaita and the college of medicine. They also show the extent to which Wise maneuvered to keep details of the new medical school from being made public before she was ready.

In the end, the medical school is going forward. Stephanie Beever, senior vice president for strategy at Urbana’s Carle Hospital, confirmed the project is happening even without Wise.

“As you would expect, there’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle to put together,” she said. “So there’ve been a lot of people at the table going ahead and moving this concept forward.”

But the campus continues to face controversy.

Student athletes in three sports programs have alleged abuse, racism or both by their coaches.

A major academic organization censured the U of I in response to the Salaita case. His lawsuit is ongoing.

The state's continued budget uncertainty has put the University into a financial bind.

And when Wise resigned, even that wasn't simple. After the Board of Trustees’ executive committee voted last week to deny the chancellor’s request to keep her $400,000 retention bonus on the way out, Wise wrote a statement to members of the media, calling the board’s move “motivated by politics.”

The next day, she was granted a tenured position in the department of Molecular and Cellular Biology…following a one-year paid sabbatical.

Wise’s statement also contradicted what University president Timothy Killeen told reporters after last Wednesday’s vote. Wise said she was asked to step aside by the president and board members. Killeen minimized his involvement:

Killeen: "She indicated her interest or her willingness, desire to resign, citing circumstances including external issues that were making things complicated..."

Reporter: "So you did not ask her to resign."

Killeen: "Uh...I did not ask her to resign. Directly."

In a message to the U of I community Friday, Killeen said the school must “learn from the lessons of our past” while also moving forward.

But it’s a past that may prove tough to leave behind as the campus starts to search for a permanent replacement for Chancellor Wise.

Especially with a thousand documents detailing recent controversies now part of the public record, including the closing phrase of an email Wise wrote to the campus' provost:

"This place is so messed up.”