News Local/State

U of I Omits, Then Includes, Personal Emails To Fulfill FOIA Requests


The University of Illinois says several administrators violated school policy by using private emails to hide correspondence from public view, including emails about Steven Salaita, James Kilgore and the new Carle Illinois College of Medicine. The emails have now been released at this web link:

A statement Friday from the U of I says emails on several sensitive topics should have been turned over in response to a Freedom of Information request. The university simultaneously released hundreds of pages of the emails in question. 

Among the emails were those from outgoing Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who submitted her resignation Thursday.

In a news release, the university said that the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and related case law are not clear on whether emails in personal emalil accounts are subject to FOIA. "Nonetheless", said the news release, "the University has consistently treated emails relating to University business as subject to FOIA regardless of whether they are in University or personal email accounts, or on University-owned or personal devices".

U of I spokesman Tom Hardy said the university allows use of those personal accounts to discuss university matters, but those communications must be released with any FOIA request.  He said that wasn’t happening. 

“We became aware of this," he said.  "The ethics officer and the university counsel’s office led an inquiry.  The result is today’s announcement, and the posting of 1,100 pages of e-mails and other documents from the private e-mails of certain employees.”

Hardy would not say whether the e-mail inquiry was among the 'external issues' that led to Chancellor Wise's resignation Thursday, saying that was a question for her.

The emails being released are from 2014 and 2015. The news release notes that an inquiry into the matter found that those writing the emails used personal accounts out of a desire to maintain confidentiality. In addition, the inquiry found that some emails suggested that the author was encouraged to use personal email for discussing such topics.

Wise and the school face a lawsuit filed by Steven Salaita, whose job offer she rescinded over anti-Israel tweets. Besides Salaita, some of the emails are related to the Carle Illinois College of Medicine --- an engineering-focused medical school recently approved for the Urbana campus.

Other emails concern James Kilgore, a university employee whose employment was questioned because of the federal prison term he served due to convictions related to his actions as a member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970's.

“The University of Illinois takes its commitment to FOIA compliance and integrity seriously," said U of I President Timothy Killeen, in a statement.  "Today we have released documents to fulfill any incomplete FOIA requests. I am fully committed to a strong culture of transparency and trust, and I expect all U of I employees will be as well.”