News Local/State

U of I Prof: “Gray Area” In FOIA’d E-mails


One of the University of Illinois faculty members whose personal e-mails were released after a Freedom of Information Act inquiry questions the need for some documents to be made public.  Education Policy professor Nick Burbules’ messages were among the more than 1,000 pages released Friday by the university. 

The emails covered three topics - the new Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the U of I, the hiring of James Kilgore, and the eventual withdrawal of a job offer to professor Steven Salaita.

The documents were released after a campus ethics inquiry revealed some administrators and faculty were using personal accounts to avoid disclosure. That included Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who abruptly announced her resignation last Thursday, a day before the emails were made public.

Burbules, who chairs the University Senates Conference, said he stands by all he’s written, and supports Illinois’ FOIA law.  But he says there’s a legal gray area.

“It’s not setting policy, it’s not making a formal decision, it’s a sharing of advice, or questions, or half-baked ideas," he said.  "Is that the conduct of university business?  It deals with a university matter, or in this case, one of 3 university matters – 3 different packets of e-mail.  But I’m not convinced – and there’s a gray area here, it seems to me, about what is, or should be personal communications.”

Burbules said the release of some of the emails is not what the law intended- including one exchange between Spanish professor and Senates Conference member Joyce Tolliver and her husband.

Burbules says more needs to be done to clarify what’s covered by the state’s Freedom of Information Act.